The Mob Wives opening sequence shows hands decorated with diamonds smashing glasses as red wine pours out like blood – and the VH1 reality show about women associated with New York’s Mafia matches that dramatic image.
Over six seasons, viewers have watched brutal brawls erupt between the women – but Angela “Big Ang” Raiola, who died early Thursday after battling stage 4 cancer at the age of 55 – was always the calm in the swear-filled storm.
“Even filming, I couldn’t keep a straight face sometimes because all she did was make us laugh. Thank God for her, because if it wasn’t for her, we’d really kill each other sometimes,” costar and close friend Carla Facciolo tells PEOPLE with a chuckle. “Because if we were around her, she’d be like, ‘Get over it!’ She would yell at me. That’s why I used to call her the Mama Bear, because if I said something she’d be like, ‘Oh, Carla, please. Get over it.’ ”
“When I say she was bigger than life, she was, because nothing bothered her,” says Facciolo, 49. “She just wanted the girls to have fun, and everyone get along, let’s just have fun and drink, that’s what she did. She just wanted to have fun. She didn’t hear no bull—-.”
Brittany Fogarty, who appears in this season of Mob Wives, tells PEOPLE that they “just both clicked” upon meeting: “She welcomed me with open arms into the group.”
“Ang just always was the type of person to see the bright side of any situation, and she always was just trying to be positive,” adds Fogarty, 24. “Anything bad that would happen, she would just try to mediate and settle everyone down and try to make everybody get along. She never wanted anyone to be arguing or fighting. She was always just focused on the positive and the bright side of everything.”
Marissa Jade, another Mob Wives newcomer, says Raiola was the same “warm” person in real life as portrayed on TV.
“Angela is a free spirit. She’s great, she’s fun-loving, she doesn’t care for the drama, she just wants to have a good time,” Jade, 31, tells PEOPLE. “And honestly, although we are on a drama-based show, beyond the show we really do enjoy each other’s company and do have a good time.”
A lifelong smoker, Raiola beat throat cancer last year only for the disease to spread to her lungs and brain. Still, both Facciolo and Jade say she remained positive when they saw her last – and were shocked by how quickly her condition deteriorated since Friday, when she was released from the hospital only to return days later with breathing problems.
“She went way too quick,” Facciolo says. “One minute she was with us, another minute she was in the hospital dying, so it’s very sad.”
Though Jade says her “heart aches” for the loss of her costar, she points out that Raiola is finally at peace.
“I hope everyone understands that she’s not suffering anymore and she’s in a better place,” she says, “and we can only think of it that way and be positive of the situation.”
“She stayed strong and fighting until the end. At least she’s not suffering anymore,” Fogarty adds. “I just think it’s devastating. People need to remember her for the beautiful, loving, fun, courageous, strong woman that she was. She’s just an inspiration to all of us.”
In a bittersweet twist of fate, this is the final season of Mob Wives, and Raiola rallied to tape a segment for the series’ reunion special.
“She left with a bang I guess,” Jade says softly. “It’s hard to even talk about it. It’s surreal. I feel like she’s still here. Like, no way Ang is gone.”
• With reporting by JEFF NELSON