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Ask Team Practical: Honoring Lost Loved Ones

It’s Friday, so you know what that means! It’s Ask Team Practical with Alyssa. We kicked off this series with the two easiest, least controversial posts we could think of – sober weddings and thank you notes. What was there to discuss, we said? Well, lots, apparently. 300 comments worth of lots, both times. So now that Alyssa has had her trial by fire, we’re kicking it up a notch. Today we’re tackling honoring a loved one at your wedding. Which. We’ll see how it goes.  I suspect you’ll have a lot of wise things to say.

APW is an important community because we readers support each other.  Even when we disagree, we’re there to lend a hand when needed.  Meg wanted to start Ask Team Practical in order to provide an even bigger outlet for that support system, but we both knew that there would be questions that neither she nor I would be able to provide enough of an answer for, and today is one of those days.

J. and Renee both wrote in regarding honoring a loved one who has passed in your wedding ceremony or reception, and we thought tackling this after Tina’s heartbreakingly eloquent post yesterday was perfect timing.  J. is a wedding planner and she and her two other siblings tragically lost their sister three years ago.

“While I am not currently engaged, I want to begin thinking about creative unique ways to include the memory of her in my wedding party/ceremony. She was my best friend and would have been my maid of honor.”

Renee and her fiancé both lost a parent early.

“My father died of cancer 4 years ago, about a year before he and I met.  One of the many things that was hard to reconcile during my dad’s illness and after he died was the knowledge that my dad wouldn’t be there at my wedding, wouldn’t be able to meet my children, you get the idea. My fiancé has also lost a parent, his mother, who died of cancer when he was just a little baby.  So of course he wishes his mother could be there, but he doesn’t remember her at all and does not dwell on it.  He understands when I have my sad moments at weddings, but we don’t want me to be sad at OUR wedding.  I want to find a way to honor both my father and his mother, without it being something that I have to actively *do* on my wedding day. ”

These questions are way bigger than me and something I can’t answer with any sense of authority.  However, reader Morgan (who wrote this beautiful post on weddings in the face of death) and Tina are more than qualified to offer up some advice.

Morgan offers up this:

First and foremost, your wedding day should be a day of joy, of celebration.  It’s not a day of memorial, or a wake, and I think it’s important not to let sadness* or memorial activities fall too heavily on the day.  Remember those who you have lost, but do not let them become more important than the wedding.  I have every day to miss my father (and my grandparents and so on) but only one day to get married.

Between David and I, we’ve lost 8 of 9 grandparents, a father, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, a godmother and countless older relatives.  It’s pretty much a given that at any wedding, someone will have lost someone close to them.  As our Pastor, Steve Hall, said at our wedding, “One of those mysteries of God is the mystery of life itself and its shadow side death.  Hal wanted so much to be here this day to share it with Morgan and David and all of you.  That was not to be….  As the life of a new family is being born, we remember all those who have gone before and on whose foundation we, the living, build.  David and Morgan you will build on such a foundation. Remember whose you are!  Celebrate the wonder of each other! And become the family you are meant to be.  Thanks be to God.”

I think what you do can depend on how fresh the loss was.  In my case, when half the room had just gathered weeks earlier for a wake, having no mention of my father would have just been weird.  The pastor said a few things, and I think hit the right balance of memory and joy.  “We remember with sorrow and joy Hal, who so wanted to be here for this celebration.  We entrust him to your gracious mercy and give thanks for the time we shared with him on earth.  Bless all families throughout the world.  For in family life you have provided a locus for love, mutual support and renewal for the living of each day.  Make your love and grace known to all families of the world, but especially to those gathered here to celebrate the birth of a new family in the joining of David and Morgan.”  It was “on message,” with the sermon being about our baby family and love and community.  My husband raised a toast to my father during the speeches which made most everyone misty-eyed, and then followed it was a hilarious and very DAVID toast.  And that was about it for public memorializing, and it was enough for us.

