When family tragedy strikes during wedding planning

August 14 | Guest post by Pemcat
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Photo by Sea Studio Photography

I often say, jokingly, that we shouldn't have got engaged. Because after we got engaged everything went wrong. Only a month after we got engaged my Dad had a serious stroke. For a week or two we weren't sure if he was going to wake up, and when he did he couldn't move half of his body (although, thank God, he was always himself). Only the amazing doctors and nurses and the fact that he's so damn stubborn meant that he was able to learn how to walk again. He spent four months in the hospital before they let him go home and even now he can't do too much at once and gets tired very easily.

One of the many thoughts that troubled me, when we didn't know if my father was going to wake up, was that I didn't think I could walk down the aisle without him there without bursting into tears. I talked to my fiancé and we agreed that if the worst happened we would walk in together.

To every cloud there is a silver lining — and the silver lining to my father's stroke and the fear that we were going to lose him was that when, five months later (six months until the wedding), my fiancé's mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was much better equipped to understand what he was going through. And I was better able to support him.

In those first few days after she died we talked about many things, some trivial and some very important.

I asked my fiancé if he wanted to postpone the wedding. No, he said, he didn't want to. Maybe if it had been a month away then the answer would have been yes. But we still had six months, and it was important to move forward. His mother had been so excited about the wedding, and heavily involved in the planning — she would have been very cross with us if we postponed it.

Up until that point, the biggest point of contention in wedding planning had been the guest list. I had always imagined having a fairly intimate wedding full of people I knew well, where I had time to talk properly with everyone who came. My husband's family is large and scattered and when he made the list of family members he wanted to invite we were already over seventy people. There's nothing like a death to put things in perspective. We went back to the drawing board, and I saw that it was important to him — in terms of recognizing our marriage and our new place in his extended family — that he had them surrounding and supporting us. We agreed that for our tenth anniversary he'll throw me the party I would have thrown as a wedding reception, inviting our nearest and dearest to celebrate with us.

My father's medical concerns impacted on the wedding plans in a logistical fashion. We made sure that all venues were wheelchair-friendly as we weren't sure if my father would be able to manage on his own for the whole day. Right up until the day before the wedding he was warning me that he might not be well enough to walk me down the aisle, and that by the time we got to the dinner portion of the day he might not have enough energy left to make a speech. On the first point, I told him I'd push him in a wheelchair if necessary, and on the second my sister, chief bridesmaid and keeper-of-my-sanity — prepared a backup speech to give if he couldn't. But my dad had enough strength to give his speech, and he delivered it excellently — skirting the line like a pro between funny and embarrassing, proud and sickening.

My mother-in-law's absence, however, couldn't be managed by careful logistical planning. There was always going to be a huge gap where she should have been. It was the first time the extended family had been gathered since her death, and I think that on the day many of our guests felt her absence more keenly than we did. For us our wedding was mostly joy with a hint of sadness.

We remembered her between ourselves in a few quiet ways. My "something borrowed" came from her jewelry box. Rather than hiring a fancy car and driver, my husband drove the two of us from the ceremony to the reception in his mother's car, all polished up for the occasion. His speech, which we wrote together, started with the toast to absent friends and thanked all those who had helped to raise us.

At the end of the day, that, for me, is what makes it bearable. That no matter what else happens to our parents, they have left behind us — my beautiful, flawed, perfect husband and me. They've given us the tools we need to look after each other, and I think that's what they would have thought was important.

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  1. "no matter what else happens to our parents, they have left behind us — my beautiful, flawed, perfect husband and me. They've given us the tools we need to look after each other, and I think that's what they would have thought was important."

    Beautifully put. Very best wishes to you both.

    36 agree
  2. Wonderful article, thank you. I'm sure reading about your experiences will help people.

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  3. When my partner and I chose our wedding date back in January (2014) we chose it rather arbitrarily. We thought a summer wedding would be good and since so much of my family had to come from far away we decided a long-weekend would be best. We settled on August 2nd, the Ontario Civic Holiday weekend.

    We didn't realize that, that was my Aunt Heather and Uncle Jimmy's wedding anniversary. We didn't realize that they were in the midst of some serious marital discord. We didn't realize just how depressed my uncle Jimmy was. We didn't realize that he would commit suicide a month before our wedding.

    Time continues to tick on by regardless of what life throws in our faces. While tragedy, sadness, and loss are difficult to work through I do count it a blessing to know that my partner worked through the shock, guilt, and sadness of these events and knowledges with me.

