"I of course told her it was OK. 'If you're tired, if you want to go see your grandma, you want to go see your grandpa ... then it's OK,'" Schneider recalls to PEOPLE of his final moments with Alicia Allain Schneider
Speaking to PEOPLE for his first sit-down interview after Alicia's death from breast cancer, the Dukes of Hazzard star, 63, recalls his final moments with his wife — and why his last message to her was not entirely truthful.
"I of course told her it was OK," he says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "'If you're tired, if you want to go see your grandma, you want to go see your grandpa, if you want to go, then it's OK. You go.' And that was all the truth."
"But then I lied, because I said, 'Don't worry about me; I'll be OK,'" he continues through his tears. "That was a lie I had to tell, but she knew it. OK is a long way away."
Schneider adds, "The last thing I said to her was, 'I love you desperately, and I've got multiple sets of very long-term plans for you.' And that's true, because eternity's a very long time, and I believe it. I'm counting on it."
Alicia was first diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2019 after discovering a lesion during a routine dermatologist appointment. During the course of her treatment, she and Schneider got married "in the eyes of God" in July 2019 due to his ongoing divorce from ex-wife Elvira "Elly" Castle. (They legally married two months later once his divorce from Castle was finalized.)
Alicia went into remission in 2020, but in December 2021, after being involved in a race-car crash and breaking her back, scans showed her cancer had returned and metastasized to the bone. More treatment and hospital stays followed but nothing seemed to be working for her.
In February 2023, Schneider, honoring Alicia's wishes, brought her home from the hospital for hospice care. For the next six days, their loved ones remained by her side until she died at age 53 on Feb. 21.
Though Schneider was there for most of her final moments, he tells PEOPLE that he was not present when Alicia finally took her last breath.
"The thing that helped me most in the grieving process was I'm quite sure that she waited for me not to be there, because I think she knew I couldn't handle it," he explains. "Her mom and her dad were there, her daughter [Jessica Dollard] was there, her daughter's fiancé [Daniel Turner] (now husband) was there, and I think she waited for me to be gone."
"I'm grateful for that, and then part of the pull-pull thing [of grief] is not wanting to admit that it happened," he adds. "I still wake up in the morning, and I reach for her in groggy sleep. I keep my eyes closed, and I reach over, hoping maybe this was a dream. I'm a creative person. I have some very vivid dreams; maybe this is one of them."
As he continues to grieve, Schneider is leaning into the beloved memories he and Alicia shared over their nine years together, from producing films and writing music to racing cars and enjoying the outdoors.
"We were kindred spirits from the beginning and made everything look easy,” he says. "My whole life I’ve never had any relationship that I didn’t want to take an occasional break from, but with her, I didn’t want to be on the other side of a small room."
He's also focused on keeping Alicia's legacy alive. Since her death, he's written daily messages to Alicia on Facebook that he calls "letters to Heaven," launched an AliciaWear clothing line featuring phrases she used to say, like "Love That" and "Go Do," and has plans to release an album called We're Still Us.
He also recently got his first tattoo: her thumbprint on the part of his hand where her thumb would rest when they held hands. "It's bittersweet, but it makes me smile," he says of the ink. "That's where her thumb was most hours of the day."
But those memories and tributes — as well as their shared home in Holden, Louisiana — have also become "a point of pain" for the actor as he works through his grief.
"I miss every damn thing, every day," he says. "I have to get to the point where I look around and see where she is, not where she's not. And I'm trying to do that, but that's hard. Somehow I love her more every minute, but with that, somehow I miss her more every minute."
He continues, "And that's the personality of grief, is living like this, being pulled in two completely opposite directions at the same time ... you want something with all your heart and soul, and you don't want it with all your heart and soul, at the same time. I want this pain to go away, but I don't want it diminish her in any way. I want to laugh, and when I do, I feel bad. I want to smile and mean it, but I don't."
For more on John Schneider, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
With Alicia's legacy at the top of his mind, Schneider hopes sharing his story will help others who are grieving and remind people to let their loved ones know how they feel about them. "I could not have told Alicia Allain Schneider I love her any more than I did," he says proudly.
Above all, he believes that one day he will be reunited with his wife.
"As bad as I hurt, I wouldn't trade a minute of it," he says. "Heaven is real, and I'll get there one day and she'll greet me. At that point, this will seem like nothing. like no time has gone by. Until then, I will endure. That's what she'd want, and I'm going to live the rest of my life doing only that which would make her smile."
"I'm going to 'go do,' as she said, even when I don't want to, so that when I get there, she'll be delighted with me," he adds.
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