August 16, 2018 06:45 PM

Known to the world as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin’s family knew her by another name: the Queen of their hearts.

The music icon sent the world into mourning after succumbing to a lengthy — and very privatebattle with pancreatic cancer at age 76, but her nephew Tim Franklin says her global fame paled next to her enormous heart.

“The Queen of Soul — we didn’t know her,” Tim says of Franklin’s role as the family matriarch. “She was able to keep that separate from her personal life, so we never knew the Queen of Soul. Rather, we knew that was an accomplishment that she had made.”

In her final days, Franklin had been receiving palliative care at home in Detroit where she was, according to her rep, “surrounded by family members.” They were there for her, much as she had been there for her relatives in their darkest hours.

“We had all lost our parents – she stepped in and filled the gap,” he continues. “She was the last one of the siblings, and when my aunt Erma and my dad died within a couple months of each other, she stepped right in and put her feelings aside even though she was grieving a loss that was two months apart. She might have grieved in private, but we never saw it.”

Aretha Franklin on stage at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1998.

PEOPLE reported on Monday that Franklin was in the midst of a health crisis, with a friend of the artist explaining that the singer has “been ill for a long time” and her loved ones had been warned her “death is imminent.”

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Later that day, Tim told PEOPLE that his aunt was resting at home. “She’s alert, laughing, teasing, able to recognize people,” Tim said. “Family is there with her.”

After years of speculation about her health, her representatives confirmed Thursday that her official cause of death was “due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, MI.”

Aretha Franklin during her last performance on Nov. 7, 2017 in New York City.
Nicholas Hunt/WireImage

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Fans have speculated about Franklin’s health since she underwent a mystery surgery on Dec. 2, 2010. At the time she didn’t reveal what the procedure was for, saying only that it was “highly successful.” But later that week, a relative told Fox 2 in her hometown of Detroit that she had cancer, and the National Enquirer reported that it was pancreatic.

In January 2011, Franklin said that she’s “not going to even deal with” the reports of her cancer. Through to the end, she refused to speak of it publicly.

“My aunt had a heck of a life,” says Tim. “In the end — just like in the beginning — she reached out to the one who sustained her and refused to let go.”

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