    Thank you for starting this conversation.

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    • I'm sorry to hear about your loss, and so close to your own wedding. I'm not sure how we would have coped without the time between my fiancé's mother's death and the actual wedding – we needed time to process our grief.
      I'm glad you and your partner were able to support each other through such a difficult time. I found that one of the "silver linings" of our situation was that we knew our relationship had been tried and tested through the worst circumstances and had survived.
      I hope your families were able to focus on you and your partner on your wedding day, and to celebrate with you at the same time as they supported your aunt.

      4 agree
  4. Thank you for this article. I have no sadness to share but reading this at a time when the whole "who should come" to the wedding disagreements are happening put so much in perspective for me.
    It is just one day, and it is more important to have everyone (be they relative or someone you only met a month ago who you really connect with) close to you and your heart, life is so short and we should tell each other how much we matter to one another as often as possible. Who really cares about macaroons and favours in the long run.

    I wish you and your husband all the best, it sounds like you have a very strong relationship. xx

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    • I agree on the perspective point – it just took me so long to see that for my husband the public commitment in front of his tribe was really what the wedding was about. He'd already made the public commitment to me. It's not how I felt about it, but since my intimate gathering can happen another time and be just as fun I decided his view took precedence.

      However, I have to disagree with you about macaroons. I do care about them. They are great.

      1 agrees
  5. Thanks for this great article! Our wedding was originally planned for September 6. This past spring I got offered a new job and we had to move to a different state. 4 days before we moved away, my parents announced that after 34 years of marriage…. they were going to call it quits. What has ensued has been terrible. With all of the family drama, and my lack of planning time (new job, new home) – we have decided to postpone, and I haven't had the motivation to plan anything new. This article was great- it let me know that we can still have a wonderful wedding, even with negative circumstances that are out of our control.

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    • You absolutely can have a wonderful wedding. Our relationships are worth celebrating despite all of the horrible things that happen. I think those can sometimes even make you realise how much support you get from your partner and give you even more reason to be thankful for them.
      Take your time. The wedding planning will still be there when you're ready for it.

      1 agrees
  6. The day before our wedding, my husband went to pick up his daughter is is almost four.

    Her mother had taken her out of province and wouldn't tell anyone where she was so we couldn't drive all night to go get her.

    So my precious little girl who was so excited and was a big part of the wedding wasn't there. All of our hearts were broken.

    Before I walked down the isle my husband made a brief announcement about how his daughter wouldn't be there and we are sad but please let's just focus on the love and the bride and groom. People took it really well and we didn't have to explain the story exery five minutes.

    When we found out what his ex had done there were so many emotions, mostly not nice ones but I was surprised when the wedding day came how I was able to focus on my husband completely.

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  7. Touching article, I identify in many ways…
    Two weeks after Matt and I got engaged my best friend and sister was killed in a car accident. 2 weeks after that we found out Matt had type 1 diabetes….I kinda felt like everything was so fabulous one day and the next everything was wrong. This October will be the 3 year anniversary of my sisters death and this October I will be walking down the isle to marry the man who has stuck beside me through all of it and who I will support through everything. I know Cassie will be there also, even though not physically… She would have loved to be in all the planning and would have wanted everything to be perfect so thts what we are going to do! To the loved ones who are no longer with us and many more happy and sad moments we may encounter through long lives with our significant others, such is life.

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    • I totally relate on the emotional rollercoaster thing. I hope your wedding day is absolutely beautiful, and good luck with the remainder of the planning!

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  8. I can absolutely relate, and I'm glad you shared your experiences. My now-husband's father was hit by a truck while crossing the road just two months after we got engaged. We had to push back one of our two wedding celebrations to accommodate their traditional mourning period, and we also tried to remember and recognize him through some subtle and happy-celebration ways like using his wedding band for my husband's ring, displaying pictures of our parents on their wedding days, and a happy toast in his honor.

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  9. It's stories like this that really punctuate the importance of a wedding and marriage. I've always said that "life is a job for two people" and the support that you've given each other is proof of that.

    Thank you for sharing this with us!

