The Bittersweet Reality of Planning a Wedding Amid Grief

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This post was originally published in The Huffington Post, 7/15/15. See it here.

For many people in their late 20s like myself, the month of July means we are well into wedding season, that time of year when it seems nearly every weekend is devoted to weddings, showers, and bachelorette parties. The exorbitant expense and energy that weddings demand aside, the season is a joyous one, an exciting time as we watch our friends and loved ones move forward in their lives with their partners.

This year I am 29, and now my friends are traveling on weekends and spending money to attend my bachelorette party, bridal shower, and wedding. So in the midst of all of the wedding events I am attending for others, I am also planning my own with a partner I have been with for nearly four years, and who I love more than I thought I could ever love anyone.

But for me, and for my partner, Chuck, the meaning of weddings, including our own, has changed. People say that weddings tend to stir up the dull roots of family conflict or painful memories, and boy is that true for us.

Both of Chuck’s parents died in 2013 — his mother after a yearlong battle with brain cancer which she lost in April, days after her 69th birthday. Chuck’s father passed almost eight months later to the day, in December, of a sudden heart attack. He was 68. So for us, getting engaged and planning a wedding amid this loss and grief is a very different experience that few people understand.

I knew I would marry Chuck the day of his sister’s wedding, in 2012, about 8 months after we started dating. That weekend was when he found out his mother’s cancer was terminal, and that she had less than a year of life left.

I remember watching from the audience during the ceremony as he walked his dying mother down the aisle with tears in his eyes. Everyone else thought they were tears of joy for his sister, but they were tears of grief — for his mother, and for himself, and what he was about to lose.

I remember feeling a deep sadness and empathy for him in a way I’ve never felt for anyone before. I suddenly realized the meaning of something my father used to say to me when I was sick with the flu or when I stubbed my toe, screaming in agony only the way a child can. He said, if I could take away your pain and make myself feel it for you so you don’t have to, I would.

I felt that way about Chuck at his sister’s wedding — that I would absorb his pain if I could — and I knew that meant that I could never love someone as much as I loved this man, and that I wanted to spend my life with him as my partner.

He told me years later that the day of his sister’s wedding symbolizes the day that everything changed in his life — a marker of the tragedy, a day that he will remember as life changing, for the worst.

He’s had difficult moments at every wedding we have attended since his parent’s deaths, not only because weddings remind him of his sister’s and all the pain in his family that followed that day, but because of all of the wedding traditions that he will never experience — dancing with his mother, walking her down the aisle, his bride’s dance with his father. Moments that have been ripped from his future, never to return.

Now, we are in the midst of planning our own wedding. Bittersweet does not even begin to describe what this time in our lives is like. I’m not sure there is even a phrase for the simultaneous excitement, love and joy we feel coupled with the enormous sadness, dread and anxiety.

The wedding planning serves as a constant reminder to Chuck that his parents are gone and that they won’t be there on our day in October. This period has ushered in a fresh wave of grief that he is scared he will drown in. He’s so good at keeping himself above water, you’d never know the power below the surface that is constantly threatening to pull him down.

But I do.

I see it in his eyes that sometimes look so far away, and I can tell the feeling of loss is palpable in that moment, perhaps as he imagines looking out into the audience during our ceremony and wishing more than anything that he could see his parents in the front row. I can sense it in his voice when he talks about our guest list. I can hear the pain, his memory of the guests he wishes more than anyone else could be there.

A part of me feels guilty for wanting to have this wedding. I know he’s putting up with it mostly for me. I know that he’s excited about marrying me, but not for the sharp sting of grief he will inevitably feel that day. But a part of me feels bitter too, even resentful at times. A part of me takes it personally. But if there is one thing I have learned being the partner to someone who has experienced such a profound loss as Chuck, there is no way for me to truly understand what he is experiencing.

His bereavement is his own, and I must respect his feelings for what they are. To me, our wedding means a celebration of our love and commitment to our partnership. And although he and I share these positive associations, for him it is simultaneously a stark reminder of what he has lost, and what will never be.

What does one do as a bride-to-be of man with such torment in his soul? How do I approach our wedding? How do I approach our future? Will he sink into another depression when we get pregnant, at the thought that our children will never have grandparents? How do I, as his partner, function in this new normal of ours? A life that changed for both of us with his mother’s diagnosis.

A life that will never be the same.

When his parents died, my friends listened to my woes, nodding with sympathy. But they didn’t get it. How could they? We are all on the cusp of 30. Our parents aren’t dead, and they likely won’t be for a long time. Our parents will be at our weddings, we will dance with our fathers, our mothers will be there for our children’s births, and our children will spend weekends at their grandparents’ home.

I often feel alone, because while there are myriad resources for the children of parents who have passed, there is not much support for the partners of those children, especially partners that are young like me. And we really, really need it. I hope that my story gives others like me hope, or at least makes them feel less lost and alone.

Very fortunately, in the year since his parents passed, Chuck has demonstrated a remarkable resilience. For the most part, he is happy and excited about his future. We are silly in love and he is by far my favorite person to be around. And I feel confident that he is going to be an extraordinary husband, owed in part to the example of his parents and the beautiful partnership they built together and that their children witnessed.

But the death of his parents unmistakably changed him, permanently.

The letter Sheryl Sandberg wrote recently after her husband’s passing really resonated for me, especially her point that after such a profound loss things are not OK, and maybe some things won’t be OK, ever again. It’s such a bold statement, it flies in the face of conventional thought about how “everything will be OK eventually” or that “time heals.”

What Sandberg bravely acknowledged and what I know from my own experience, is that things might be OK, but they will never be the same. And some things will be sadder forever. Chuck will move on and experience key moments of life — his wedding, the purchase of our first home, the birth of our children — without his parents, and that’s not OK, and time may dull the sadness of that fact, but it will never erase it.

I think the key is an acceptance of this new reality. A proper mourning for what has been lost, and what will not be in the future. An embrace of the new normal. This process is where I find strength.

Acceptance is not easy. It happens gradually. I accept that certain days of the year — his parents’ birthdays, the anniversary of their deaths, holidays — will always have a different meaning.

I accept that Chuck will grieve for his parents on his wedding day. That the pure joy I feel reciting our vows may not mirror exactly what he feels. That his emotions are so complicated and complex, and that I may never actually understand them.

Acceptance, in its truest forms, really means moving on. It means being honest. It gives us permission to move forward. It allows us to heal.

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