Why I Want to Have a Funeral for My Parent’s Marriage

votive candles in a row

Last year, my mother asked me to take her wedding albums away. She and my father have been divorced for a handful of years now, and she understandably does not want them around any longer. I have been putting it off for a lot of reasons. Practical considerations abound. And I am not sure I want them, either. But my younger sister, who still lives at home, screamed hell-fire when my mother suggested dumping them. That was perhaps not the most fair reaction to my mother, but I also feel hesitant to have her just throw them out. Because, of course, those photographs are completely loaded with the complicated feelings I have about my parents’ divorce and the resulting confusion about the way I feel about marriage in general.

Mentioning this photo predicament in passing to my friends made me feel almost silly. Of course, it isn’t that big of a deal on the surface: all the folks pictured are still my family. Whatever may have happened since then, the photos still represent my own beginnings.

But it really isn’t about the photos. It’s about not knowing how to move on from all of the things you go through and learn about yourself when your parents get divorced. It is about how you can still get blindsided by the hurt even years later, and it’s about how you are not quite sure how to trust in love, and it’s about realizing that marriage scares you shitless, now that it’s a real possibility. Those photos made me realize there is still something important missing from my healing. It took a while to put my finger on it, but I think that it has something to do with the fact that divorce is so, well… divorced from all of the rest of the way marriage is handled in our society.

At least in my family, marriage is not just about the couple, but about the whole community of people that surrounds them. And so the beginning of that relationship between not just two people, but their whole community, is usually a wedding: a big, ritualistic celebration that allows other people to participate in the creation of a brand new relationship. You invite this whole crowd of people—the families and the introducers and the cheerers on—to help you make a start. They fly in from out of town, and walk you down the aisle, and make the stuff, and buy the gifts, and fight the fights about silly wedding things, and you let them because you want them to be a part of it all.

In stark contrast, a divorce, when it comes down to it, is very exclusively about those two individual people: Two people deciding to break up, two people taking all of these actions to see that decision through, two people going through this ritualistic, legal maze to undo a relationship. The news is broken. The property is divided. The custody schedule is arranged. But other than that, all of the rest of the people affected by the relationship—all of the people who were there at the wedding, who did the introducing, and cheering on, and the kids that were produced—they are just bystanders.

And I don’t envy my parents the pain of their divorce, of course, or feel like I was excluded from something I should have been a part of. But for all of the ceremony involved in a wedding, the acknowledgement of the whole community of people it takes to start a marriage, it seems incomplete that there is no ritual for the rest of us to take part of when it ends. Certainly the ritual of divorce is not a pleasant one, but like all ritual it must hold a certain comfort in its predetermination and finality. For those of us left in the wake of divorce, there are no lawyers to hide behind and champion our side. There are no prescribed Things You Are Supposed To Do Now. There is nothing to hold on to when you can hardly believe what has happened that says, “This big thing that I was a part of in my own small way—it is gone now.” When I realized that this lack of closure was what was bothering me, that’s when I decided that my parents’ wedding needed a funeral.

Because a funeral, you see, is really about the people who are left behind. It’s a time when no one cares if you laugh and cry in the same breath. And you can be as sad or angry or grateful as you want to be. And anyone and everyone is fair game for pinning the blame on. And you remember all the times—the good ones and the bad ones. And by feeling all of those feelings, and sharing them with others who understand, you learn how to keep on living, even though nothing will ever be quite the same.

And it’s not so novel an idea, after all, that I should hold a little funeral for my parents’ wedding in my heart. How many have submitted the gifts of an ex to a small bonfire, or cut out their heads from pictures, or if you are like me, carefully and ceremoniously boxed up their letters and kept them for so long that you forgot you had them, at which point you can quite unceremoniously trash them? Certainly the end of my parents’ relationship needs as much attention to put my mind at ease as my relationship with my high school boyfriend.

So the next time that I am at my mother’s place, I will take my parents’ wedding photos when I leave. And I will bring them home and look at them, and smile, and cry, and call my sister, or my grandmother, and say whatever I want to for as long as I need to. And then they will go carefully into the box, and up into the closet, and remain there until it doesn’t hurt quite so badly anymore. And it won’t be the same as moving on, but it will be a start.

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  • This is just so beautiful. I really appreciate the reminder that ritual and demarcation of life stages (both happy and sad) can help us make sense of our lives. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Thanks for sharing is. You are so right about how rituals are often needed for closure, for letting go. It is so needed. I hope it won’t quite hurt as much after a while. And putting stuff in boxes is something that really does help.