  10. I lost my brother to diabetes a little over a month before my wedding. My poor dear husband had to deliver the news to me and he said the foremost thing on his mind was "He isn't going to be here to walk her down the aisle", something my brother had been proud and excited to do for me. And it was because of that we didn't postpone the wedding. My brother would have been epically upset with me if I had. But then I got peppered with "Who will walk you down the aisle?" My father has been deceased for many years and even when he was alive my brother would have been the one to walk me down the aisle. I had decided that when I was still a little girl. I got told "Walk in together, have your mum do it, how about a close friend?" My answer to all of these was no. My brother was my anchor and I was going to make him proud, so I walked down the aisle "alone" to those looking at me, but with him in my heart. We acknowledged him in the service and our long deceased respective parents (His Mum, my Dad) and my niece who was my maid of honour did a fantastic speech that included him.

    1 agrees
  11. This post really touched my heart. My fiancée and I were engaged in February (after 8 years and a son, who is now 2). We decided to get married after both his grandmothers passed away, realizing that if we waited any longer we would regret it, and because we felt the family needed something joyful to plan and not just another funeral. In June, my fiancées mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given not really good odds. We are getting married next August, past her expected prognosis, but we are under strict orders to keep the date as is. It has made the planning agonizing, at once horribly sad and at the same time we feel the pressure of having the event everyone is looking forward to…whether as a distraction from her cancer, or, for her, as something she is fighting for.

    Anyway, not to go on and on, but this post hit home a little. I can't imagine our day without her, but I know that what WE represent together is now even more important, and even more worth celebrating, if that makes sense. And we really need every one who is important to us to be there, now, to remind us all we have to celebrate and be thankful for amidst the sadness.

    I always love these posts, thanks. 🙂

    • I went through the exact same thing with my dad (see my long post below!). It is truly agonising, so hard to try and plan a wedding when someone so close and so crucial to the day may or may not be there. I often worried that planning my wedding when my dad was so ill was selfish – but he wanted me to have the best day and keep going, and I involved him as much as possible in all the planning so that, should the worst happen, he had been involved in as much as he could. It is so hard. I really do sympathise, and I hope it is all going as well as can be xxxx

  12. See after my grans passing ( who was very much like a mum to me, lived to Gerber, she brought me up)it had the opposite effect, it made me realise that I did not want every tom, dick and harry there just because their family, I just want thos who matter, who we care for and care for us.

  13. So sorry for your loss. It may sound strange, but I enjoyed reading it and I hope your article helps others going through similar experiences.

    I got married in July this year, and my dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. We made the decision not to bring the wedding forward as he wanted us to continue as planned, and his health was so up and down that even if we'd brought it forward there was no guarantee he would be well enough to attend.

    In the end, it was very touch and go by the time our wedding arrived… I did a lot of Googling on what to do if a family member dies just before/on your wedding day, I felt the same as you – that I wouldn't know what to do if he couldn't walk me down the aisle, though I know he would have wanted us to still have and enjoy our special day.

    Amazingly, my dad held out for the wedding. His strength and determination was truly heroic. He had been in hospital for almost 2 months constantly before that day – on oxygen, having dialysis as his kidneys were failing, on a lot of pain relief and with the cancer getting worse… His nurses and friends were amazing. He came to my wedding in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank attached. My sister walked down the aisle pushing him in a wheelchair, he mustered up the strength to say "I do" to give me away and enjoy our ceremony. And after the ceremony he was still determined to attend the reception even though he was so tired. One of his friends read out his speech for him as I held his hand on the top table and he made little facial expressions and gestures to me at the right moments – there was not a dry eye in the house.

    Very sadly, he passed away the next day just after midnight. We had a day of enjoying our post-wedding day glow, and then I had to deal with his passing away. I had prepared myself for it as much as anyone can in these situations (you're never truly prepared for something like this); I had a strong feeling that he was really holding out for my special day as his dying wish and that afterwards he would give up the fight and the pain.

    It was bittersweet, I was so glad he made it to my wedding but afterwards people didn't know whether to congratulate me or give condolences.

    I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't made it, it would have made the day feel so sad. It sounds like you did the right thing by making sure there were little references to your husband's mother throughout the day – what a lovely way to remember her. I am sure I would have done the same for my dad.

    Sorry for my little essay there! I just related to your post and thought I would share my story in case anyone else is going through anything similar and might want to talk about it. Family tragedies and weddings are a tough and emotional subject.

    I hope you and your husband are enjoying married life and send my wishes to your father as well xxx

    2 agree
    • Thank you for your kind comment – we are enjoying being married (it's made more of a difference to our relationship than we expected it would).
      I'm so glad your Dad made it for your wedding. It sounds like you really gave him something to aim for – what a wonderful final gift to be able to give his daughter.
      I'll pass on your regards to my Dad – he's doing well.

