Ask Team Practical (Guest Edition): The Hard Stuff

We recently received an important question for Ask Team Practical—one about planning a wedding with a critically ill loved one. To make sure we got the answer just right, we reached out to longtime APW reader Morgan. Morgan was the first reader to ever write in on this subject, when her father was dying. She then wrote about her wedding, after losing her father. These days she writes about more joyful things, like her baby daughter, but today she agreed to give sage advice to all of you planning a wedding while dealing with the really hard stuff.


Hi Meg and Team Practical,

This is a somewhat hard and awkward letter to write. I am getting married to my fiancé Dan in July, and a few weeks ago my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She’s begun her chemo treatment already and, while it can’t always be promised, it looks like we caught the cancer early enough to have some positive results. I can’t say with confidence that this will work out, mainly because we have to wait two treatments to re-evaluate—so even though we know what she has finally, I feel like we’re still in limbo.

I don’t plan to cancel our wedding—if anything I realize the wedding is a source of great joy for my mother and family. But I need some advice on how to get through this personally. I was at the hospital with my mother the other day and while she was getting blood drawn, she told the nurses about the wedding; they asked me questions about it and I could barely hold myself together. At this point, whenever the wedding comes up, I have such strong emotions about it. There are things I need to get done, and I do them, but it feels like the excitement has taken a back seat. That I’m just going through the motions of planning this important event. I feel like I cannot enjoy the thought of our wedding day, mainly because I fear so much that my mother will not be there. I know I should have a positive attitude, or let this situation bring a deeper meaning/perspective to our wedding—and I do sometimes—but I am struggling. These seem to be such contradictory events; I thought maybe you or your readers could share some advice that would help bring them into some type of harmony.

Thanks for your help,


Cancer sucks. I’m genuinely sorry that your family is going through this, and hopeful that your mom will have one of the happy outcomes. But in the meantime, you feel like you are stuck in limbo, right? That’s because you are, and that also sucks. It’s hard to make plans, it’s hard to know what to do, it’s hard to be brave, and it’s hard to hold yourself together. It’s really hard right now, and that’s normal. I mean, as normal as anything can be, when someone you love has cancer.

APW is full of stories about women who did not enjoy their wedding planning, for a huge number of reasons. And that’s okay! They got married in the end, and most people write about what a great time they actually had at the wedding. If you are merely going through the motions of planning a wedding, well, the wedding still gets planned that way, right? It may help if you try to separate your feelings about the two in your head: wedding planning and wedding day. The way you feel about the planning doesn’t necessarily have a huge effect on the way you feel about the day. I phoned in all wedding planning, and still had a day that shines in my mind as one of the most love-filled, grace-filled, transcendent days of my entire life. The day did not suffer because I didn’t care about flowers or centerpieces or details, or, frankly, anything in the lead up. It’s disappointing that this time of planning that you may have really been looking forward to is substantially less fun than you were expecting, and you are allowed to mourn the planning-that-may-have-been.

One of my personal quirks is that I try to find a silver lining in everything—it can get a bit ridiculous, but it helps a tiny bit. (“Hey, the upside of months of crushing PPD was that I didn’t have the energy to react to every nighttime sniffle my baby made and therefore she became a great sleeper!” Yeah. I know.) For me, the silver lining of my father’s terminal diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer with metastasis in the brain was that it freed me from stressing over wedding planning. It brought me a shit-ton of perspective, fast. It allowed me, who had never particularly cared about centerpieces, to not care about centerpieces and to not feel any guilt about not caring. I realized what was important to me—marrying David—and what wasn’t—anything beyond the requirements of what we needed to have a family wedding. (So: minister, family, booze, cookies, D.J., photographer, more booze.)

Sometimes bad shit happens. It doesn’t have to give you a deeper perspective, or a graceful positive outlook. It can simply suck. Recently, a friend and I were talking about the unfair relentless positivity cancer is treated with. She had thyroid cancer in her early twenties, and felt it unfair that people would constantly criticize her for not being positive enough, or for feeling angry at the world. Fuck that. You’re allowed to feel however you feel, and if that is disconnected and struggling, well, that’s allowed. Or maybe you feel angry, or sad, or stressed out, or even happy about your wedding—that’s allowed too. Being a cancer patient, or the child of a cancer patient, doesn’t give you a key to some secret world of grace and meaning. It introduces you to fear and hospital wards and chemo. Maybe it gives you moments of meaning and grace, and that’s great, but the only thing I found watching my father die was grief and anger and a militant anti-smoking stance.

But all that doesn’t take away from the fact that my wedding was a glorious, radiant day. It was transcendent and broke me right open. The only other time I felt that kind of love and support was at my father’s wake, but that was covered in sadness. Checking out emotionally from wedding planning did not affect the way I felt on my wedding day.

