Planning A Wedding When A Loved One Is Dying

You won't have to wear a black wedding dress

When a loved one gets a life-threatening diagnosis while you’re thinking of getting married, there are a lot of options on the table. The only thing that is for sure is that you’re going to have to make some kind of decision. Our decision was in the works for the four years my mother-in-law, Abby, was rounding the corner in her fight with stage IV colon cancer.

What we did might not be best for you and yours. You might decide to not get married at all. You might decide to wait and get married later, when you’re not mixing a wedding and a funeral. But I do want to assure you that if you decide to pull the trigger, you’ll be infinitely happy you did. It will still be your wedding day. You will not walk down the aisle or say your vows with a heavy heart. You will not be in mourning or unable to feel the love and joy surrounding your union. You won’t have to wear a black wedding dress. Your wedding day will be even more intoxicatingly joyful than you could have ever imagined.

For us, that joy helped usher us through the most difficult time in our relationship. Two weeks after we planned our wedding, we were planning a funeral. We got our wedding photos the day after my mother-in-law passed away. We barely made it through the first few clicks and the tears started coming. But as we sat there and flipped through the gallery for the first time, overwhelmed with equal parts sadness and the happiness of reliving our day through these photos, I felt truly connected, not only with my husband, but also with Abby.

A lot of issues that cropped up when we were deciding whether or not to plan a wedding in seventeen days, knowing my mother-in-law was dying. Those issues included, but were not limited to: It’s not my mother who is ill, how much of a say do I really have in this? Is it okay to essentially get married for someone else? How will said person feel about us getting married so soon? Is this just one more stressful thing she will have to deal with? Will this still be a celebration about us and our future? What will we regret more: hauling ass to move the date up, or getting cold feet and not having her there at all?

Last November, we decided to tackle these issues head on.  What resulted was a seemingly endless conversation that left us both in tears, lying in bed mulling over the only thing we could agree on: we had no idea what to do.

It was a gentle shove from my sister that set everything into motion. I was very nervous about talking to my parents—not that I thought they would be unsupportive, but it’s not exactly what we had all pictured for my wedding. My sister led the entire conversation; she could tell I was struggling with a way to approach my parents. She was able to get everyone on the same page in a very diplomatic way.  I am so thankful she was about to do that for me because it instantly eliminated a lot of stress on my part.

And once we reached the other side of the fence, we hit the ground running. Flights were arranged, hotels booked and the planning began. And this might sounds crazy, but the planning was one of the highlights of this whole journey. We had all the support we needed to take this step and I realized having a little more faith in people is never a bad thing. This event wasn’t a burden on our friends and family. Everyone involved kept the focus on us and the excitement of what we were doing, and they left no opportunity for us to latch onto anything but the joy we found in our day.

When I look back on the decisions we made to get us where we are, those details are quickly disappearing from my memory, and thank God for that. They have nothing to do with the best and most memorable part of this story. The part that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, the part that is memorialized through the pictures of our wedding day, and the conversations we continue to have with our wedding guests about the day.


We finally got married. Our families and friends were there to witness it. This is how it was meant to be. Fire the confetti canons and let’s party.

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  • summerbride

    We started planning our upcoming June wedding in November, when my fiance’s mom’s ovarian cancer treatments seemed to be going really well. She had made it two years already and was doing better than ever – traveling to Italy, working in the garden. Three weeks ago, she took a turn for the worse, and now we’re all holding our breath, hoping she’ll be able to enjoy our day with us in five weeks. The hardest part for us has been the not-knowing — there’s no way to predict how she’ll react to the next treatment, whether it will be another two years or two months or two weeks, and it’s so important to everyone that we try to be as normal as possible – which in itself is exhausting. We’ve known about this for a long time, but with everything going so well, for some reason I talked myself into a place where she’d be around for awhile longer — and now I find myself struggling with the idea of life without this amazing woman as my mother-in-law and putting all my energy into supporting my sweet wonderful fiance who is terrified of losing his mom. Thank you for writing this; it’s so helpful to read about other people going through this same conflicting process.

    • Meg Keene

      So much love.

    • CatAhmanson

      I’m so happy you found this post helpful. APW was one of the few places where I was able to find support during our process. The frustrations and exhaustion is something we know all too well. Sending love to you and your family.

