Maria Shriver has long sought to protect her privacy as California's First Lady, but today she brought thousands to tears with an extraordinary evocation of her grief two months after the death of her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

During a luncheon session at the Women's Conference she is chairing in Long Beach, Shriver told attendees that she stood before them "with a broken heart."

She said she has told people that she is holding up well, but "the real truth is that I'm not fine.

"The real truth is that my mother's death has brought me to my knees," she said. "I had feared this my entire life. . . . She was my hero, my role model, my very best friend. I spoke to her every single day of my life. I tried really hard when I grew up to make her proud of me."

Her mother, she said, called her after every television appearance, on her shows -- Shriver worked for NBC until her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became governor -- or appearances she made elsewhere.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in August after a series of strokes, which followed years of fading health. But Maria Shriver said she was so certain of her mother's indomitable will that she believed she would rebound from her last crisis as well. Instead she died, with her five children and her grandchildren surrounding her.

Shriver told the conference attendees that she begged her mother, just before her death, to somehow keep in contact with her. She believes she has, in the form of a former nun who approached Shriver the day after the funeral to give her prayer cards from Mother Teresa -- a friend of Eunice Shriver's.

Shriver later watched as the woman waded fully clothed into the Atlantic off Hyannis beach, just as her mother often had -- and then joined in.

Shriver's comments came at the beginning of a conference session on grief and recovery that had been scheduled well before her mother's death. The panel included Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, whose son Wade died 14 years ago; actress Susan Saint James, whose teenage son Teddy died in a plane crash 5 years ago; and dancer Lisa Niemi, whose husband, actor Patrick Swayze, died five weeks ago.

The session was tearful but Shriver drew laughs as well when she referred to her "infamous" cellphone, the one she was recently photographed using while driving -- in violation of a law signed by her husband.

She has promised to donate the cellphone to needy women, but she still had it 10 days (10/18) ago when she appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press." She left the stage there and looked to the phone in her hand -- "I wasn't driving," she said wryly -- expecting her mother to call.

"I looked down at it," Shriver said, "and it was the first time I hadn't had a call from my mother."