If the worst does happen, YOU WILL BE OKAY. It will be terrible and horrifyingly sad and tragic and you will get through it, because you will have no other choice than to keep on living. People will tell you that they don’t know how you are so strong and you won’t know what to say, again, because the answer is that there is no secret. You just kept waking up and doing things and time passes. You will make the decisions that need to be made, and then you will fall apart again and then you’ll put yourself back together for another day. It sucks so hard, but it’s normal. (Isn’t that simply terrible to hear? That your personal tragedy isn’t so unusual? I am still undecided if it’s sad or comforting that I am not alone.) Keep planning the wedding, and know that things will sort themselves out—people will be very compassionate if any last minute changes need to be made.

As for what to say to people who are just trying to make conversation about your wedding? You’re allowed to dodge and deflect. Change the subject. Tell them you haven’t decided yet, and change the subject. Tell them that you’re waiting on vendors, and change the subject. Tell them some random detail that you have decided on, and change the subject. Most of the time, people aren’t that invested, and will follow your cues. (If not, they are rude, and that frees you up to be a little rude back in changing the subject.)

For everyone else: please read this great article on how to cope with people going through tough times, and memorize it. You can always, always, always feel what you feel, but please remember: Comfort IN, dump OUT.

So Alyssa, let me say this to you: I’m so sorry you are going through this. Cancer sucks. The human condition allows us to feel two things at once, and that can be tough and emotionally exhausting, but it’s normal, and okay. No matter what else happens, you’re marrying someone you love. In the darkest times, love is the light that gets us through.


Photo Kara Schultz

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  • KC

    1. amen to the having-important-people-die-of-lung-cancer resulting in a militant anti-smoking stance. I try not to be obnoxious about it, but it’s *really hard* to see people I care about take up smoking because it is cool, when I’m on the “do you *know* what that is likely to do to the people you care about???”.

    2. amen to the wedding-planning-is-not-the-be-all-and-end-all. It’s okay to grieve the loss of something important to you when something else swallows it up or shuffles it to the side, especially when that something else is bad/sad/sucky. On the other hand, speaking as someone who did not exactly enjoy wedding planning, the lack of enjoyment of wedding planning hasn’t been a problem for marriage, or for life in general (our wedding was pretty good, too, anyway). You may be getting cheated out of one thing by cancer, but it’s not everything, so there’s that?

    3. But, of course, that doesn’t solve what to do about your mom/nurses being excited about your wedding planning and you not being. I can understand them wanting to see the sparkly, a distraction and a point of light to look at and focus on when everything else is more or less a swirling and scary sea of darkness – and I can understand you going “but! the sea! how can I care at all about centerpieces when this is going on?”, and I have *no idea* how to resolve that. I’m so sorry you have to go through this.

    Best wishes to you and to your mom and to all those around you.

    • Ugh, YES, on point 1. My mother and my brother smoke, and while my fiance stopped smoking shortly after we started dating 4 years ago, he’s recently taken it up again. And I just want so bad to scream “HELLO YOU REALIZE I AM GOING TO HAVE TO WATCH YOUR LUNGS BE REMOVED SURGICALLY, RIGHT?” I’m trying to be more zen about it, but it’s really hard to see people I care about smoke.

    • Not Sarah

      AMEN to #1. My mom’s dad died of lung cancer around age 60. 60! His younger daughter (my mom) had just barely met my dad. And it was his choice to smoke! My dad is now almost that age and also smokes, but thankfully no lung cancer yet. At least my sister and I have learned and don’t smoke at all…

      I refuse to date anyone who has ever smoked a cigarette more than once in their lives. I’m sorry to all the perfectly nice men who smoke, but there are plenty of you who don’t.

      • KC

        Cancer of various kinds “practically gallops” in my family, but with one (very aged) exception, the only people it has succeeded in actually killing have been the former smokers/tobacco users. Every last one of them, in fact, as far as I know. (pot smokers exempted; and I’m sure there are some who probably smoked a few cigarettes in school who also missed out on the cancer death train, but I don’t actually know)

        I don’t know how statistically likely this outcome is, but it certainly does color one’s perception when *all* the known regular tobacco users in your family over the age of 40 are dead from related cancer.

        That said, there are many habits/addictions that are more immediately harmful to people and to those around them, and I assume that my familial results are not entirely representative, and there are also lots of other things that are also very unpleasant to die from, and nicotine does theoretically have a calming effect, which I could see being helpful for a lot of people. So there’s that. But still. Hard to get over the knee-jerk reaction to someone taking up smoking.

  • Thank you, Alyssa, for being brave enough to ask. And thank you, Morgan, for such a considered response.

