When a man with a shaved walked into the bar where Sullivan, 41, worked last year and told her about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which hosts head-shaving events for pediatric cancer research, she knew she had found her answer.
“I’d been looking for a way to honor my mom, she was a child oncology nurse,” the mom of two tells PEOPLE. “I knew that I would know the right thing when it hit me. As soon as he was telling me about this, I was like, ‘That’s exactly what she would have done! This is amazing. This is perfect. This is what I’m going to do.’ And that’s how I knew.”
But when she became engaged to her boyfriend, Tim Lydon, in December 2017, Sullivan decided to tweak her plan just a bit.
“I had committed to doing it before I was engaged … I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to make it part of my wedding now.’ And it seemed kind of perfect to honor my mom by doing it at my bridal shower,” Sullivan tells PEOPLE, noting that Lydon was supportive of her decision.
“I think that’s when you miss your parents the most, when you’re doing all the things leading up to the wedding. So it seemed like a good way to fit her into everything.”
On March 9, Sullivan, Lydon and about 20 of their closest friends and family members gathered at Fado Irish Pub in Chicago for her “bridal shave.” There, officials with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation shaved off Sullivan’s thick, blonde curls —and Lydon even had the honor of taking the first swipe.
“I’ve never had short hair before so it was shocking to me. As soon as I felt it hit my head, I got that initial shock of, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ Of course, it hits you. But then you look around the room and you see all these people that love and support you and love why you’re there. It’s really incredible.”
She adds: “When I looked in the mirror for the first time … I saw love. It’s surreal but in a way that you can’t even imagine how fulfilling it really is because it’s something that you can’t ignore. And that’s really why I did it.”
Now, with Sullivan and Lydon set to wed on May 12, the bride-to-be says she’s excited to walk down the aisle with her new look.
“Every time I look at [my head] I am reminded of why I did it. So when I’m standing up on my wedding day, and I’m taking my vows in front of all the people that I love the most in the world, my mother’s there with me,” she tells PEOPLE. They’re looking at me and they’re seeing my hair … and so they see me like that and it’s a very visual way of my mom being with me and everybody knows why.”
Sullivan says she and her mother were “very, very close,” describing the 64-year-old as “caring,” “compassionate” and a “nurturer.” She adds that Charneski would have approved of her decision to shave her head.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she shaved her head right alongside of me,” Sullivan tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “She would tell me I’m crazy, but she would also be crazy with me.”