A Few Hours of Happy Amid the Sadness

One of the things that’s proven to be profoundly important about the APW community over the last four years—profoundly and rather unexpectedly important, given where we started—is the ability of this community to share wedding stories that are not being told elsewhere. For those of you planning a wedding while grappling with grief, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. And for the rest of us, it’s important to remind ourselves why a wedding matters in the first place and what a life together means. So today I’m honored to introduce Sara, telling a story that’s hard to tell.

After more than a year of planning, and with only a month to go before the big day, I had managed to remain pretty calm about the wedding planning process. We followed some sage APW advice early on and decided to spend our money and efforts on the things that matter most to us. We wanted a secular ceremony that was intimate and personal, so we decided to get married in our living room, surrounded by a small group of our closest family and friends, and we asked my brother to serve as our unofficial officiant (Note: if you live in PA or another state that provides self-uniting marriage licenses, this is totally doable! And legal!). We wanted to celebrate with a great party with amazing food and booze, so we hired a kick-ass caterer and bartender. We didn’t hire any other vendors (I made all of the flower arrangements with my best friend, photos were taken by family and friends with polariods and disposable cameras, and lots of other DIT action was going on behind the scenes). All of which is to say that by focusing on the important things, and minimizing (and in some cases, eliminating entirely) the less important things, I had been able to focus and enjoy the planning process with very little stress. I thought I had hit my Wedding Zen. And then, on February 24th, I had my first major wedding related meltdown.

On that fateful day, for no discernible reason, I suddenly freaked out and convinced myself that I had not ordered nearly enough food from the caterer. We needed to order enough to cover forty-three people, even though our final headcount was only thirty-three, and we needed to add a ham to the carved meat station. HAM! WE MUST HAVE HAM! AND ENOUGH FOOD TO FEED TEN ADDITIONAL, IMAGINARY GUESTS! HOW COULD I NOT HAVE REALIZED THIS SOONER! I spent a solid half hour that evening shouting such things at my partner, who I’m certain thought I had completely lost my damn mind, but instead he simply said “I think that if ordering more food will make you calm down, you should do it.”

And then, a few hours later, we found out that my brother is terminally ill. And suddenly, I didn’t give a f*ck about the ham anymore.

The news of my brother’s declining health was not entirely surprisingly. He was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, underwent grueling treatments and came through it, his cancer in remission. But a host of complications arose as a result of the cancer treatments he received, and now he is terminally ill. His doctors are considering alternative treatments options, all of which are quite scary and none of which provide a guarantee of long term survival. At this point, the doctors say he has about a year to live. Although my family was well aware of my brother’s serious health problems, none of us saw this coming, at least not yet.

I repeat: f*ck the ham.

As I write this, I have known for about three weeks that my brother is most likely going to die in the near future. I have sobbed and screamed and pounded my fists. I have wanted to set the world on fire. And at times, I have for a few moments forgotten about this horrible news and found myself caught up in moments of happiness and excitement about my wedding, only to catch myself and then feel like the most horrible and selfish person in the world for feeling happy and excited.

My wedding is five days away as I write this, and I don’t claim to have my thoughts straight at this point about what all of this means. I know that I am grieving, and I will continue to grieve, and then I will grieve some more. I know that feeling horrible and selfish when I find myself in happy moments is a normal part of that process, but it still feels rotten. I know that I am forever grateful for the time I have had with my brother and for whatever time we have left together, and that he will be by my side when T and I marry each other. I know that on my wedding day my brother will be very sick, and we’ll all look at him and think about the fact that this will likely be the last significant, joyful family event that he will be a part of. I know that the last three weeks have reinforced something I already knew—that I am incredibly lucky to have found a partner who can pick me up and put me back together when I fall apart, who will support me and my family through whatever we may face, and who tells me that I am beautiful even when I’ve been ugly crying for an hour and have snot all over my shirt. I know that I will be both happy and sad on my wedding day, and that the line between those feelings is not always clearly defined.

Last week, I was texting with my brother’s partner, a wonderful woman who has been by his side through this latest battle and has taken amazing care of him. She apologized that all of this was “ruining” my wedding month. And without really taking any time to think it through, I replied “No, no. Nothing is ruined. Obviously I wish that this just wasn’t happening at all, ever. But it is what it is. I don’t have any reason to believe that he won’t be with us that day, and as long as he is there, that’s a huge gift and I will be happy. And I hope that everyone else can find some happiness, even if it is short lived, in that day too. Because this sh*t sucks, and we all need a day—not to ignore it—but to just try to have a few hours of happiness amid the sadness.” After I hit “send,” I re-read the message and thought yes, that’s right—that is how I feel about all of this, even if I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it until just now.