  • Janet

    Thank you for this post. Seriously, thank you. This puts into words how I’ve felt about my parents divorce and my mother’s divorce from my stepfather for so long. My mother is on her third marriage and so is my boyfriend’s mother. Thankfully (and finally!) both of our mother’s seem happy in their current marriages, third times the charm I guess. That said my mother held onto the photo album from her and my father’s wedding and the pictures from her and my stepfather’s wedding for many years. The photos were tucked away in a storage box under the stairs, gathering dust and distance in my mother’s memories.

    Last year she cleaned out the storage space and nearly tossed the photos, but instead gave them to me. “For you and your siblings to remember the happy times when I was with your father and stepfather. If you don’t want them, you can do with them what you will.” At first I was unsure what to do. The pictures of my young twenty something parents standing at the front of the church where they marriage, dancing at the reception, and running thru a storm of birdseed as they dashed for the get-away car…were of a time before myself, my siblings, and the struggles of marriage and life had turned those hopeful, joyous smiles into tears, hateful words, and finally divorce. The same could be said of the photos of my mother’s second weddng to my stepfather.

    While these pictures brought a mixture of emotions and sweet and damning memories to mind; it also gave me a chance to “mourn” as you said these parts of my parents life and my own. I will share these photos with my sibilings and maybe someday with my own children, even if its just to show them “how young Grandma and Papa once looked”. Photos enable us to capture moments in time and give us the ability to visually experience times before we were born and for a brief moment relive happier times. They also give us perspective and the chance to evaluate our own lives, and maybe just maybe, encourage us to try a little harder in our own lives, future marriages for those of us yet to be married, and in current marriages for those who are married.

    Thanks for the perspective.

    • LPC

      I talk to my adult children about the happy times quite clearly. After all those times belonged to the children often, as much as to the adults. The difficulties were only with the couple.

  • PA

    “It is about how you can still get blindsided by the hurt even years later, and it’s about how you are not quite sure how to trust in love, and it’s about realizing that marriage scares you shitless, now that it’s a real possibility.”

    I have nothing to add, I just wanted to say that this was incredibly well-said. (All of it was! This quote just stood out.) E-hugs coming your way!

    • This sentence is really true. Even though my parents have been through the messiest parts of their marriage breaking up almost 5 years ago, and a lot of the anger has been swept under the carpet or just made official through paperwork, somedays I am still struck by how much it must have hurt.

      And I think that although divorce does affect the wider community it is still so private (just like a marriage is really.) I’ll never be able to understand how much that part of their lives hurt them. It amazes me how you could come back from it at all (but so good to know that you can.)

    • suzanna

      That sentence really struck me as well. My parents divorced 20 years ago, and now I’m engaged and still sometimes terrified about marriage. Just this year I found out something new about their early marriage that completely blindsided me. It’s amazing how it never seems to really be over, and it seriously sucks how much it can, at moments, overshadow my relationship with my sweetie.

      A funeral for your parents’ wedding is, therefore, a BRILLIANT idea! I’m gonna stew on this one for a while, but you’ve certainly given me some inspiration.

  • ASH

    Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you decided to keep the photos. I too am the keeper of my divorced parents wedding photo album (they’ve been divorced for over 20 years). Recently, I showed them to my Mom because her father passed away last year and there were some great pictures of the two of them. She was able to recall some fond memories of the day (something she’s never done before) and kept a few pictures of her and my Grandpa.

    I agree with Meg’s introduction that so many of us are shaped by our parents divorce. My brother and I were shaped differently. He’s on his second marriage now and I am just getting ready to get married. I’ve always known that for me, it’s for life. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t get a divorce, because I know that there is so much out of my control, but I really hope it doesn’t go that way. And I guess that is essentially what a wedding denotes – the public hope that all goes well.

  • LPC

    Your parents, though they may not see it now, need this as much as you do. For their mourning is surely painful and hard.

  • Sara

    This was written for my sister and I. This is absolutely beautiful and so accurate. My parents divorced after 38 years of marriage and over the past couple of years I have struggled with helping them understand that they’re not just divorcing each other. They’ve divorced friends and communities and that’s why everyone is so upset. John and Mary don’t give a shit that you’re not sleeping in the same bed. John and Mary are hurt and pissed that only one of you shows up for bar-b-ques and the other one doesn’t return phone calls. They’re just as lost and sad as you are.