    I am currently going through something similar–a mother struggling with cancer while we are trying to plan our wedding–and it’s so validating to be told to react however the hell I want. I’ve also found it strangely comforting to know that others have gone through this before me and will after me. I guess that’s what perspective is all about.

    Alyssa, I feel for you. I try to bask in the small moments where happiness pushes through. And I try to rely on my fiance for support when I can’t find those moments. I’ll be hoping for small and big happy moments for your future.

  • Manda

    Thank you, Morgan, for your wonderful and sage advice. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today. My dad was diagnosed with throat cancer a few weeks ago. His lungs look clear, but the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes. Chemo started yesterday; daily radiation treatments begin on the 13th. I’m really, really worried about him and his general well-being. He already suffers from a chronic, disabling disease and has a history of depression and suicide attempts.

    My wedding is currently scheduled for October 2014. Considering the circumstances, that date feels so far away now. I wish my partner and I could get married sooner, but it’s just not possible. So now I’m planning this huge, awesome, joyous event but I’m not even sure if my dad is going to live long enough to see it happen.

    To Alyssa: I understand where you’re coming from. I too feel like I’m in limbo. I don’t really think I’m in a position to offer advice quite yet, but I did want to comment and give you a huge, virtual hug. You and your family are in my thoughts.

    “No matter what else happens, you’re marrying someone you love. In the darkest times, love is the light that gets us through.” Thank you for this. It’s a wonderful reminder that I know I will be coming back to. <3

  • Lizzie

    I can relate to so much of this, and it makes me feel better (in a sympathetic way, not in a schaudenfreude way) that others know what it’s like to go through this. My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer a few months after I got engaged. When my family met with the hospice nurse to discuss his care, the (fantastic, incredible) nurse asked if I was the one getting married. She beamed and congratulated me, and I was taken aback: that hospital room, with my dad prone in an electric bed, felt like no place for happy anything.

    J and I decided to screw the spring wedding–we wanted to bust out a winter one in 10 weeks flat so my dad could be there. But a week after making that decision (and lining up the vendors), I realized I didn’t want to plan a wedding while my dad was dying. It was too sad, and the idea of forcing a happy event to cheer people up rang hollow. We put our plans on hold, my dad lived only two more weeks, and I spent time with him instead of negotiating contracts.

    I think it’s different with moms, though, since they usually enjoy wedding planning more than dads. If your mom needs something to take her mind off chemo and tests, wedding planning might do the trick.

    Sending good thoughts to Alyssa and everyone coping with the weird seesaw of sick family and wedding excitement.

    • If mom’s bringing the wedding planning up while she’s at the hospital for bloodwork it certainly sounds like it’s a bright thing in her life right now. And if it’s bringing her joy that’s good, because she needs some hopeful things to focus on, but it doesn’t mean that talking about or planning the wedding has to be fun for you

  • Such a thoughtful, considerate post.

  • Alyssa, are you me? Granted, my mom has been struggling with uterine cancer for a couple fyears now and I am not getting married until next summer, but beyond that, I could have written this.

    You have my hugs and my sympathy in this difficult time.

    My biggest challenge is that I feel like I should be spending more time with her, helping her more, and/or having her more involved with things, but I don’t know what or how and I end up doing very little.

    I don’t even know what we are doing for Mother’s Day.

  • Hintzy

    First off, Alyssa I’m so sorry that you’re family has to deal with this. cancer sucks. sending many a good ju ju thought to you and yours.

    Morgan that was wonderfully written advise, and thank you for sharing that article at the end. That little link is pretty awesome.

    • Manda

      I second the thank you for the LA Times article. Bookmarking in case I ever have someone in my life that needs to read it.

  • Another Meg

    I’m so sorry that you have to go through this. Cancer can suck a bag of dicks. (Can I say that? Whatever. It can.) Cancer’s taken a lot of my extended family from me, and I remember all too well the awkward angriness of walking past the group of hospital personnel smoking by the door to go visit my aunt, who had lung cancer, among other things. So amen to the other commenters on that.

    There’s this thing about dealing with shit like this- other people feel they have a say in your pain and how you manage it. They don’t. It’s not theirs; it’s yours. So is your joy, and while I get how weird it feels to have both at the same time (my godmother died two weeks before my first wedding), your heart can take it. It can be bursting with joy even when there’s a hole in it.

    I can’t speak to your particular situation, but I hope you know there are internet people cheering you and your mom on with enthusiasm.

    Thank you a hundred times a hundred. Your post was thoughtful and heartening.

    Hugs to everyone.

  • anonymous

    I’m sorry you have to deal with this. Cancer sucks.

    (As someone who spent last year going through my own cancer treatment. I know it totally sucks, even when there’s remission after treatment.)

    Morgan is wise. And that LA Times article is bookmarked with a star.

