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American Sniper Chris Kyle's Widow Taya: 'I Miss Him So Much'

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Taya Kyle reveals how American Sniper “brought her husband back to life” and why she trusted Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper with their story – which was the No. 1 movie this weekend, taking in more than $90 million at the box office and setting an opening weekend record as the top-grossing Oscar nominee ever (for the weekend after the nominations were announced). Subscribe now to get instant access to the real story behind Chris Kyle, in this issue of PEOPLE.

Taya Kyle misses the way her husband, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, would hold her close or reach for her hand and make her laugh as they were walking in the Texas countryside.

“I was madly in love with him and still am,” Taya tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. American Sniper, in which Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, tells the story of the couple’s relationship along with Chris’s combat tours in Iraq.

Managing a smile in between tears, she says, “I miss him so much. I loved being in his arms. I loved holding his hand. But what I miss most about Chris is the feeling when he was in the room. He just changed the feeling whenever he walked in. I missed him even when he was just gone from the room.”

Now Taya, 40, and their two young children miss him more than ever. On Feb. 2, 2013, a former Marine whom Chris was trying to help cope with post traumatic stress disorder allegedly shot and killed Chris and his friend Chad Littlefield, on a Texas gun range. Chris was 38.

With American Sniper, based on Chris’ bestselling 2012 autobiography, in theaters, reminders of him are everywhere. “It’s hard,” Taya tells PEOPLE. “It’s been an emotional couple of years.”

One bright spot is that the movie about the man she loved so much became an Oscar contender on Thursday, with six nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Cooper.

But that still doesn’t change her heartbreak. For years, while her husband – widely regarded as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history – was off fighting insurgents in Iraq, Taya would steel herself when the phone rang. She worried that she would learn that Chris had been killed in action, especially since insurgents had placed a bounty on his head.

Chris Kyle

Chris spent long stretches away from home while serving four tours in Iraq, which made life difficult for Taya and their kids. In 2009, after an ultimatum from Taya, Chris quit the military to make his family his priority. Thrilled to have him back home, the family settled into familiar routines, until that fateful February afternoon.

Even when a local police officer came to her house to tell her the news she had dreaded for years – that her husband had been killed – she says she resisted going to that “dark place” she feared. “I was just focused on what I had learned over the years: don’t go there until you know.”

When her girlfriend told her the officer had come to her house to talk to her about Chris, “I thought, ‘I’m going to hear what hospital I’m going to go to,” she says. “But the officer looked at me kind of sad and said, ‘I’m sorry. He’s gone.’ ”

She didn’t believe him at first. She couldn’t.

“I leaned against the wall with tears pouring down my face and said, ‘Is there any way you’re wrong? Is there any mistake?’ ”

“He said, ‘They wouldn’t tell me to tell you unless they were certain.’ ”

Telling her children was excruciating, she says. Sitting on her front lawn with a child on each knee, she says she told them, ‘Something really bad has happened.’ ”

When she told them their father had been killed, “The tears just poured out. We just sat out there in the grass for a while and I just held them.”

When they finally went inside the house, “They just asked all the questions I think we all have: ‘Why did this happen? Who did it and why? Why can’t they fix Daddy’s heart?’ I try not to be angry too much, but the kids are the ones that got cheated the most.”

Sienna Miller (left) and Taya Kyle on Dec. 15, 2014

Making American Sniper

Chris had been working with screenwriter Jason Hall and Bradley Cooper to bring his story to the big screen when he died. With Chris gone, Taya began working tirelessly with Hall; Cooper, who produced and starred in the film; Sienna Miller, who played her and Clint Eastwood, who later signed on to direct. (Cooper said that before Chris died, his wish was to have Eastwood direct the movie.)

“I feel like they all have this huge heart for Chris,” she says. “I really feel like they truly love him and understand him.”

She says she didn’t know what to expect the first time she spoke to Miller. “But after two or three sentences I was like, ‘This is good.’ We just connected. It’s been a tremendous blessing.”

Miller feels the same way. “It was like we had known each other forever,” she says. “We became very close.”

To make sure the filmmakers got her husband’s story right, she opened her heart and her home to Cooper and Eastwood, telling them everything she could about the deadly sniper that Iraqi insurgents called “the Devil of Ramadi,” but who was also giving and loving. “He was a man with a huge heart and charisma and kindness,” she says. “I think the blessing is that Chris really lived. He had a big personality and a zest for whatever he did.”

Hall says he and Cooper were incredulous when they learned that Chris had been killed. “I immediately called Bradley and we sat on the phone in silence,” he says.

“Thankfully Taya embraced us a few days after at the funeral and said, ‘If you guys are going to do this, you’re going to need to get it right,’ ” he says. She told him, “This is going to play a part, for better or worse, in how my kids remember their dad.”

Taya was touched when Eastwood took her aside, just before he and Cooper returned to Los Angeles after spending time getting to know her and her family.

“He was a little choked up,” says Taya. “He said, ‘I just want you to know that your story has my heart.’ I can’t ask for better than that because I feel like this is what it’s all about. It’s about the heart of the men and women who serve and have served – and their families. I hope people understand they really are signing up for something that not many of us would. That takes an incredible amount of heart.”

She admires Chris for how much pride he took in protecting his fellow soldiers on the battlefield. “I got a medal from a Marine who came home who said, ‘I am here because Chris saved my life, and I have a 2-year-old daughter that I never would have without Chris,’ ” says Taya. “It’s just about protecting each other, watching each other’s back and bringing each other home.”

Taya Kyle and Bradley Cooper on Jan. 13, 2015

How She’s Healing – and Helping Others

Taya says her family and friends, her faith and her children are helping her to live her life without her husband by her side. The kids “are doing well,” she says. “But they have made some really big adjustments.”

She is also coming out with her own book on May 5, published by William Morrow, American Wife: A Memoir of Love, Service, Faith, and Renewal, written with Jim DeFelice, who worked with Chris on his autobiography.

While she is preparing for the upcoming capital murder trial of Eddie Ray Routh, the 25-year-old charged with killing Chris and Littlefield, she says giving back is also helping her face her grief. She founded the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to help enrich the relationships of military and first responders’ families. “That’s an honor and a privilege to work on,” she says.

Even though Chris has been dead for almost two years, she says she “feels his presence” all the time. “He had so much energy in life,” she says. “There are some people who probably go to heaven and chill and just check in once in a while, but Chris is probably like, ‘I’m watching my people!’ ”

“I will miss him every single day of my life.”

For more on Chris and Taya Kyle, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now