"I was holding her hand, telling her I loved her and saying goodbye," the singer tells PEOPLE
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Carly Simon, a longtime friend of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, mourns the former first lady to this day.

In an exclusive interview featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the “You’re So Vain” singer recalls being at Onassis’ bedside as she lay dying at home on Fifth Avenue in May 1994.

“I was holding her hand, telling her I loved her and saying goodbye,” says Simon, 74, her voice quavering. “There was an otherworldly recording of monks singing, intermingled with sounds of uproarious laughter from the next room, where various Kennedys were having an Irish gathering. It was surreal.”

Simon first met Onassis, who was 16 years her senior, in 1983 on Martha’s Vineyard.

The two quickly became close friends and in her new memoir, Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie, Simon recalls Onassis’ sense of humor and the confidences she shared about her husbands and her two children.

• For more on Carly Simon’s surprising, enduring bond with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the memories they made together, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Carly Simon Portrait
Carly Simon
| Credit: Liz Linder
Oprah Winfrey

“I could be neurotic, bohemian and all over the place; she always had to be so correct,” says Simon. “I was who she wasn’t. I think she got a big kick out of that.”

Over more than 10 years, the two women forged a friendship and reveled in their differences. And when Onassis fell ill with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1993, Simon was there to support her — even though she had to learn about the diagnosis from others.

“Women of that generation didn’t talk about illness,” she says.

Onassis died on May 19, 1994, and she was buried four days later next to her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (left) with Carly Simon at a Labor Day party
| Credit: Courtesy Carly Simon
Jackie Kennedy
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1993
| Credit: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty
Jackie Kennedy
John F. Kennedy Jr. (kneeling) during the funeral of his mother
| Credit: GREG GIBSON/AFP/Getty

The day after her death, her son, John Jr., gave a brief statement on the steps of her apartment.

“Last night, at around 10:15, my mother passed on,” he said. “She was surrounded by her friends and family and her books and the people and the things that she loved. And she did it in her own way, and we all feel lucky for that, and now she’s in God’s hands.”

While Onassis’ death at 64 was a tragedy, many in her circle were glad that she’d passed before her son, who died just five years after his mother in a plane accident.

Says Simon now: “There was a communal sigh of relief that she didn’t live to see that.”