  14. Again offbeat bride wins. Which other wedding blog covers what it can be like to deal with wedding planning and family tragedy/death? None. Also it's not just a whatif checklist deal or a etiquette don't list either. It's always a lovely, brave soul willing to share their experiences.
    When I started wedding planning I happily searched the Internet for ideas. As those idea solidified into our theme and colours I wanted and needed to find weddings with that colour or element, eg. Unmatched bridesmaids. I can visualise but it helps to have something to say, "a-ha it does work." plus I can show the pictures I find to our loved ones who want to help but are struggling to see how mis-matched bridesmaids would look wedding-y.
    And then because I'm the sort of person who likes to prepare for the worst I wanted real life examples of what happens if you break up, or how to remember loved ones as well as pretty dresses on real brides.
    Offbeat bride always comes up trumps and saves me from wedding planning despair. Thank you for all of your hard work keeping this blog loving, caring and informative. And thank you to all who share for so others may learn or not feel alone.

    2 agree
  15. Although this is far from the tragedy and story of strength from the OP, and many other comments here. I would love to vent my story in a somewhat cathartic way too.

    I get married on Wednesday (9/17) with the reception on Saturday (9/20). Last Thursday (9/11) I found out that my father will not get his travel visa to the US in time for my wedding, and maybe not my reception either. Have you ever tried to pull strings in the US government on 9/11?

    Last night, 9/13, my fiancée and I were in a car accident. We are both fine (thankfully – although I do have whiplash type neck/back/arm pain that the ER doctor told me to take ibuprofen for). My "brand new, 2 week old, 1100 miles on the clock, still don't have license plates", dream car? Not so much. Fiancée feels terrible, he was driving. Passenger side was hit, with me in it.

    It's just things, people can't be replaced. We are trying to stay strong and not let these things spoil our memories and celebration. It's really tough.

    • Your story is just as valid as anyone else's. It must suck to have these things happening so close to the wedding date.
      I hope that your father's visa comes through – if it doesn't have you considered Skyping him in or similar?
      Love to both you and your fiancé. I hope you have a beautiful wedding and reception.

  16. My fiancée and I are getting married next August. This most recent 4th of July weekend, his best friend and best man suddenly passed away in an accident. We have no plans on having someone take his place as best man, but my fiancée wants to commemorate him in some way and plans to have his tux and perhaps his picture in a seat saved at the wedding. I feel so bad for him that he won't get to have his best friend stand up for him at the wedding, but I'm thankful for all the other friends and family that are there to support and celebrate with us.

  17. My husband lost his mom 3 months after we got engaged and was at the hospital almost constantly the month prior. I felt foolish just thinking about wedding planning or asking him for anything because I could almost physically see the weight on his shoulders. His family is small and his sister lived out of state so it all fell on him and so the wedding planning fell on me. We had our first few real fights, and there were times where I thought of just running off to Vegas and getting it done with because we had so many other things to worry about that we are still dealing with today. But I'm glad I stuck it out. There were events all along the path that reminded us of how much her absence would be felt and how the wedding day itself would be very bittersweet but I tried to make it a day we both would love. It made the year of planning feel like a decade and its hard to believe a year has gone by since she passed. I'm happy I fought off running away because it would have just been one more thing that happened last year that I wish I could change.

    • I'm glad you managed to plan a wedding you could be proud of in those circumstances. Much love to you and your husband.

  18. Thank you for writing this. We are about 7 months away from our wedding date, and right before Christmas my Fiancee's Mom was diagnosed with what we thought was Pancreatic cancer that had been caught early. We all tried to remain positive and optimistic but then found out after more testing that it has spread to her liver, and a lymph node (which makes it stage 4 since it metastasized) making her ineligible for surgery (which has better success than other treatments) and leaving her facing lots of scary statistics and intense chemo. We aren't canceling or postponing, and my fiancee's aunt had the perfect response when we asked her if we should. She said, 'No. If you do that you're basically saying 'we think you're going to die.' and I think she's right. Also, we were watching Top Chef and Tom, one of the judges, who got married days after 9/11 said that they were going to cancel their wedding but the rabbi told them 'Don't Pospone Joy' So even though things are really uncertain and I'm really worried, we aren't going to postpone joy.

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