Music, laughter, hugs, and tears: the ways I honored my dad on our wedding day

May 7 | Guest post by Chelsea Yates
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Getting married on a small stage helped Chelsea deal with not having her father present.
"Oh — if you get married, who will walk you down the aisle?!" My parents' neighbor moaned these words to me at my father's funeral in 2008.

My first thought was that this woman must be joking; really, who says something like that at a funeral? And by 2008, did the whole "walking down the aisle" bit matter anymore? Weren't we, as a society, over the patriarchal idea that a man "gives away" his daughter at marriage? But as she looked at me through teary eyes, dabbing her cheeks with a mascara-stained tissue, I realized she was completely serious. At least to her, out of the many moments my dad — who had suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly the week before — would miss out on, "marrying off" his eldest daughter would be one of the most significant.

Until her comment, the thought hadn't occurred to me at all. I was twenty-eight and had an ambivalent attitude toward marriage; if it happened, it happened. I was in a fabulous relationship and thought the world of my boyfriend Nick, but we weren't remotely close to a discussion about marriage, and I was fine with that.

Fast forward to 2011. Nick, by then my partner of five years, proposed to me one Sunday morning. Having just stepped out of the shower, I was wearing a towel and brushing my teeth when he asked if I'd like to marry him. I had to spit out toothpaste to respond. It was unplanned, awkward, and adorable, and I wouldn't change anything about the way it played out. Without hesitation I said yes.

But I found that the comment made at my dad's funeral totally stuck. And though I'd never been the type to dream about fairy tale weddings, desired a big dress, veil, bridesmaids, or flower girl… I desperately wanted a walk down the aisle with my dad.

We knew we wanted to celebrate with friends and family in Seattle, where we lived, but I soon discovered I was apprehensive about exchanging vows in front of an audience. I usually don't have a problem being in the spotlight. As I dug into this more, I realized my reluctance centered around Dad's absence. Not that I would have asked him to "give me away" at my wedding, but the fact was that even if I'd wanted to, it wasn't an option, and knowing that made me sad.

So Nick suggested that, instead of referring to it as a "wedding," we think about it as just a big party. I was surprised at how simply changing the words helped me re-imagine the day and alleviate some of my grief. Neither of us was religious, and we didn't feel the desire to have a formal service, so the party concept worked well.

Shortly after we started venue-hunting, we found the perfect place — Georgetown Stables. A small, unassuming stage was tucked away in one of its corners, and Nick asked me how I'd feel about exchanging vows there. Guests could just gather around us informally for a few minutes—no need for any pomp and circumstance. After I realized there'd be no aisle to walk down, and no room for anyone but Nick, me, and whoever performed the ceremony on the little stage, I agreed.

Then the more our wedding plans coalesced, the more I needed Dad to have a role, somehow, in our wedding. Some friends suggested that we include a prayer in our ceremony to acknowledge him, but this seemed out of character for us. Others proposed placing an empty chair next to my mother to symbolize both his presence and absence, but this didn't seem right, either. My mother is very shy; I didn't want to force her more into the "widow" spotlight than she'd already feel she was. And others recommended that I frame a photo of Dad to display during the party. The problem was that I didn't know where to place it. On the welcome table? Next to the cupcake tower? No place seemed like the appropriate fit.

So, to create a space for Dad, Nick and I decided on the following. They may seem minute, but to me, they were huge:

Inviting my dad's friends

Though we limited our guest list to close friends and family, we invited some of my parents' friends—in particular, Dad's best friend, who was more like a brother to him. Nick hadn't met many of these people, and I hadn't seen them in years. To our surprise, they all made the trip to Seattle. Their presence gave my mom a much-needed support network, and having Dad's closest friends there was almost like having my dad there.

Made a donation in my dad's honor

Instead of spending money on party favors for our guests, we decided to make a donation in Dad's honor to the American Stroke Association. We communicated this to our guests in our version of the "So You're Going to Sit Through a Wedding" program.

