When my now-husband Matthew proposed, I was shocked and speechless. Well, that’s not exactly true. Initially I was “hangry” and annoyed. We were in New York City where I was supposed to be meeting my college roommate’s first-born child. Instead, I found myself wandering around Central Park, starving, trailing behind my husband and his childhood best friend while they discussed the Green Bay Packers. I had no idea why he insisted I join them for this walk in the park, until he got down on one knee and his buddy started videotaping us on his iPhone. Once I recovered from the shock and actually said “Yes,” I was still hungry, but also thrilled. I was about to spend the rest of my life with a kind, generous man I adore, and my good fortune was not lost on me.
A few weeks later, as the reality of wedding planning began to set in, it became painfully clear that the person who would be most excited about my engagement and would want to share in every detail of the big day would never be a part of the preparations. Because when I was 25, five years before this engagement to Matthew, I lost my mom to breast cancer. She had been sick since I was 13, and the time I spent helping to take care of her had made us incredibly close.
While I obviously knew that she would miss a number of major milestones, including my wedding, I thought I had mentally prepared myself to embark on this next phase of life without her. Planning my wedding proved otherwise.
I felt her absence most in the minutiae — the little things that make a wedding truly personal for the bride and groom, and no one else cares about (except she would have, too). Flower arrangements. Color scheme. China patters. Also, did we really need a tiered cake? (I wanted sticky toffee pudding instead.) How could I make this day as special as possible for my long-married grandparents?
As my fiancé and I planned our day, we made a concerted effort to find ways to include her without making either of us — or any of our guests — feel sad. Because of who my mom was and how she felt about me, I knew that she would have wanted our special day to be all about Matthew and me, and not another memorial for her. So we worked hard to find subtle yet meaningful ways to integrate her memory into our day.
My mother’s presence was my “something blue,” as her initials were sewn into the lining of my dress in royal blue. Even though I think it’s hideous, the ring my father gave my mom on their 25th anniversary served as my “something old.” My hot pink heels were for my mom; she loved pink and would have adored those shoes. Rather than wedding favors, we made charitable donations to an organization, aptly named The Pink Agenda, that was founded in her honor to support breast cancer research.
Instead of feeling a void because she wasn’t there helping me get ready with my bridesmaids, I was full of positive energy and excitement. Before she died, my mother and I talked about the fact that there would be many difficult and sad moments ahead. But I promised her that I would find a way to honor and respect all that she gave me in everything that I’d do. I’m happy to say that my October 3 wedding day allowed me to do exactly that, and I’ve outlined few tips that may help you plan a wedding while remembering a loved one.
- Talk about it with your fiancé(e).
Grief manifests itself in many forms, and feeling the absence of a loved one during a time of celebration is perfectly normal. Once I had my “Why can’t my mom be here?” wedding planning meltdown, my fiancé was so much more aware of the emotional toll planning a wedding in her absence would have on me. Even though he’d never met her, he would insist she would surely side with him on cutting Kanye West from the playlist. He made missing her a lot easier for me.
- Reach out to others feeling the absence.
Amid my own pain, I sometimes forgot that others — from my godmother, who was my mother’s best friend, to my grandparents, who had known my mother since she had been a teenager, and even my future husband who had never met her — were also very aware of her absence. It was especially tough on my dad so while it is traditional for the Father of the Bride to give a toast at the wedding, we asked my cousin to speak instead because it was just too much for my dad not having my mother there. Communicate with your family and friends and include them in the planning process. Many of them will be missing your loved one as well and they will want to be there for you.
- Memorialize in ways that make you feel comfortable. Skip the things that don’t.
We included my mom in subtle details of our day by asking those who gave speeches to mention her, tying a small photo of her to my bouquet and giving one of her handkerchiefs to my fiancé for the ceremony. We found little things that made us feel comfortable and ensured her presence was felt. Be sure to do whatever feels right to you.
- Give back, and let guests know why.
In lieu of favors, consider making a charitable contribution in your loved one’s honor. If your loved one was passionate about animals, consider making a donation to a local animal shelter. If he loved spending time outdoors, look into an organization that focuses on conservation. Create tasteful table signs telling your guests how you’ve chosen to memorialize your loved one; it will make them feel included in remembering and honoring that person.
If you aren’t sure what to do, here are a few hacks:
- Include them in your something old, new, borrowed, or blue. The blue patch I had sewn into my dress was made by a close family friend from a blue jewelry bag that had belonged to my mother.
- Place photos of or with them on gift tables.
- Wrap your bouquet with a tie that belonged to a father or brother or a handkerchief that belonged to a mother or sister.
- Select a reading from his/her favorite book.
- Select your wedding colors based on their favorites. My mom loved pink so we had pink included throughout our wedding.
- Purchase a bouquet photo frame and attach a photo of your loved one to your wedding bouquet. It is super easy and inexpensive.
- Include someone close to them in your ceremony or ask that person to give a toast at your reception.
- Consider serving one of their favorite foods at the wedding or rehearsal dinner.
- Use something from their wedding — type of flowers, a reading or prayer, or in our case their champagne glasses!
And, whatever you do, enjoy your day. Despite loss, because of loss, love is always worth celebrating.
Marisa Renee Lee is a graduate of Harvard College and an avid Green Bay Packers fan. She resides in Virginia with her husband Matt and their dog Sadie.