RALEIGH, N.C. - For years, Elizabeth Edwards prepared her family for the day she would be gone, talking bluntly about the cancer consuming her body and writing a letter to leave for her children with life advice on topics such as how to pick a church - or even a spouse.

The preparation continued in her final days, when she made sure Christmas decorations were up in their Chapel Hill home and became the source of comfort to those closest to her.

"That was sort of who she was," said family friend John Moylan. "She was always, always the shoulder to lean on. And, even at the end, she remained a very strong person. I think they all took their strength from her."

Edwards, 61, died Tuesday from cancer - six years after she was diagnosed the day after the 2004 election when her husband, John, was a vice presidential candidate.

Since her cancer returned in an incurable form in 2007, Edwards had talked openly about the expectation that the disease would take her life before long. She had hoped to live several more years, enough time to see her younger children, Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10, graduate from high school, and possibly see the oldest, Cate, 28, have a child of her own.

But Edwards also said over the years that she was talking directly with the children about death. Meanwhile, she had been writing a letter that her children could use as guidance for their lives ahead. It was an idea she came up with two decades ago after watching the movie Terms of Endearment, in which the mother knew she was dying.

David "Mudcat" Saunders, a political adviser and Edwards family friend, said the two youngest children appeared to be coping well with the loss. He said the home, while consumed with sadness, also had a feeling of celebration as family and friends remembered stories of Elizabeth Edwards' life. In part, he said, that was because of her never-look-back attitude.

"I think that spirit of Elizabeth is so branded in Emma Claire, Jack, and Cate, that the kids will be fine," Saunders said.

In her final days of rapidly declining health, Saunders relayed a story about how Jack had jumped onto the bed with his mother to say that he loved her. She smiled at him and said: "I love you, too, sweetie."

John Edwards was at her side round the clock. He was deeply upset by his wife's death, Saunders said, but is also focused on attending to the children. He recalled asking Edwards what he planned to do now, to which the former North Carolina senator said simply: "I'm going to be the greatest father there ever was."

Three decades after the law-school sweethearts married, Elizabeth Edwards separated from her husband about a year ago after his affair and after learning that he fathered a child with his mistress during his second campaign for the White House. He still faces a federal investigation into campaign finances.

A family friend said Wednesday that Elizabeth Edwards would be honored Saturday at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh.