WASHINGTON - When Nancy Reagan emerges as a widow in mourning this week, she will do so with the nation's empathy - the kind of public embrace that at times eluded her during her years in the White House.

She has become known to the country as a caregiver of the first order, devoted to Ronald Reagan during the long siege with Alzheimer's disease that led to his death over the weekend. Since the former first lady left the White House, the depictions of a woman with an iron will have given way to something far more reverent.

The public has witnessed her loss, not just over the weekend, but over the past decade as her husband's disease worsened. And for many, watching her cope with the pain revealed an emotional and accessible figure.

"It was a heavy burden to bear," says Lewis Gould, a retired University of Texas professor who has written about first ladies. "But she bore it with such dignity, courage and fortitude in public that it made everyone understand she was a human being like the rest of us instead of a political caricature."

The former first lady, skewered during her White House days as aloof and aristocratic, stood in for her husband and spoke at times movingly of his disease and their relationship, a famously close love affair.

She has battled for Alzheimer's disease funding - even bumping up against the Bush administration in arguing for stem-cell research - and addressed the ravages of a sickness that affects 4.5 million Americans. In public appearances, her voice bore the strain of her experience with a dying man who was no longer able to recognize her.

"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," she said at a fund-raiser for juvenile diabetes in Beverly Hills last month. That night, she battled tears at the podium.

"I think she showed the strain, absolutely - you could see it in the television news, you could see it in person," says Buffy Cafritz, a Washington friend of the former first lady.

Cafritz also saw Nancy Reagan's stoicism. At last summer's commissioning of the USS Ronald Reagan, Cafritz watched the former first lady hold herself together despite the day's sweltering heat and heavy emotions.

"It was a long ceremony, people were wilting, but she didn't wilt," Cafritz recalls of the ceremony in Norfolk, Va. "She sat in that front row, head up, and listened to all the remarks about her husband. She is very strong."

'Sense of relief'

Yesterday, Joanne Drake, a spokeswoman for the Reagan family, appeared outside the Santa Monica, Calif., mortuary where Reagan's body lay and relayed Nancy Reagan's thanks to the thousands who have expressed their condolences. Drake said the former first lady was grieving, but comforted by the knowledge that her husband's suffering had ended.

"I can tell you most certainly that while it is an extremely sad time for Mrs. Reagan, there is definitely a sense of relief that he is no longer suffering, and that he has gone to a better place," Drake told a news conference. "It's been a really hard 10 years for her."

Nancy Reagan, 82, was a near-constant presence at her husband's side as the Alzheimer's raged on, giving up much of her social life to stay with him - her phone often substituting for visits with close friends. She insisted that her husband of 52 years not appear in public, protective of his image as he grew sicker, and she arranged for his care at the couple's home in Bel Air, Calif. He died there Saturday, his family surrounding him.

That family has prompted its share of awkward headlines, but in recent years, the melodramas have receded.

Patti Davis, the renegade daughter who posed nude for Playboy and wrote an accusatory book about her parents, reconciled with her mother as her father's condition worsened. Two other children - Maureen Reagan and her brother, Michael, both from Reagan's first marriage to actress Jane Wyman - penned controversial memoirs, leaving the youngest, Ron Reagan, the only one of the four children not to write an embarrassing tell-all book about the first couple. Still, over the years, all the children returned to the family fold. With her father's health deteriorating, Maureen spoke out for Alzheimer's causes before dying of cancer in 2001. The other children have been by Nancy Reagan's side since their father's death over the weekend.

The former first lady has said her husband's disease brought the family closer. In written remarks to Newsweek in 1995, she described Father's Day with her family all together. "As I sat there looking at everyone," she wrote, "I couldn't help but think that this is the way it should be and the way I always longed for it to be."

Now, with the death of her husband, comes a new chapter in Nancy Reagan's story. Memories of her expensive gowns and behind-the-scenes influence, the days when she ranked near the bottom in first lady popularity polls, have faded. The passage of time, her exit from public life - and, some believe, her steadfast commitment to a man whose memories even of her were evaporating - have changed all that.

"On those increasingly rare occasions when they were in public together, it was clear that he was more or less oblivious to her presence," says Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History, referring to the former president's increasing confusion even around loved ones.