    My only additional advice: give yourself permission to mourn the loss of the wedding you wanted to have, the one where your mom was healthy and you were excited. It sucks to lose that. It’s ok to be sad about it.

    I’m convinced it is easier to experience authentic happiness if we allow ourselves to experience real sadness too. I’m not saying wallow in depression (get thee to a therapist if you’re struggling! help is out there!), but I think we sometimes focus too much on optimism in our culture. We can’t selectively numb our emotions. If we shut out the authentic sadness, we shut out the authentic joy too.

    I’m sorry about your mom. I’m sorry it’s happening now. I hope you experience joy at your wedding anyway.

  • Anonymous

    My father-in-law had a stroke a few weeks before my husband and I were married. He was still in a coma on our wedding day. I was dreading, just dreading our wedding, because I could not see how it would be an enjoyable day for anyone. But, you know what, it was, despite all of my reservations. Because joy can exist with all of the sadness.

    I think it is so important to not judge yourself for how you are feeling. If you don’t want it to bring deeper meaning, it doesn’t have to. If you feel crummy, let yourself feel crummy. I remember feeling so guilty for dreading the day we had been planning for more than a year, and then horrible for feeling a twinge of excitement when i picked up my wedding dress because it didn’t feel appropriate to be excited about a dress at a time like that. But really, I didn’t need that extra emotional baggage with everything else going on, and you don’t either.

    I’m very sorry for what you are going through. Hang in there.

    • KC

      Absolutely yes to trying not to feel guilty either about times of joy/excitement/fun or about times of sorrow/frustration/etc. It’s possible to end up in this weird no-win state where whatever emotion you’re feeling, you feel guilty about it, and the guilt is neither helpful or logical but somehow can happen anyway. Argh. It’s okay to set aside the “other part” sometimes for a while, either way.

  • Jashshea

    Morgan: That linked LA times article is so amazing.

    Alyssa: I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Positive thoughts and wishes to you, your mother and the rest of your family through this difficult time.

    We lost my fiance’s brother suddenly about 6 months before our wedding. To my knowledge, I’m the only person who thought about cancelling/postponing the wedding – his family wanted/needed it to take place as scheduled. Needed a positive event to look forward to. Planning was extremely hard – everything wedding related seemed so inconsequential and fluffy and silly. Now that the wedding is in the rearview, I’m so happy we went through with the whole big shebang – it meant so much to his family (and mine and to us).

    I don’t think I invented this idea, but I don’t think that joy and sadness two sides of a coin – they can coexist. IMO, the opposite of joy is emptyness, not sadness.

  • Kristen

    Alyssa, I’m so sorry you have to deal with this at such an already emotional time. While I didn’t have the same issues as you during wedding planning, I had other ones, that felt just as big and devastating as a sick parent. I hated wedding planning and I didn’t really like my wedding either. But what I LOVE? Being married.

    It doesn’t make not having the wedding planning you envisioned or even the wedding you wanted any better. For that I’m sorry, because it sucks and it was hard for me and painful. BUT, you have something that other brides don’t, a mom who loves you and who is excited about your wedding. I hope it’s not insensitive to point out that everyone has their struggles and like them, you get to mourn what you wish you had and appreciate what you do have.

    At the end of the day I’m not sure anyone could have gotten me to feel better if they’d told me how happy I would be when it was all over. I may have still struggled and been terribly sad. But pain and struggles of wedding planning when dealing with the tough stuff life threw at me definitely made me focus on the bigger picture and while I was angry I didn’t get to have the experiences my friends did, I got something they didn’t: true joy. Because when you’re wedding is boiled down to its elements, the marriage part, you appreciate and enjoy it for something else. Something not everyone gets. It’s still hard for me to read about brides who loved their weddings and had a great time, but I can’t be jealous because all my struggles made my marriage and life better.

    Finally (and sorry for blathering if none of this is helpful) I wonder if you might try remembering something else, or just looking at the situation differently when you can to try and find your happy place. This is a special time you get to spend with your mom at a point in life where her presence in your life feels so necessary and important. It’s probably helping her to to build these special memories with you and that’s nothing cancer, a no show caterer or rain on your outdoor wedding day can take away. You have the gift of time with your mom right now. Maybe that can be enough sometimes. And when it isn’t, forgive yourself for feeling angry, disappointed or frustrated. I guarantee the best person you know would be feeling the same.

