SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - After suddenly losing her mom when she was just 34-years-old, it took Dee Dee Raap about nine years to realize her mom was still with her even during the hardest time of the year -- the holidays.
For many people, the holidays are a fun and exciting time of year, but if you've lost someone you love, it can be more of a, "Blue Christmas."
"Losing your mom is one of life's hardest journeys and I learned that the very hard way by losing mine very suddenly just before Christmas in 1990," Dee Dee Raap said.
She had just returned from her first-ever work trip overseas, was in the middle of remodeling her kitchen and was preparing for another Christmas with her growing family ...
"And in the middle of all that chaos on Dec. 5, I got a phone call saying mom had died of a heart attack," Raap said.
She never had the chance to say goodbye or thank her mom for all of the things you might forget to thank your mom for over the years.
"And so you you face that first Christmas without your mom or your loved one and that's a pretty hard Christmas," she said.
Nine years later, she was living in Cheyenne with her husband and was admiring her Christmas tree ... decorated with ornaments her mom had made.
"And I remember sitting on the couch looking at those ornaments and seeing for the first time as gifts from her life," Raap said. "Gifts that she had made for me."
She started to think about all of the things she wanted to tell her ...
"I would tell her about my daughters, I would tell her about my husband, I would tell her about me," Raap said. "And something told me to go down to my computer and I found my hands moving along the keyboard and I wrote, 'Dear Mom.'"
"I wrote my mom this letter and I just bawled I had all these years of grief piled up inside of me," Raap said. "And then I wrote another letter and with the second letter I began to laugh a little bit."
With that laughter, came another memory ...
"My mother, God love her soul, in the 1960s had a flock of plastic pink flamingos in the front yard on the prairie farm in northeastern South Dakota," Raap said.
It turns out, laughter is the best medicine.
"Tthe flamingos became a source of healing because I think you heal by both the tears that you cry and also the laughter you get when you have these connections with these memories with your mom or whoever it is that you've lost," Raap said.
Flamingos became a gift she never knew her mom left her, more precious than any gift, under any tree...
"And what I really got from her were all the values that a mom teaches a kid, she doesn't teach them by saying, 'Today we're going to talk about values,' she teaches them by how she lives, her words, her actions and her traditions," Raap said.
Those traditions are now her traditions too.
"In honor of my mom i have a pink flamingo tree this year," Raap said. "It just has all kinds of flamingos on it to celebrate the gifts of a mom and to remind me that mom's still here."
She said those traditions are important for anyone going through the grieving process.
"I have a recipe from my mom called 'fry pan cookies' because I make them in my electric fry pan why do I do that? Because my mom made hers in her electric fry pan, so you find yourself doing things like your mom did them," she said.
If it's food your traditions center on, Raap said people are often worried they'll never live up to their ones' recipes, but that shouldn't matter.
"Think about what you did with that person-- if it's your mom or dad maybe they baked the cookies, maybe they made the Christmas candy;
"If it was your grandmother, maybe they made the fudge every year," Raap said. "Think about something that you did with them that was special and when you think about those memories it's just gonna fill you with that feeling of love and connection and it's gonna be like getting the best hug ever."
Raap said writing those letters -- 70 in all -- helped her heal and she believes writing to the person you've loved and lost can help you too, especially if you're not sure where to start in your grieving.
"One memory opens up another memory and when you write about that you just clarify that a little bit in your mind and you just find another one," she said.
And once you have all those memories, you can know ...
"That person that you've loved and lost is still there in the cookies, in the candy, in the fudge, in the things that you did with them, and I really believe that those memories can help us heal."
Raap turned those letters into a book called, 'Dear Mom.' She tells KSFY News that she's had readers all over the country send her flamingos in honor of her mom, including one of the ornaments in the video -- a Vegas "showgirl" flamingo ornament.
Raap is also a speaker and works in and around Sioux Falls with the Catholic Diocese to help others who are grieving heal and has free resources on her website to help you write a letter to someone you've loved and lost.
If you're interested in connecting with her, we've put a link to her website under "Related Links."