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Acknowledged my dad in the ceremony

While a prayer didn't seem like a fit for us, we wanted to include some sort of acknowledgement in the ceremony. We incorporated the following:

Chelsea and Nick have asked that we take a moment
to honor those loved ones who are not with us this evening.
They also ask that we recognize those who are still denied the civil right of wedded union,
and that we do more to respect the choice to love, and be loved.
Please take a moment of silence for those we have acknowledged.

It was a simple statement, but it said just what we wanted it to say. In addition to recognizing those not physically with us, we are also able to acknowledge those in our life who did not have the right to marry. We followed it with a moment of silence so that everyone in attendance could reflect in their own ways

Paid tribute to my dad through our playlist

Nick and I assembled an amazing wedding playlist, in which we included music that would remind me (and others who knew him) of my dad. Dad and I shared a love for 1950s and '60s rock 'n' roll. So we seasoned our playlist with songs that made me think of him: Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula," Dion's "Ruby Baby," some Roy Orbison, some Everly Brothers—songs to which Dad would have sung and danced, had he been there

These actions made all the difference for me. Dad may not have been physically present, but I know that he was there in music and laughter, in hugs and tears, and especially in the hearts and minds of those of us who knew and loved him, and probably even in those who didn't.

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  1. I got married at the Georgetown Stables in 2012! Wanted an unassuming venue too, after the loss of my mother.

  2. This is just lovely. I'm so sorry about the loss of your father. It sounds like you found the perfect way to honor him at your wedding. Best wishes to you and your family.

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  3. This is lovely.

    My father passed away before my sweetie and I started dating, and his father passed away between our second and third dates. Including our fathers in our day will be a charged subject for us as we were both very close with them.

    I hadn't thought of inviting his friends. This is a great idea. I am inviting his family, my-step mom and his family and one of his friends (who is also close with my mom), and it might be nice to include a couple of other people.

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  4. I'm sorry for you and your family's loss. I lost my father in that same year and am getting married in two weeks. We are having a table of family photos to honor the people who aren't with us (neither of us has any surviving grandparents either), and I'm carrying a bird of paradise in my bouquet in honor of my dad who loved gardening and was always so proud when his bird of paradises bloomed. After scouring the interwebs for ways to honor Dad, I came to the same realization that you and your husband did, to do what feels right to you.

    Belated congratulations on your wedding. You both look so happy!

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    • This sounds a lot like our wedding. My mom passed away when I was a teenager, I never knew my grandmothers but my grandfathers both passed away while I was in university. We had pictures of loved ones on a memory table (and they were mentioned by name in the ceremony). And I had thistles from my mom's garden in my bouquet (in addition to pictures of my mom and grandfathers). I was unimpressed when I searched the internet for ways to honour loved ones at a wedding since so many people said that it was morbid or that it wasn't the place and would upset guests. We kept things low key. The memory table was one of the things my MIL really liked about our wedding.

  5. Thank you for this. I'm having the same issues at the moment.
    My brother will walk me down the aisle but I'm trying to think of ways to honour my Dad without making the day harder on my mum and I. The songs are a fabulous idea! I've also found a place that will make a small from for my bouquet, so I'll carry him through the whole day with me.
    These are great ways to honour a memory, thanks for the ideas. x

  6. I'm so sorry for your loss. The anniversary of my Dad's death is coming up this weekend. Again, I'm sorry that your Dad's passed away, but I'm sort of glad to see that someone else utilized a moment of silence. A lot of people told me that having a moment of silence would be too somber. I was fortunate enough to have my Dad at my wedding, but there were others I've lost who were not there.

    Also, as I think about having a vow renewal I know that so much of my apprehension is, as you said, not about being "given away," or walked down the aisle, but my Dad's absence. Sometimes having other people around me, reminds me more that he is not here. I waver between wanting to have an elopement vow renewal, or a ceremony with lots of people.