  • Kats

    I feel for you. My dad has ALS. He did not have ALS at Thanksgiving, when my then-boyfriend came out to spend a huge/crazy/hippie family Thanksgiving with us. He did not have ALS when we called them from the airport before Christmas to tell them we were engaged. But he does now, and he’s going downhill fast, and I have no idea if he’s going to make it (in any sense of the word) to our September wedding, and I don’t know if I should (am supposed to) cancel the September wedding or have a quick wedding before then or, or, or…

    Which isn’t, I suspect, particularly helpful. What has been helpful at least to me is trying to sit with what feels right at the moment, be that flying out to spend a spur of the moment weekend with my folks, or getting all excited about sparkly dresses and pretty flowers. It’s been helpful to have those moments to breathe with what is, even when what is is both frustrating as hell and scary and what feels like way too much change in a short period of time. Helpful to try to figure out that maybe occasionally at 2am when you burst into tears it’s ok to own that, and it’s ok as well if you just want to have a moment of being really psyched about the idea that you can serve deep-fried-bacon as an appetizer at your wedding if that rocks your world. Because – I’m not going to lie – the idea of deep-fried-bacon is fantastic.

    Also, for those non zen moments? Punching pillows and listening to Beethoven at full volume on a rainy gross day is awesome.

  • julie

    I’m so grateful I stumbled upon this. I’m getting married in two weeks, and my mom has cancer so we’ve been going through that, and then recently someone extremely close to me was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide. I’m the last person who should be getting attention right now. I think the wedding celebration is going to feel pretty hollow. My family is in a state of shock and I’m, like, constantly crying, and trying to figure out what the hell to do. No one has said anything about changing the wedding, but we are all devastated and scared and it feels like someone took a knife to my wedding balloon. It is pretty much shredded now. However, I know that I want to be married in two weeks. I’m ready to be married to this man and I can’t stand the thought of putting it off. So I’m inclined to just do it, come hell or high water.

    Anyway, reading everyone’s comments and situations REALLY helps. I hope everyone is ok. Alyssa, I feel for you, and I hope your mom does well and that you have a wonderful wedding this summer.


    • anonymous

      Gah! That’s rough. I’m sorry you’re going through all of that before your wedding.

      Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials! You still deserve attention–getting married is a big life-changing deal–even if other people in your life deserve attention right now too.

      Be well.

    • Teresa

      Julie, you absolutely should be getting attention right now, getting married is a huge deal! Also, I’d be willing to bet money that the people in your life really need something positive to focus on. They need some joy and some celebration and a reason smile and laugh. So, seriously, take a deep breath and go get married! And, congratulations!

  • RJ

    I would also add, that sometimes grief, and imperfection enriches.

    A good friend got married a few days after a massive earthquake brought down buildings and killed 182 people in Christchurch.

    Not all the guests made it (two had been killed, at least one of whom’s body had not yet been found), many people came not in their fanciest clothes, groomed and brushed, but in the best state they could manage with whatever services we had (some people didn’t have water, and others had badly damaged houses).

    We were raw, but it gave a real emotional punch to the traditional wedding vows – in their case “for better, for worse”, we had only to look around our city and know that some of the “worse” was there, and vows made in such a situation gave us all hope.

    And then (they being artists – singer/songwriter composers), the groom got a laugh by his intonation on “for richer, for poorer” implying that there was a good chance of the latter, and he was OK with that.

    I remember sitting in the church hall (the church was stone, and we weren’t comfortable with the risks of aftershocks to be in there) under a freize of the beatitudes, and seeing the phrase “blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” as my friends made their vows.

    I have never been at a wedding where I believed the vows more.

    • CII

      What an amazing story with a beautiful silver lining. Thank you for sharing.

  • Cancer effing sucks. Majorly.

    It will have been 6 years since my mom died of colon cancer when my wedding takes place in September, and I have had SO MANY people tell me how sad my wedding is going to be for them.

    I can understand where they are coming from, and planning a wedding without my mom has been one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had.

    But seriously people? Telling me my wedding is going to be sad and depressing does not help.

    But then again, I know they’re coming from a good place. They just don’t know how to express themselves.

    • Christy

      How astounding that someone would place the burden of their own grieving on you, the bride, going through your wedding without your mom. I wish there was something I could do, other than to say that you’re right to be feeling the way you do. My only words of comfort are that despite the people we’ve lost, it’s amazing to be among the people who are still with us on the day of such a monumental event. It doesn’t stop you from missing the people who aren’t there, but it is an affirmation that happy things lie in both the present and the future.

  • Christa

    I was in a very similar situation: my mom had melanoma and ended up with a lymphadenectomy 9 days before our wedding. I was stressed about the wedding, terrified about her health, and am enough of an introvert that under stress, the whole my-very-private-feelings-about-love-are-the-center-of-attention thing was more than I could handle at the time.

    In the end, thats part of why I wrote this :

    A wedding day is a celebration. For many people, the wedding celebration is so that the two people getting married can celebrate what an awesome partner they’ve found. They’re the lucky ones. Sometimes, though, a wedding happens because your family really needs something to celebrate. I didn’t enjoy my wedding day, but my mom did. In my world, at the time, that was what my people needed. We’ve had plenty of time since then to celebrate our love for each other in both public and private ways.