    As I read this post, reflected on the awfully tumultuous past couple of years and have remembered every other token of wisdom I have read here, I am reminded that weddings and marriages are between families and communities, not just the two saying vows. So that explains all the hurt! *bangs head into desk*


    • Jennie

      My parents are just going through the divorce process after 31 years of marriage. It has been a painful experience as we plan our wedding. It has been hard for me to express that the poor decisions that my father has made are not only effecting my mom but effecting everyone in the family. That we are all heartbroken that our community is falling apart.

      Thank you for this post, APW has helped me focus on the positive things coming up but I also need to mourn my parent’s wedding/marriage and acknowledge how these changes color my views as I enter marriage myself.

  • Karen

    This post was beautifully written, truly from the heart. Amid all the pretty dresses and flowers is the reality is that all marriages will end, either in death or divorce. We hold you in our hearts.

  • Nicole

    This made me want to ask my Mom for my parents’ wedding album…but I’m afraid of what my reaction will be if I learn she’s already thrown it out.

    Thank you for writing this. It describes very well what divorce means to families and children.

  • jessie

    My parents are married to each other, but both were married before, and my older siblings are from my father’s first marriage. I remember finding my mom’s first album at my grandmother’s house and asking my mom about it, and although I don’t think she ever went over it since their divorce, she seemed to enjoy telling me the stories and looking at young photos of herself and her family. I remember telling her that I really appreciated seeing a part of her life that I wasn’t a part of, because it helps me to put together a picture of who my mom is as her own woman, and not as my mother. She said something about how it may not have ended well, but there were happy moments, and in that moment (the wedding) she was happy and in love, and that is life: moments of being happy, and then not, and we shouldn’t do away with the good just because there is bad. I learned a lot about my mom, and how to be graceful in sadness, just from that conversation, and funnily enough, it makes me less afraid of divorce. I hope it never happens, but if that’s how our marriage ends, then I will remember the beautiful happy moments of being in love, and not let the sadness take away from it.

    I think your funeral idea is a wonderful one. I think it’s a great way to grieve for the pain you feel while remembering that the reason there is pain is because you had something, that meant something, which you’ve lost… and having things that mean something is a good thing.

  • The first thing that I thought about when I started reading this was about this article…


    It’s about divorce ceremonies in Japan. It’s the one transition in life that goes virtually unmarked with ritual so I understand the desire to create something to mark such a huge change…

  • I could not agree more with the importance of really marking what your parent’s marriage and what their divorce actually meant to you – because, although a divorce is the result of a decision by two people, or sometimes even one, it also very much effects the lives of everyone entertwined with those people. As much as I tried to process my parent’s divorce on my own, it really was not until I was able to talk about it with my sisters that I was able to ever get closure for myself.

  • Michelle

    I love the idea of a divorce ritual so that everyone can get some closure. But I also understand that marriage is a public ritual because when you are bursting with love, you want to shout it form the rooftops and share that moment with people you love. But the reasons for divorce are rarely something that people would want to share or admit to publicly.

    I’m glad you didn’t trash the pictures yet. I always think that if it still hurts or makes your angry, that is not a good time to make a decision that can’t be undone.

    My parents were both married before they married each other, and I am so glad that my mothers mother made her keep her first dress in the far reaches of the attic. When my parents married it was a low key, family only, mom wore an off white cocktail dress type of event. So when it came to my wedding, I wore my mom’s cocktail dress to our after party, but I had a section of lace from her first wedding dress sewn into my dress because it meant so much to transfer something from her “fancy” wedding to mine. You never know what feelings you might have when the pain finally fades.

  • streamnerd

    I am so glad we are talking about this. I also have my divorced parents wedding photos. When I look at them I get a rush of many conflicting emotions. In my living memory, my parents never seemed to be in love, their marriage was more of a loveless partnership so it wasn’t a huge shock that they divorced. When I look at the pictures it makes me happy to see them in love and happy but at the same time that’s what scares the sh*t out of me. If they were that happy when they got married what happened between that and the couple I knew growing up? How do I make sure my marriage is not going to end up like that. Was it having us kids that made them stop loving each other? I just keep trying to reassure myself I am very different from my parents and my marriage will be different. I sometimes worry that my determination to have my marriage not be like my parents makes me be distant from them and idealize my fiance’s parents who are happily married.
    This stuff is hard and I’m glad to know I am not alone going through all these feelings.

    • Marie

      My parents are still together–but they very unhappy. I do remember a time when they loved each other, maybe when I was 8, but I’m 26 now, and all I have seen is pain and disfunction. (in many ways I wish they would get divorced, but that is another topic) But THIS “I sometimes worry that my determination to have my marriage not be like my parents makes me be distant from them and idealize my fiance’s parents who are happily married.” My fiance’s parents are a couple to look up to; after 30 years, they are still in love as ever, they acknowledge the hard times and work through them, and are a true partnership. It is SO MUCH EASIER and enjoyable to be around them than to be around my own parents. I struggle with this a lot.