    Thank you for your post. Best wishes to you!

    • Thank you! I'm so glad we took the moment of silence. It became such a small but powerful moment. Even though it didn't last very long, I remember feeling surrounded by love…

  7. Got me all choked up…

    I love your proposal story 🙂 I'm sorry you had to find places for your dad instead of him just being there with you. It's crazy how things we think won't matter do when the time comes, right? But it sounds like you did what was right for you, and I bet your mom can't even describe how much what you did meant to her. Awesome choices, and congratulations on your wedding!

  8. Chelsea – my condolences on the loss of your dad, and congrats on the meaningful way you honoured him.
    I have a question for the community on how to honour my future FIL at our wedding – he has very severe dementia and will not be at our wedding. Luckily both of my parents will.
    My fiancé was close with his dad and takes many of his best qualities from him. I never knew him as himself – he was already quite ill by the time we met. How to honour him an not make my future MIL feel sad/singled out?
    Would love anyone's advice as I never see this topic covered on any forums. Thank you!

    • Do what feels right for you and your fiancé (that's what I learned from planning my wedding and honouring my mother and other loved ones who have passed away). Your situation is different than most discussed in forums like this but you might be able to get some inspiration from what others have done to honour deceased loved ones.

      Is there an object from his father that your fiancé can carry with him that day? I had my mother's wedding band as my something old and flowers from her garden in my bouquet and the boutonnieres.

      Some other ideas that might be applicable is playing his favourite song (e.g., for interlude/recessional/entering the reception/one of the dances), serving one of his favourite foods, or doing a reading. If you go that route you might want to warn your FMIL as she might feel sad/singled out.

  9. All – thank you for the nice comments! Offbeat Bride was such a great resource for me during my wedding planning that I'm glad to give back to the OBB community in some way. Those of you who are currently planning weddings, I wish you the best and hope that you find ways of honoring absent loved ones that feel comfortable, relevant, and loving for you.

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  10. Chelsea! This was so beautiful to read. What a beautiful way to honor your Dad. You were the most beautiful, fabulous bride ever.

  11. Chelsea, thank you for sharing!

    My mom passed several years ago. I'm still in the early stages of planning my wedding, but I have been thinking about how to have a sincere acknowledgement her on the day of my wedding without making it seem over the top or have it be uncomfortable/depressing for others attending (especially my dad and my stepmom). I love the idea of donating money to a cause, I might have to steal that idea. I also liked how my brother handled it at his wedding, he got on the mic when things started to wind down and just briefly said something about about my mom and how he knows that she would be so proud of him finding a wonderful person to spend his life with. I've been also thinking of having something of mom's on me for the wedding (a piece of jewelry or something).

  12. Hello there!
    We are getting married two weeks today. My fiance's parents died almost twenty years ago.
    We are going to honour them during the day with their wedding photograph on our makeshift 'altar' at the front of the room – but leaving the photo lying down, so that only we know it's there – and the wedding rings lying on top.
    We are going to name his parents during the ceremony though, our friends are going to sing 'Amazing Grace' followed by a short reprise from a bagpiper (we're in Scotland after all!), then we will have a moment of reflection.

    My fiance and I are going away alone for photographs after the ceremony to local botanic gardens. I'm going to get two helium balloons for him to write a short note on each for each parent, then we'll release them into the sky. It'll be a private moment so we want to do that when we are alone.

    I like the idea of a charity donation too though, I might suggest that to him!

    Thank you

  13. Awww. Great ideas! We have several relatives that I want to remember at our ceremony, including my fiance's father. My best friend also passed away last year. We're having an outdoor ceremony so I'm hanging personalized windchimes for each of them. It might sound silly but I felt like hearing the chimes would make it feel like they were part of it all. Hopefully there's a breeze that day, lol!

    • I love the windchimes idea! How sweet! And thank you for the nice comments. Best wishes with your wedding planning!

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