    I focused on making the wedding what I felt like it needed to be: a celebration that was worthy of being (possibly) the last time my whole family was together. My guests were happy and comfortable, and everyone got fed. I guess I’m saying that maybe your wedding won’t be the most fun day of your life, and even so, maybe that isn’t the most important thing right now.

  • Christy

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this and for all the other people who’ve gone though the wedding with an ill or deceased love one.

    My mom has been battling breast cancer for 11 years (fortunately, most of those in remission) and received a surprise terminal diagnosis after being taken to the ER for back pain last July six weeks after I got back from my honeymoon. I still have a very surreal, dream-like memory of her oncologist congratulating me on my wedding through my red-eye-from-LA-and-panic-sleep-deprivation (while my mom was trying to recall through a haze of dilaudid when exactly the back pain started… “a month or two before the wedding…”) and in the next breath telling me that they were admitting my mom immediately for pain control and emergency radiation. (the little thought bubble over my head: “I’m so over the wedding”).

    At some point during those days, which are still a huge blur, we got our (wonderful) photographer to ship all the photos to a pharmacy for printing and, clutching the gigantic stack, I flew back to Boston and ran to the hospital with them. She still has that stack of photos. One of her favorite activities when she was hospitalized/in rehab/in respite care, which went on for about six weeks, was flipping through the photos and showing them to various visitors. It was something she could do through a haze of painkillers. It was something she enjoyed even though she was scared and in shock.

    Her physicians felt she might only have 3 months back in July, and it’s 10 months later and she’s doing very well. She’ll never be cured, but she’s living with stage 4 breast cancer without any signs of progression, independently in the house she adores, able to enjoy her friends and family. Cancer’s awful, but my advice would be to try not to panic and give yourself time to get used to the new reality. People can live, even with certain types of very advanced stage cancer, for a long time. My other piece of advice is to try to enjoy the good times, even if they are bitter-sweet. I look back at my photos, and although in hindsight I know now that my mom’s hunched posture was because some of her vertebrae had collapsed due to cancer, I also see the joy on her face. I also feel sad about the loved ones who didn’t live to see my wedding day — and that’s OK.

  • Jenna

    Thank you for this. I am planning my wedding and trying to deal with the fact that my dad won’t be there, because he passed away 2+ years ago. Your words really helped me today.

  • CII

    I really needed this post, too, and I really appreciate it.

    Wondering if the group had any thoughts about good ways to involve a parent who is ill where that illness makes it difficult for that parent to do some of the traditional activities (dress shopping, invitation addressing, favor assembling, vintage shop hunting, etc.) associated with wedding planning? We are not doing all of these activities, or are doing some in a very stripped down version, but I can already tell that my parent is feeling excluded from the planning process.

    Also curious about this issue, although I know it’s more unique to me. A number of people who are attending the wedding either don’t know my parent is sick or don’t know how sick. I’m a very private person (as is my family), and it’s just not something that I discuss with very many people. I am uncomfortable talking about it, as my feelings about the topic are personal and complicated. I’m already worrying about how to deal with questions about this illness on our wedding day (think from friends who have not seen my parent in several years (“what’s wrong with X?”) or graduate school friends who have never met my family (“I didn’t know you had a sick parent. What’s wrong?”). I know this is a REALLY. REALLY. SELFISH. question to ask, but how do I keep those questions from bringing me down (or avoid them) on a day that I really really would prefer to be about my relationship with my fiancee and building our life together / moving forward?

    • KC

      I think keeping them in the loop and/or doing whatever you can do is a great thing. You do the best you can do; you keep finding ways to reassure them that you love them and are not disappointed in them (if the situation isn’t their fault, you’re disappointed in the situation, not them); and you let go of what you can’t control. (which is, unfortunately, a lot, and is hard to let go of) Sometimes phone photos and calls/emails for opinions can help say “I’m thinking of you”, but it’s hard.

      On the second point, odds are really good that people will postpone those questions for not-your-wedding-day, at least. If they do intrude with that kind of question, either “I’d rather not discuss it today” or “how about we meet up for coffee after the honeymoon?” might help? Or, since you said your family is also private, you can indicate that you want to respect the privacy of your family, which should shut it down more permanently.

      However, honestly, unless it’s a really small wedding, people generally don’t get very much talking time with the couple getting married, and hence don’t *usually* wander far off the you-and-them track, with focus on congratulations and other weddingy whatnot. (we had maybe two people where the conversation was All About Them or similar, out of hundreds of happy congratulatory and great-or-weird advice and I-remember-when-you-were-this-tall-and-now-you’re-married and when-I-was-married-rambles and when-is-the-cake-being-cut and I don’t even remember what else – but definitely the vast, vast majority were weddingy/congratulatory) So… it most likely won’t be a problem at all.