      • Anonymous

        Anon for this comment only…
        I am in the same place completely. My parents have been married for 35 years now, and there were many, many times that I thought during my childhood “they should just get a divorce.” And even more, my mother would say “if your father had had any sense, he would have divorced me a long time ago.” [There were severe mental illness issues involved at the time which have since been – and continue to be – addressed.] They made it through the hard times, but I’ve come to realize lately just how much that affected me.

        Contrast that with my wife’s parents, who also had serious problems of a different nature, and did separate and consider divorce for a while (probably 20 years ago now). Now they’re 45 years in and still really love each other and seem to be really in love. But I find myself enjoying and wanting to spend much more time with them than my own parents. It’s not an actual problem, since my parents live in another state, but in my head it bothers me.

      • Willow

        This is my situation exactly, down to my age, and substitute “husband” for fiance. I love my family and kind of want us to live near them, but it is so much less healthy being around my parents together than his.

  • This is now one of the favorites, so beautifully written and I’ll admit the last paragraph was read through blurry-teared-vision. I think I could use a wedding funeral. My parents divorced when I was 15 but I had a photo of them dancing at their wedding hanging in my livingroom up until just a few years ago. After a while I realized it wasn’t fair to my stepmom to keep it there, but I liked it because those are my parents, the two people who made me, and to have an image of them looking at each other like that, like they loved each other and wanted to be married, well it was important for me. I now have all of the photos-the family photos, their early backpacking across Europe photos, their wedding photos. But at some point I think I need to say goodbye to it. Seventeen years later I’m still not exactly whole about it all. I think I never really said goodbye (which is a funny thing to say since my Dad and Stepmom’s wedding was one of my favorites, so I’ve obviously moved along in many ways) so I love the idea of the funeral and packing the photos away. In case anyone is actually reading this entire comment, I’m feeling mushy and like sharing so here’s a little something about the day they divorced: http://onwardfulltilt.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-end.html

    Thank you for this. It is a beautifully wonderful piece.

  • Carmen

    I could not agree more with the need for a divorce ritual/funeral. Even if its just the family of the couple, or one child and a friend and no divorced party shows up. Traditional or completely made up ritual helps us honor the change that occurs with this type of life event.

    I had an ex-less closing ceremony after my divorce. Not just for me- but for my family and closest friends. We didn’t have kids, so there wasn’t that same love for both parties that kiddoes of divorce can experience. My family was mostly angry.

    The closing ceremony was very healing in that it marked a new beginning while still honoring the past. It didn’t take away all the anger and hurt, but it dispersed the feelings so no one person had to carry them alone.

    • You put this so well and beautifully describe how communities support those in them:
      “It didn’t take away all the anger and hurt, but it dispersed the feelings so no one person had to carry them alone.”

  • This is just beautiful, and insightful, and true. Thank you for sharing it.

  • My parents have been divorced for 20 years, since I was 8. I don’t think I ever felt the need to mourn their wedding/marriage, but I think it’s because I was so young. Living with divorced parents was just how my life was; as a resilient kid I didn’t know any different. They have each been divorced again since that, and my husband’s parents have each been divorced twice as well. Having said that, the older I get (and being married now), I realize more and more often how much they way their divorce(s) impacts how I act in my relationship (and really, impacts many aspects of my life) now, and not usually for the better. And it makes me angry, and sad. So maybe I do have some things to get closure on, even if it isn’t their marriage, per se.

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Marie

    Thank you for bringing up this topic, and for all the conversation surrounding it. Our parents’ relationships have such an impact on us. My parents are not divorced, but they are very unhappy and dysfunctional. Sometimes I think the only reason they have not gotten divorced is because that would require them to acknowledge each other, have a conversation and make decisions together. And despite them both being wonderful parents separately, the state of their relationship HURTS me. It is hard to be around them together. In many ways I wish they would get divorced, so they could each move on, and there could be some finality.

  • Megan

    I agree!! I recently wrote down a complete ceremony that I envisioned to honor and mark the end of my parents’ marriage (which happened 25 years ago!). I envisioned it taking place when I was a girl, right when it happened, and that it would involve all our extended family. A ceremony really would have brought such needed closure, and given a time and space for us all to grieve. But I have to say, that just taking the time to envision the ceremony and write it down has been very helpful to me, even 25 years later.

