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Hugh Hefner's Widow Crystal Breaks Her Silence: 'He Was an American Hero'

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Crystal Hefner is opening up as she mourns husband Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91.

 “I haven’t been able to bring myself to write most people back to thank them for their condolences. I am heartbroken. I am still in disbelief,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We laid him to rest Saturday. He is in the place he was always certain he wanted to spend eternity.”

“He was an American hero. A pioneer. A kind and humble soul who opened up his life and home to the world,” she adds. “I felt how much he loved me. I loved him so much. I am so grateful. He gave me life. He gave me direction. He taught me kindness. I will feel eternally grateful to have been by his side, holding his hand, and telling him how much I love him. He changed my life, he saved my life. He made me feel loved every single day. He was a beacon to the world, a force unlike anything else. There never has and never will be another Hugh M. Hefner.”

Elayne Lodge

Crystal, 31, was the late publishing pioneer’s third wife. He was previously married to college sweetheart Millie Williams from 1949-59, followed by Playboy model Kimberley Conrad, whom he wed in July 1989. (Hugh and Conrad separated nine years later, though they remained legally wed for nearly 20 years until their divorce was finalized in 2010.)

“I join the world in mourning. I thank you for all of your condolences,” Crystal says. “To the people leaving sentiments at the front gate, we see you and grieve with you.”

Crystal made her debut in Playboy at age 24 as the magazine’s December 2009 Playmate. A year later, Hugh — 60 years her senior — announced their engagement on Twitter.

“After the movie tonight, Crystal & I exchanged gifts. I gave Crystal a ring. A truly memorable Christmas Eve,” he wrote. “When I gave Crystal the ring, she burst into tears. This is the happiest Christmas weekend in memory.”

Later, he clarified, “Yes, the ring I gave Crystal is an engagement ring. I didn’t mean to make a mystery out of it. A very merry Christmas to all.”

“Despite the age disparity, the truth of the matter is we have a great deal in common,” Hugh told PEOPLE at the time. “We really complement one another, we have a wonderful time together, and I love her.”

Though he was publicly skeptical about the institution of marriage after two divorces, Hugh said Crystal was worth the commitment.

“I do think there is a certain reality to the fact that people start to take one another for granted [over time],” he said. “But I just simply found myself in a relationship with Crystal in which I felt, quite frankly, the opposite seemed to be true — that the more committed to one another we were, the closer we got, and the more we loved one another, and I just think this one, for me, will be the exception to the rule.”

Charley Gallay/Getty

RELATED VIDEO: Hugh Hefner Laid to Rest at Private Funeral on Saturday

They tied the knot in front of family and a few close friends on New Year’s Eve 2012 at the Playboy Mansion, with Hugh’s brother Keith Hefner serving as best man.

Playboy

After the ceremony came a private reception with a champagne toast. The newlyweds cut the wedding cake before attending the Mansion’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

Hugh later shared a snapshot of the couple, with him sporting his iconic captain’s hat and her in a pale pink, strapless wedding gown.

“Happy New Year from Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Hefner!” he wrote.

“Today is the day I become Mrs. Hugh Hefner,” Crystal tweeted. “Feeling very happy, lucky, and blessed.”

— WITH AURELIE CORINTHIOS