January 28, 2015 08:00 AM

Taya Kyle opens up about the love she had with the real American Sniper Chris Kyle and the film that is his legacy. Subscribe now for instant access to this emotional, exclusive PEOPLE interview.

He was known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, but to Taya Kyle, her husband Chris was the man who always got a belly laugh from watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, loved to give her big bear hugs and helped her get the kids to bed at night.

“He was the biggest kid,” Taya says in an emotional, exclusive interview in the new issue of PEOPLE. She opens up about their joyful times together, their struggles after Chris returned from combat, and how she and their two kids have stayed strong since Chris’s tragic murder in 2013.

“I miss those family dinners where we would joke with the kids,” Taya, 40, says. “I miss the way he laughed at the littlest things with me and the way the kids and I couldn’t wait for him to come home from work. I miss how Chris changed the feeling in the room when he was in it.”

Chris was killed at the age of 38 at a Texas gun range on Feb. 2, 2013, by a fellow veteran. Chris was trying to help Eddie Ray Routh cope with his alleged PTSD. Routh, who is charged with his murder, goes on trial Feb. 11.

But Chris’s legacy lives on – in a massive way. American Sniper, based on his bestselling 2012 autobiography, is shattering box office records – pulling in more than $200 million since its Jan. 16 nationwide opening – and has garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

The film gives moviegoers a glimpse into the lives of soldiers on the front lines and the struggles their families face back home. It’s also resonating with veterans, who say Chris’s story is their story.

Bradley Cooper, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the decorated Navy SEAL, has toured with the USO for eight years. But the actor tells PEOPLE that he learned much more about what military families go through while making the movie.

“I had an appreciation for veterans before this,” says Cooper. “But what I definitely did not know is the toll that it takes on the family.”

Adds the star: “It’s not lost on me that the freedom I have is because we live in a country where there is a volunteer military who chooses to sacrifice their lives to defend our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

For Taya, the film’s massive success is heartening. “I can’t think of a better blessing,” she says.

Yet it is also bittersweet, because she doesn’t have her husband by her side to share in the film’s success – or to see how much it is resonating with veterans like him.

“When I actually think about what it would be like to have Chris next to me, with my hand in his, it hurts,” she says. “But he’s still with me. I will love him until the day I die.”

For more on Taya and Chris Kyle and the love story behind American Sniper, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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