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I have met the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with, and we plan to marry sometime next year. We haven't discussed details yet, but there's one thing that makes this major life event less sweet for me. The two people who raised me, my mother and grandfather, passed away within three years of each other, my mother from a long, painful battle with cancer, and my grandfather two weeks after being diagnosed with melanoma in his lungs.
One of my favorite things to do with my mom growing up was to discuss what my wedding was going to look like. I was going to wear my grandmother's dress that she would restore for me (she was a master quilter and seamstress), and we would hold a high tea for a reception, for which she and I would hand-make finger sandwiches and other finger foods ... that sort of thing.
For his part, my grandfather always joked that he would go along with anything, as long as he got to walk me down the aisle. Fast-forward to now, they're both gone, and I ended up donating my grandmother's dress to a thrift store; it was just too painful for me to see it in my closet, or think of anyone else touching it other than my mother.
I am so thrilled to commit myself to my fiancé, but the thought of holding a ceremony reduces me to tears, because the two people I wanted there most in the world won't be there. I would be happy to just go to the courthouse in a nice dress and maybe have a small dinner party with friends afterward, but he has parents and siblings, all of whom had formal ceremonies.
My question is this: do I just need to suck it up and have a ceremony to please his family, or am I justified in asking for a quick courthouse affair?
Bride-to-Be with Baggage
Dear B-t-B w/B,
In the movie version of your life, we all know how this would end: at the altar, surrounded by your friends and your new family. You’d be dressed in your grandmother’s wedding gown, which your intrepid fiancé naturally would have moved heaven and earth to track down. The ghosts of your mother and grandfather would have made helpful cameos, with soothing words of wisdom. And when the time came for you to say your vows, your tears of sorrow would magically morph into tears of joy. Cue the doves.
In the real version of your life, the situation is a lot more complicated. The joy of your wedding day invokes the sorrow of your tremendous loss. There’s no way to undo the truth that even thinking about a big, fancy wedding reduces you to tears. Your job right now isn’t to decide what kind of wedding to have. It’s to share these feelings with your fiancé. He needs to know how much wedding planning figured into your relationship with your mother, and how much your grandfather figured into your fantasy of how the day would play out.
As I see it, marriage is about cultivating two difficult (and linked) abilities: communication and compromise. This sounds pretty intuitive. But it becomes much trickier when it entails exposing raw emotions, particularly those arising from experiences that you and your fiancé don’t share. The bottom line is that you lost the two people closest to you in the world. In your mind, the day of your marriage was set aside, in part, to celebrate with them.
We all come to marriage with plenty of baggage.
If your fiancé is as special as he sounds, he’ll understand why you have reservations about a big, traditional wedding. His understanding, in turn, may help you feel comfortable working with him to devise some kind of ceremony that splits the difference between the low-key affair you envision and the larger affair his family might expect. It may be, as well, that the two of you can discuss ways to honor your mother and grandfather at the ceremony.
But the form the wedding takes isn’t what matters, ultimately. It’s that you take this opportunity to share with your fiancé the part of yourself that is still coping with the loss of your mother and grandfather, the way in which their absence lives on within you.
One other thing to consider: it may be worth talking to a therapist about your feelings around the wedding. I say this because the very act of getting married may trigger all kinds of subconscious feelings: guilt for “moving on” without your mom and grandfather, a sense that you’re betraying them by being absorbed into another family, or simply for taking joy in a future that doesn’t include them.
We all come to marriage with plenty of baggage. But the happiest unions are the ones in which the couple recognizes the need to sort through that baggage, with candor, patience, and compassion.
I wish you a blessed day.
Author's note: I know from personal experience how important it is to have a candid conversation with your fiancé about the kind of wedding day you want. I pushed for an elopement. My wife went along, but she worried that her parents would be angry. They were, in fact, furious. We should have invited them. Post your feedback in the comments section below. Oh, and you could also send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. That would be lovely. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.