Shelby Sander remembers the final moments she spent with her mother, Angie, like they were just yesterday.
“Her health was declining. She was becoming weaker and weaker,” Sander, 23, tells PEOPLE of her mother’s final days in 2016. “I just laid in bed with her and we laughed. I know she wasn’t there mentally, but she was there physically. She stuck her hand up and she did a peace sign and she said, ‘peace out.’ And those were my mom’s last words to us.”
Angie, 49, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2011. Over the years, the cancer spread to her hip, lungs and stomach. She passed away on March 1, 2016.
“It’s really hard. I still feel the pain every single day that my mom isn’t here. She doesn’t get to experience my wedding. She doesn’t get the joy of having grandchildren. Just the things in life that I was looking forward to doing with my mom.”
In December 2017, Sander and her then-boyfriend Scott became engaged. And the Cameron Park, California, woman says she knew immediately that she wanted to honor her mother using the woman’s old wedding dress. So, she planned to cut a heart-shaped patch from the dress and have it sewn onto her wedding gown for the Sept. 29, 2018 ceremony.
But first, Sander tells PEOPLE, she wanted to take professional photos in the decades-old gown to both honor her mother and surprise her father.
“I did not alter it one bit. Everything fit perfectly. I was in shock,” she says of the moments she first put on her mother’s dress. “When it fit, it made me feel beautiful. It made me feel like I had more of my mom in me. It was just an amazing thing. Like, wow, I’m supposed to be in my mom’s dress. I’m supposed to be wearing it. this is supposed to be happening.”
Sander teamed up with Taylor Brooke Photography for the shoot, and photos showed the bride-to-be smiling in the shining white dress as she stood in a grassy field. Sander says that, in those moments, she felt closer than ever to her mother.
“She’s with me every day. Some days more than most, but I know she is here and I know that she’s watching over me and making sure I’m doing everything to be the best,” she says, adding that her mom and dad’s “love for each other was so unconditional and so right and that’s everything that I could ever hope for.”
She first shared the photos with Love What Matters, as Thursday marked two years since Angie’s death.
Now, as she gears up for her big day, Sander says she plans to reserve a purple seat for her mother right next to her father at the ceremony, and plant a photo of Angie in the chair.
“My mom was an amazing human being. She touched so many people’s lives. She just really was such a positive and inspirational person to be around,” Sander tells PEOPLE of Angie. “My mom always had the most positive outlook and view and she was just always so happy. Happy to be here, happy to be alive. She was really one of a kind. She was giving, loving, supportive; an amazing mom and and amazing wife and an amazing friend.”