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.

Meg

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,

Alyssa

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.

Morgan

Photo Kara Schultz

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