  • Eli

    Alyssa, I really have nothing helpful to say, except that I am going through something similar myself right now and it SUCKS. I’m getting married in October, and my dad has been going through radiation and chemo since January for Duodenal cancer. He is doing better now than he was a few months ago, but every once in a while, I still get a twinge of “what if my dad’s not there?”

    It is so awful. I just want to offer you a long-distance hug, and tell you that you and your family will be in my thoughts.

    • anonymous

      Sorry you are going through this crap too.


  • BH

    I feel like this post isn’t only about a parent being physically ill or specifically ill with cancer, as I am in a different situation but still found it really comforting. I’m getting married in 3 months and only in the past month have discovered that my mom is a pretty severe alcoholic due to even more severe mental health concerns. It’s affecting my parent’s marriage and there have been times I was positive that they will separate before my wedding.

    I know that there are worse problems than the above, so rather than asking for sympathy I want to say that I love how this post emphasizes that it is ok to accept the grey areas. It’s ok for things to be pretty fucked up and also quite wonderful all at once. I’ve had to accept the fact that my parents may be separated before my wedding, and my mom might get extremely drunk and embarass herself in front of my fiance’s conservative family, but the day can still have moments of true joy for everyone involved.

    Another thing I have learned in this process is that is ok to be separate from your parents. I feel VERY responsible for my mom, to the point where I tried to be her marriage/addictions/anxiety counsellor, and it sucked me dry. I’ve realized that I can’t fix everything, and I’m still allowed to be happy, even if my mom isn’t. She knows I love her and that’s enough.

    Would love to hear from anyone who has been a similar situation to me – I feel there are different emotions involved because while I know my mom is sick, there’s a lot of anger there because it doesn’t feel like something as concrete as cancer.

    • anonymous

      Yes. There are many kinds of illness and many ways for a parent to be absent/needy/embarrassing/complicated.

      This a case where you need boundaries. It sounds like you recognize that. We can’t always save people. We don’t always have the skills or the tools or the power necessary to do that. It can be a hard thing to learn when someone you love is suffering. My favorite analogy for how to approach helping someone in that situation comes from swimming lessons on how to react when someone is drowning and you aren’t a super strong swimmer with lifeguard training, which is: “reach and throw, don’t go”. You want to stay on dry land, throw them a life preserver or if they’re close enough try to pull them out or throw them a rope to hold onto. You don’t want to jump in and get sucked down with them. It doesn’t help anyone to have two drowning people instead of one. When someone has mental health problems or addictions reaching and throwing can be encouraging them to get help through professional counseling, rehab, support groups. You might be able to make the appointments, maybe even drive them there, but you can’t *be* their counselor. Even if you have professional training, I don’t think you can be your parent’s counselor. You can’t really be any kind of help at all if they’re thrashing around and dragging you down. You can and should stay on dry land.

      • BH

        Thank you for reaching out to let me know that it’s ok to take care of myself in this process. That was a huge learning curve for me as in the beginning I felt like if I could only say the right things to her, and love her enough, she would get better. I felt so much guilt for being at a place in my life where I am really happy with a wonderful partner and also living very far away in a different country. I thought I would have to move home to take care of her, but then realised that this is a situation where she needs to take care of herself. She’s in treatment now and has let me know that she just wants to be my mom and take the hard stuff to the professionals, it’s a tangible relief.

        You sound pretty familiar with this situation – I hope things are well in your world, and thanks again for replying.

  • Annabel

    I’m posting before reading any replies because I want to say my piece, so I’m sorry if this repeats anyone.

    My mum got diagnosed a few months after we got engaged. We already knew that our engagement would be about 18 months long. At first all wedding planning just went out of the window. I couldn’t think about anything that was happening that long away as my brain just couldn’t cope with any thinking about the future, because the future just felt like a place where my mum would be dead and I’d be sad and I didn’t want to think about that.

    But… a few things happened. For one, I spoke to my mum about how I felt and she made me feel better about it. I don’t want to think too much about how she knew exactly the right things to say to make it feel better, because it makes me sad for a time when she won’t be there to say all the right things, but she said them all and I felt a gritty kind of peace about not knowing if she’d be there. (I can’t do what she said justice, but she spoke about how she felt about living without her mum and the fact that it was a year away and you never know with any certainty who will still be alive in a year.)

    We also (as a family) got through the first few chemo treatments, and even though the first one feels like the end of the world, it does eventually become a grim new routine and you get used to it. It becomes a lot more normal and… your brain stops freaking out eventually. The sort of pre-grief I went through when my mum was first diagnosed has definitely dulled as time goes on. I still get really, really sad about everything that’s happened and is happening, but it’s not that screaming numbness I felt at first. I’m more able to feel things and handle them. It’s now a known shitty thing that’s happening, rather than an all-consuming nebulous dark monster in my head.