A lot of folks on here have written beautiful posts about why weddings are important, and some of those perspectives have come from people who were also grappling with sickness and death. So what I have to say here isn’t all that new, I suppose. But I will join the chorus. My wedding was already very important to me; T and I are promising to be loving and equal partners as long as we both shall live, and we’ll do that surrounded by our community of family and friends who love us and support us. That’s an amazing thing, worthy of celebration. But our wedding will also be a reminder that life is fragile, that hard stuff happens, and that finding someone who wants to take on all of it with you—the happy times and sad times, and those times that are both—and who wants to bind their life to yours, is an enormous gift. And so my hope for my wedding day is to be fully present in it: to drink up the joy I will feel when T and I exchange our vows; to look at my brother and take a snapshot of that moment, with him by my side to support me as I enter my marriage, to keep in my heart always; to acknowledge that the happy and the sad are often intertwined; and to relish in and be comforted by the hours of happiness we will have amid the sadness.

Photo by: Shot by a friend at Sara’s wedding (which was last weekend)

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  • Laura

    Hi Sara, Thank you for sharing this moving story. In the face of unbeatable tragedy, it is so hard to allow yourself the small moments of joy that can come unexpectedly, or to think freely about your future. I am glad that you and your husband and your family had your wedding as an opportunity to draw together in both grief and celebration.

    • I have never been able to offer any guidance to my brides who are in a similar situation.
      I will direct them to this vey heart warming post for inspiration.

  • PA

    “…to look at my brother and take a snapshot of that moment, with him by my side to support me as I enter my marriage…”

    I don’t even know what to say – there is so much wisdom and meaning in this post, but this line was where I completely lost it; the tears spilled over and started running down my cheeks.

    I think all there is to say is that I am holding you and your family in my heart.

  • That text is a keeper.

  • carrie

    I have to echo PA…you all are being held very closely in my heart as well. Thank you so much for sharing and congratulations.

  • Sending so much love and care your way, Sara. Congratulations on your marriage, and know that there are many, many strangers out here lifting you up in your times of hardship and sadness but also in your times of great joy.

  • Florence

    Oh my God, I cried my eyes out on this one. I’m so sorry this is happening to you, to your family, and of course to your brother. I hope your wedding is everything you want it to be, with lots of happiness “amid the sadness”.

  • Daynya

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Sara. It is a beautiful story, even if it’s hard to tell. I LOVE this :

    “…our wedding will also be a reminder that life is fragile, that hard stuff happens, and that finding someone who wants to take on all of it with you—the happy times and sad times, and those times that are both—and who wants to bind their life to yours, is an enormous gift.”

    It is a great summary of why I want to get married. Thank you.

  • kim

    Thank you so much for sharing this, and for putting into words what I can’t. Our wedding is a few months away. Just about two weeks ago, we got a phone call saying that my fiance’s best man, the man who was instrumental in introducing us, had died suddenly in his sleep.

    So thank you, for talking about this. It’s so hard to talk about, but I appreciate that we are talking about it. It’s so necessary. I can’t thank you enough.

    • *hugs* to you and your fiance too, Kim. And you’re SO right- even though it’s hard to talk about, you’re talking about it, which is what finding your partner is all about.

  • Thank you so, so much for sharing this.

    I’m so glad that you’ll have the opportunity to have your brother there to be part of the day. And I’m so sorry for everything that’s going on with your brother’s health.

    Also, this just grabbed me so much – “[a partner] …. who tells me that I am beautiful even when I’ve been ugly crying for an hour and have snot all over my shirt”. That’s love, right there.

  • Thank you, Sara, for not only giving us perspective on wedding planning but life in general. It’s always easy to get lost in the silly problems like ham when the people & love in our lives are what truly matters. My thoughts are with you & your family~

  • Ahhh. Thank you for this. And may you all be transcendantly, amazingly happy.

  • I love your wedding, Sara. It looks lovely- congratulations to you and your husband. Sending support and good vibes to you and your family right now as well- from PA, so you should feel them quickly.

    I’d also like to nominate “Fuck the Ham” as another APW slogan. ;)

  • Teffer

    My sister and brother-in-law got married in my father’s hospital room just hours before he died. The doctors reduced my dad’s morphine drip enough so that he could be aware, involved, and so, so happy. The joy of the wedding really did assuage the sorrow of losing our Daddy, if just a little bit. This essay summarizes that balance so beautifully.