Think about small personal things you can do – things that don’t need to be broadcast.  I wore my grandmother’s pearls and my father’s engagement ring. My engagement ring belonged to David’s beloved godmother, who died several years before we started dating.  After her cancer diagnosis, she gave the ring to him for his future bride. People weren’t told these details – their significance is personal.  Many may have recognized the heavy gold star sapphire ring, but it wasn’t important for me to tell everyone what it meant – I just wanted to have something of his close to me.  I’ve heard of other people who have tied charms or lockets on to the bouquet or the dress – another way of keeping something close.  Or wearing an item of clothing, or a handkerchief, or using lace from a grandmother’s wedding dress.

We asked the pastor to modify his final blessing, to a similar one my grandfather used when he was a minister.  My mother can still hear in her mind my grandfather, who passed away 12 years ago, blessing his congregation with those words each week.  Again, this was not noted to the crowd – it was just another small but touching way to connect with the past and those we love and miss.

An idea that I’ve heard mentioned was to leave an empty seat – that wouldn’t have worked for us, because my mother had no desire to sit alone, and needed the support of her sister beside her. Another suggestion was to have a table of photos of those we’ve lost, which didn’t work for us, as we had done exactly that for the wake.  Also, the thought of trying to track down photos of various other loved ones who should also be honoured was just too exhausting for me at the time.  Lighting a candle in memorial during the ceremony is another idea – I’m glad we didn’t try it though.  The ceremony was the single most emotionally transformative thing I’ve ever done, and I’m glad I only had David, the pastor and the meaning of what we were doing to focus on.  It would have pulled me out of the moment, and I wouldn’t have been able to bring my emotional focus away from the wedding and then back to it.  But that’s me, and I can see how it could work for someone else.

There is no right or wrong answer.  Talk to your partner, and your family.  Figure out what YOU need.  Make sure that doesn’t hurt anyone else, like making my mother sit alone would have, for the sake of symbolism.  Find small, personally meaningful ways to memorialize.  Jewelry, a toast, a ritual…  Work with your officiant if you’re comfortable having something said during the ceremony.  And remember, what ever you say or don’t say, do or don’t do, it doesn’t change the love you feel for those who aren’t there.

*Sadness may happen!  It’s okay if it does!  But there is no sense encouraging extra sadness.

Our wedding graduate from yesterday, Tina, has a few more  words to add on this subject.

I started pressured myself into thinking I should give a speech too and say something about my father, but I knew I was just going to bawl my eyes out and I didn’t want to do that. So I didn’t give a speech at all, and it didn’t feel wrong in the end, and I stopped worrying about it the second the wedding started.   My mum was awfully brave giving hers, and I can’t mention enough how much I admire her for it.

We all agreed before the wedding we had “permission to party” – I think it would have been a lot harder if anyone had thought it inappropriate to celebrate so soon after his death. So I think reaching a consensus with the entire family is important too!

And, since you guys are the wisest, one of yesterday’s commenters, Kim, mentioned exactly that balance of joy and memory that Morgan has so eloquently touched on:

My whole extended family still struggles with the loss of our beloved grandfather. He was a patriarch in every sense, and my wedding was the first of my generation where he wasn’t there. I didn’t know how important it would be to me that he be there in some way. But I couldn’t put my finger on how we could make his presence felt. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, while we were sharing memories of him on the anniversary of his passing, one of my aunt’s mentioned that she misses seeing him dance with a glass on his head (our family has particularly large heads, perfect for balancing things on, apparently). And with that, it was settled. We did an awesome “dance with a glass on your head” tribute to my grandfather’s favorite song (Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”) at our wedding reception. My husband had a tougher time balancing a glass on his conical head, but we had a good laugh once he finally got it! And my whole huge family had a blast honoring him, the best way we knew how.

And now we’re turning it over to the beautiful, smart, wise ladies of APW.   How can you honor your deceased family in your wedding?  And how do you do so in such a way that is meaningful AND that doesn’t make you unbearably sad?  Do you do anything at all? Go!

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Alyssa at askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though we prefer if you make up a totally ridiculous sign-off like “conflicted and rageful but deeply in love in Detroit” (CARBDILID, duh).

*Note: If you could please add the date of your to-be wedding with your question, it would help us organize the timing of feedback. Thank you!

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