    The other thing that happened, is that it became clear (barring an unexpected disaster that could happen to anyone), my mum was going to make it to the wedding, although she still has cancer. For us, the timing worked out that she is in a window of feeling great right now and should still be in that place when the wedding takes place in six weeks time. After the wedding (coincidental timing) she’ll go in for more treatment for a secondary cancer. But for the wedding. she’ll be there and feeling good. SO obviously, that helps! But the spectre of the cancer is still there. I think, though, that I have got to a place where I was (for a while) so sure she WASN”T going to be at the wedding, that it just will feel like a wonderful dream to have her there.

    But, back to the bit before that where we didn’t necessarily know that would be the case – I know that my mum loves my fiancé so much and is 100% sure of the fact that he will look after me and nurture me and love me in the way she would want. The upshot of wedding planning was that she got to know his parents really well and I know his mum and my mum had a really poignant conversation the night before she had major surgery, where they basically discussed that his family would be my family if anything happened to her. All that helps, to know that my mum isn’t worried about how I’ll cope without her makes me feel like I can cope without her (even though I can’t really bear typing that sentence).

    And yeah. My relationship has always been strong but going through all of this just before a wedding has cemented for me the fact that this man I have chosen is a really, really good one. We have lived some of our wedding vows already (nothing says better or worse more than saying goodbye to my mum before surgery and then standing together in post-op recovery with her all covered in wires). It’s been one hell of a year and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but whenever I feel wedding jitters, I know they are not about him (I am so nervous about walking down the aisle).

    Once I got over the big hill of wedding planning (setting a date was the hardest, for me), it got easier, because I knew that if my mum died, she’d know where we were getting married (a place she loves), and who I’d be marrying (that man she loves) and what I’d be wearing (the dress she loves) and who would be marrying us (the vicar she loves), and I don’t know, it all just helped, knowing that if she wasn’t there on the day, it wasn’t like it would all be part of my post-mum life, because she was so tied up in the wedding planning. It helped me.

    I know this situation is really different to yours – but I just wanted to share all the feelings I had in the hope something would be useful to you or someone else.

    Much love. Do what you need to do. Forgive yourself for any and all feelings. Tell your loved ones how you feel (I thought so many of my emotions were obvious, but turns out they weren’t and my family weren’t mind readers!)

  • I’m behind in reading, but I just wanted to say yes to this:
    “The human condition allows us to feel two things at once, and that can be tough and emotionally exhausting, but it’s normal, and okay. No matter what else happens, you’re marrying someone you love. In the darkest times, love is the light that gets us through.”
    That is probably the biggest thing I learned from our wedding day: that our hearts are able to hold a lot of (possibly conflicting) emotions at once. Joy and happiness and deep sorrow and sadness can co-exist. And yes, it is exhausting. And challenging. And life-affirming. And somehow beautiful that it is indeed possible to find joy even while feeling deep sadness. The sadness gives us all the more reason to celebrate love and life…

  • Lily

    Glad isn’t the right word to use, nor is relieved, but man oh man – it’s nice to not be alone. I’m a recent newlywed: we were planning on getting married late this fall, but in April my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer (unexpected – she went in thinking she had the flu) and so we moved our wedding up to the end of April, believing she’d have a few months afterwards. Instead, she died the day after our wedding.

    It was a “small” family affair (I have a large family) and due to the short notice a lot of people couldn’t attend. I think if we hadn’t had the wedding planned, she would have died a week earlier – she really did hold on until all of us kids made it to see her, even if she was no longer lucid by the time of the actual wedding. As I scrambled to get a dress and arrange for the license, she talked happily with the nurses and doctors and anyone who’d listen about her daughter getting married and what she planned to wear. And when I showed up at the hospital in my veil and gown, all the medical staff seemed appreciative, even though my mother was in her final coma.

    It gave us all something to think about, an excuse to come together as a family, an excuse to think of something other than the awfulness of unexpected cancer and death. I had a genuinely lovely wedding, despite only having two weeks to pull it together. My family, including my new family, got to meet each other and spend time together. I bonded with my parents-in-law in a way I might never have done had this not happened. I discovered, as my new husband cried, that he loved my mother too. And I was forced (as a stubborn person) to rely on him as my stalwart support.

    I know that our first anniversary is going to be hard, mixing the real joy with the real sorrow. But we both hope that over time, the joy will be richer for knowing how happy my mother was, holding her own fears at bay and thinking of us together. And as another poster mentioned: it cut away a lot of the drama and got down to the nitty-gritty of what was important to my husband and I as we organized our wedding and thought about our marriage.

    Cancer really and truly sucks, though.