  • Jolene

    What an insightful post. I never realized why, after breaking up with my partner of 7 years, I felt the need to mass email all of my friends immediately (thereby creating an extremely awkward but nonetheless supportive “reply all” thread). But it’s this. My relationship was part of a community which buoyed me during times good and bad, and it was strange not to include that community now that our relationship had come to a close. Thank you for taking the time to deconstruct how you are feeling and why; I think you’ve illustrated what many have felt.

  • Well said Meg! I came across some photos from my parent’s wedding about 6 months ago, and maybe It’s because my parents have been divorced for so long now (22 years), but I was actually really happy to see the photos. There was remarkably little pain. They both looked happy and to know that at one point they really loved each other was a nice reminder after all the crap that happened after their marriage dissolved. I also think it helps to know that they are both so much better off with their current couples. The communities they have now, with their partners and friends, seem so much better fitting then if either of them tried to fit in with the other’s. My question though, is it always our mothers that are holding onto these photos? I know my stepmom (who was married before she met my father) kept her old photos as did my mother.

  • This post reminds me of an excellent song by Christine Lavin called “Happy Divorce Day.” I just reread the lyrics. In a way, she is speaking about a funeral for a marriage. Here’s the first bit of the song:

    We are gathered here together
    for this woman and this man
    they look each other in the eye
    and take each other’s hand
    they once promised love forever
    now they’re here to take it back
    they don’t hate each other
    but they need to cut each other slack

  • Parsley

    So, when I was in seminary learning how to be with couples in all the stages of their relationships, we talked about divorce rituals. It’s not something I’ve ever been asked to do now that I’m a minister, but I believe in the power of rituals to be a part of the healing process. So, for those of you who feel the need for acutal, real, phsycial rituals to mark a divorce, there are some clergy out there who would help you craft those rituals. I agree that it has always struck me as odd that entering a marriage is done in community and in ritual, while leaving one is done in relative isolation, and with legal rather than spiritual ritual. Thank you, all of you, for sharing your stories.

  • Rizubunny

    I just read Pioneer Woman’s book, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels,” and she talks about the experience of her parents divorcing just as she was getting engaged and planning her wedding. It was really interesting. She didn’t do too much in-depth analysis, but reading her thoughts and feelings about it was enlightening.

  • Corinna

    Hey Ladies,
    I have had this feeling. I kept my parents photos in a box in my clothset, moved with them out of my Mother’s house, into my first apartment, into the basement, into a storage space, into my new home with my dear boyfriend and after a time (the divorce was almost 20 years ago now) they have been brought out. I have pictures of my uncles and baby cousins (now grown and married themselves) on my fridge at home that people laugh at every time they come over. Most importantly, I have framed a photo of my grandparents smiling, and my Mother and Father dancing, both looking young and happy. I share this because I have been discussing marriage with my boyfriend for years, and reconciling it within myself. Do I believe in it? Am I too scared to say those words to someone else when I have seen the damage that they can do? And I have come out a better person for it. I can now say I want to get married, not for the sake of being married, but to the man I love, the man who makes me feel safe and reassured and who I can see sharing every day for the rest of my life with. I have told him that I am ok with it now, and we are starting to plan. So there is hope. There is someone who will love a child of divorce (in my case two divorces) and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And if you need more help, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. It is so thorough and beautiful and helpful and, in my humble opinion, it should be required reading for all of those considering binding your life to that of a person you love. Keep your head up dear, you are not alone.

  • I wish my parents would have a funeral for my sister’s wedding. I just came out of a really tense evening between all of us. Its been 1.5 years since my sister broke up with her husband. My sister wanted to share with them that she’s dating someone and finally, after several months, she felt just barely brave enough to say it tonight. My parents did not react favorably. In fact, their body language and very few words immediately communicated they thought poorly of her. It really hurt to watch my sister suffer from their reaction. She’s 30 now and my parents still can’t accept her independence. I want to be able to say something that will change their perspective on this once and for all. I wish that they would let go of whatever this baggage is and allow our family to be happy…flaws and all. I feel like they don’t support her. I want to scream inside because its so frustrating. They are hurting my sister’s feelings so deeply. They are torturing themselves. They are making me feel so helpless. I want to be able to straighten this all out!

  • taylorparker

    I love this post. It was so heart felt, and made me feel so good to read. I love that there are others that have the perspective that sometimes, relationships, even the most well thought out and beautiful relationships end. We all have the best intentions, but sometimes, things just happen. I love that this is a perspective and I think that more and more could use the comfort of these touching words.

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