  • Sara, I don’t really have words right now, kind of sobbing at the desk, but from one hard-stuff-chorus-member to another, congratulations on your marriage. That photo above looks amazing and I look forward to hearing about the wedding in your graduate post. For now, just know that you and your family are being thought of and thoughts are being sent your way through the internet. The grief and the joy, they can live together, there’s space for both, and you displayed that beautifully.

  • Sara

    My heartfelt thanks to all for the lovely and supportive comments here. Since writing this post, my brother’s condition worsened significantly, but today we got some good news. We’re taking each day as it comes, and all of the love we received from our family and friends before, during and after the wedding has been invaluable to us. And the good vibes and wishes from all of you here mean so much to us too. It’s one of the best parts of APW — it really is a community, and that’s an amazing thing. I look forward to writing a graduate post soon so I can share with all of you what it was really like on the wedding day for me, the happy parts and the sad parts and everything in between.

  • Another hard-stuff graduate. I don’t know what to say, but that I’m so sorry for you and your family going through such a hard time, and to commend you on the grace you are displaying. My heart goes out to all of you.

  • All I can say it thank you for this today. My younger brother died a week ago, competely unexpectedly, and today is the first time I decided to take a moment to click back on APW after being in a surreal fog for a week.
    Treasure eavery moment with your brother, know I am thinking of you and thank you for reminding me that is okay to take some moments not to ignore it, but to find happy amidst the sadness.

  • Susie

    Thanks for sharing this, I was moved to tears. I can’t really add anything to the comments above except that you summed up some very complex emotions so eloquently, and with such class. Wishing you and your family many more happy moments xx

  • Catherine B

    Holding you in my thoughts. When my cousin was dying, his girlfriend and I started a tradition of drinking champagne whenever we were together (he just laughed at us). Because hey, f*ck cancer, celebrate life and the moments you have together. Looking forward to your graduate post.

  • This is so very true:
    “I know that I will be both happy and sad on my wedding day, and that the line between those feelings is not always clearly defined.”

    I look forward to reading your grad post. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts.

  • Moz

    I am so sorry about your brother. Wishing you all the very best, keep those memories close.

  • Sara, this is beautiful and you’re beautiful. And STRONG. And WISE. And yes, the pain and the grief suck just as much as the joy and happiness are wonderful. I’m so, so overjoyed you got to spend your day with your brother and I hope you hold that forever, which I’m certain you will.

    Many cheers to you.

  • Teffer

    Also, I think if/when I get married, “f*ck the ham!” will be my motto.

  • Amy

    “to look at my brother and take a snapshot of that moment, with him by my side to support me as I enter my marriage, to keep in my heart always; to acknowledge that the happy and the sad are often intertwined; and to relish in and be comforted by the hours of happiness we will have amid the sadness.”

    Thank you.

    We had an aching Christmas bereavement and got engaged within a month later (our holiday didn’t go ahead, but my partner decided that it felt right to propose on the day he intended, life goes on…). Sometimes, I’m still struggling (and searching “grief and wedding planning”) to get excited in all the same ways and I often imagine our big day without our special someone standing by our side and it hurts a lot. Other days it’s just as fun as wedding planning should be and our wedding feels like something wonderful for us and our families to look forward to. Like all grief, it comes and goes. It’s so true that it is all intertwined, and I wouldn’t want to end this awful year of grieving with anything but hope and an amazing day.

    I quietly smile away at those that tell me the dress and the photos are the most important thing … For us, it’s all about the beautiful people we have around us (and the ones we don’t have). I know that we’ll be spending the day after our wedding taking my flax (long lasting) bouquet to a certain someone’s final resting place.

    Anyway, thanks again :-).

  • Nicole

    Thank you so much for your post. I have always been increadably close to my grandmother, but I have been away at school for a couple of years now. This summer I was staying at home ( eight hours away from my fiance ) while I was taking care of the final details of the wedding. That was when I discovered that my grandmother has been very sick for the last six months. My family thought she would get better. But she hasn’t, she has gotten worse. I know it silly but part of me always thought of her as invincible. She is weak, she is dying.
    I know that sometime in the next year she is going to die. It is sending me on an emotional rollercoster ride. I am glad that she will see me get married. But it is so hard to see her like this. She used to be able to beat me in wrestling, that was less then a year ago. Now she can’t even lift up a galleon of milk. I can’t even cuddle with my fiance.
    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. It means alot.