James Hibberd
February 23, 2017 AT 10:03 PM EST

Note: This story contains a major revelation from the Feb. 23 episode of Nashville.

“It’s devastating,” says Connie Britton and we have to agree: CMT’s Nashville just delivered one of the saddest, most heartbreaking and — yes — devastating death scenes in TV history. Rayna Jaymes — having already suffered through being held at knifepoint by a crazed stalker, a car crash and emergency surgery — unexpectedly slipped away at the end of Thursday’s episode, “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” With Deacon, Daphne (Maisy Jude Marion Stella) and Maddie (Lennon Ray Louise Stella) at her bedside, Rayna perishes — prompting screams and tears from her family. But while Rayna’s death was a total shock to the other Nashville characters, the exit has been in the works for many months. Below Britton explains why she’s leaving Nashville and her thoughts on that tragic hour:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After CMT picked up the series, why did you decide to move on from Nashville?
Connie Britton: There were many reasons. Obviously there was a lot of back and forth over the summer if the show was picked up or wasn’t picked up, and after talking to the new showrunner Marshall Herskovitz and seeing the show was in such a good place — it was picked up by CMT, which was so a good home for it, they were over the moon and really supportive, and really passionate about the show. I think it will be a good home in terms of being able to appreciate the music on the show, and there are new showrunners who were bringing in a different perspective and breath of fresh air. And seeing the passion of the fans for these characters — the show wouldn’t be on the air if not for our beloved fans … it really felt like we would be in a good place and this would be the time to start talking about Rayna’s departure. Marshall came up with this story and it felt right. I told him, “I want to do justice to this character, this character she’s so special to me.” I’m kind of choked up even talking to you. Rayna means so much to me and so does the audience of Nashville and to me that was priority number one. Whatever we did had to honor the character and honor the show and feel like we were doing it right.

This experience matches Friday Night Lights for the longest you’ve been on a project. Just personally as an actor, were you wanting something new? And also — since this is often the case when shows change networks — was money a factor at all?
No, money was not a factor. I think [the length of time] had something to do with it. As actors we always want to keep challenging ourselves. Let me just say there were a lot of reasons. Some of them were personal and some were creative, and I’m probably not going to get much more detailed than that. There were a lot of things at play, and ultimately it was about making sure the show was in a good place.

What was your reaction to reading the scripts as to how it played out?
When I read the scripts I was like, “Okay, here we go.” It was very surreal and not easy. There was definitely a big part of me that was not ready to go but there we were. I wanted to make those moments as strong as possible for Rayna.

I imagine it was tricky as an actor performing in that final episode because you had to perform like you’re in a morphine haze but at the same time you want to connect to those other characters and impart some real emotion.
Yeah, I find that to be really challenging as an actor. Whenever you’re playing an altered state it’s another layer of difficulty. I had a lot of conversations with the writers about where exactly she is now with her drug haze because I wanted to have some variations there, and know when she was more lucid. Also, there’s a real journey in the episode. In the beginning she’s in a lot of pain and had a lot of trauma, then she thinks she’s going to recover from that … I was trying to find the subtleties of those different states. And I think the scene with Rayna’s mother played by my dearest friend Carla Gugino, who came in and it was so special to me to do that scene with her. Rayna’s mother has been the most important impact in her life. So it was wonderful to have my dear friend come in and do that. I think that scene is the turning point where Rayna starts to realize something’s not right. So then there’s a whole other dimension to the haze and feeling like her body is failing in some way even though she doesn’t know how. That is tricky I’ll admit.

I feel like Daphne is going to think her singing killed her, while Maddie is going to hate herself for not being there more when she was in the hospital.
I said something about that to the writers! I didn’t want the girls to ever think they had anything to do with it. I do feel like we were able to give them a sense of closure but those girls know — Lennon and Maisy know we’re bonded for life, and I feel that way about everybody on the show.

What was it like shooting that final scene where everybody is singing and crying?
We could not get through it. Those blessed girls — who I love with every ounce of my being — they could not get through the song. I don’t know how many takes we did where they couldn’t sing more than three words of the song. It took awhile. I’m laying there, supposedly dying, and I had tears pouring down my cheeks. It was a very tough week. There were a lot of tears all around. The crew, as well.

What was your best memory of working on the show?
In general, the singing and performing on stage. Those were the scariest moments for me. I would always get the most worked up and nervous. Those were big production days. But those were the most satisfying moments. Those were the moments as an actor I’ll look back on and say, wow, I can’t believe I had the opportunity to do that.

What will you miss the most?
Probably the people. It’s a family, and I miss them already. I’m in touch with many of them still, and that includes crew members.

We’ve heard there will be some Rayna flashbacks in the weeks ahead. But aside from that, what will you do next? Are you tempted to reunite with Ryan Murphy for one of his upcoming seasons of American Horror Story or American Crime Story?
I’m very open at this point. I’ll work with Ryan anytime, that’s always going to be true. Beyond that, I’m really open and there are so many things I’d be interested in doing. We’ll see what comes down the line.

And finally, I suspect fans are going to be really upset. Is there anything else you’d want to say to them?
The spirit of Rayna lives on forever and I’m always going to have a strong interest and love for the show. We never know what the future holds in terms of how a character can make an influence, so I would say, “Love this show, love these characters, and keep watching” — because that spirit is always going to be a part of the show, and these amazing Nashville characters are going to live on.

NEXT: Our must-read interview with showrunner Marshall Herskovitz about Rayna’s death — and what comes next for Nashville

MORE: Our recap of tonight’s episode and an interview with Charles Esten.

ALSO: Britton posted the following message on Instagram:

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