    • summerbride

      Life can be weird sometimes. Just 14 hours after posting this, we’re scrambling to plan a ceremony for this weekend. My fiance’s brother just came by and gave us the real prognosis — 4 to 5 weeks — with every day getting worse. We’re hoping we can convince her to let us share the ceremony with her this weekend while still keeping fingers crossed that she can make it 5 weeks from now to the planned ceremony. Don’t know how you did this…

  • Laura C

    Man, I read this and … I have a bridesmaid whose husband died of Stage IV colon cancer. It was less than six months from diagnosis to the end, and by the time she realized he was going to be dying within weeks not months, it was less than a week from the end and he was hallucinating and not in a position to say any goodbyes or really have any conversations at all. During that time, had there been a family member thinking about getting married in some way in relation to his illness, I don’t think she (or he) would have been able to cope with it. I guess what I’m drawing from this is that if you can see the end in time and everyone is able to do the big things, that’s wonderful. But forgive yourself if you don’t see it coming or it just happens too fast.

    • Meg Keene

      We’ve covered pretty extensively people choosing not to get married when people are dying. You can read one of those pieces here:

      In short, we need to be really respectful of the choices people make in these most difficult situations. They’re different for everyone. This piece was written for people who, like Cat, are making the leap, or considering it. Knowing what someone else experienced always helps.

      • Laura C

        Great, crying twice this morning! The big thing I just wanted to say is be kind to yourself however it plays out — and the juxtaposition of this post and that one makes that point beautifully.

    • rys

      This was such a lovely piece to read (and the photographs, wow, the photographs), and I admire Catherine and her husband for taking the leap and thus being able to hold tight to such wonderful memories. But I also understand Laura’s reaction, based on her friend, since experiences and emotions can vary so widely. My experience with a parent dying is different — it was so sudden and unexpected that nothing could have been planned around it. One of the biggest challenges for me in the months since my dad’s death has been feeling joy since even the best and really awesome worked-for-for-years accomplishments (finishing my PhD, getting the job I wanted, etc) are tinged with grief and sadness. But it makes me all the happier to read that Catherine and her husband had and have retained those unadulterated good and joyful feelings.

  • merryf

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. Six weeks before my wedding, my father was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was super-stubborn and refused for weeks to go to the doctor when he was feeling ill, and was 48 hours from death, apparently, before he allowed a Visiting Nurse to force him to go to the ER. A week later I had canceled my bachelorette party and was in Florida, and with my mom, (and with full understanding by my now-husband and his parents) I was planning a wedding either in his hospital room, the enclosed garden room at the hospital, or at the rehab center that my mom asked me to help her pick out. We had no idea if he would live 6 more weeks so the plan was to come back the following week to get married civilly, and then have the religious Jewish wedding on our planned-on date. I was so stunned by this turn of events, we all thought it was allergies or pneumonia, and cancer never crossed anyone’s mind. It was mind-blowingly astoundingly horrible. The oncologist told my father that if he worked at it, he could be strong enough to go to my wedding on Long Island. He got his sh!t together and got strong and he was there, and walked down the aisle with my mom — he felt so strong that he carried his walker instead of using it. There is one photo that I cherish, of me and my parents, with my arm thrown over my dad’s shoulder, and with a beard to hide what his face gaunt from cancer, he beamed with joy. As for me, I kind of lost my way during the rest of the planning and didn’t give a crap about anything. I don’t remember much about my wedding, it’s a haze, I remember being so distracted and sad. . And though the cancer went into remission, it came back with a vengeance and he passed away 6 months later. And even now, all this time later, I see my dad in my mind’s eye and I know I gave him the best gift I could — to see his girl taken care of

  • Cara

    Wow. This post hits me. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer not long after we got engaged, and we were lucky enough that she was much much better by the time the wedding rolled around. I couldn’t imagine my day without her, and am so thankful that she was able to be there and be a part of it (a HUGE part!).

    Now, not even a year later, the cancer has proven to never have really gone away, and she’s fighting for her life. It’s much worse than I ever imagined. And it’s so hard to think about any happy future when she might not be in it. I wish I could instantly have kids so she would be able to meet her grandkids. Or that my brother would meet a girl and propose and get married right now so she can be there for that. It feels selfish for me to even be thinking about having kids and celebrating anything joyful in my life, when she might not be around much longer.

    I think what you did was the best scenario, getting married with her there, and being able to include her in your memories and ensure she was able to see her son get married. There are no doubt so many things she’ll miss in the future, but having her there for one last big event is so… I want to say generous. It’s funny, because I remember reading your posts earlier about planning it, but it was before my mom’s health declined suddenly, so I glazed over it, didn’t really take it in, but now your wedding really is significant to me.

  • EF

    I really appreciate this post. A month after we got engaged my fiance’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. She’s responded well to treatment, and we’re hoping for the best. Getting legalled before weddinged; and that legal ceremony is taking place right after she finishes chemo (as she requested).

    In the past few weeks, fiance’s grandfather, whom he is extremely close to, fell seriously ill. He was ready to go; very relaxed and zen about it. But we got the call that he passed away this evening. He was awesome, and I’m sad that he won’t be there for my fiance. But I do hope that, as this will be the first grandchild getting married, he was glad to see that the family would continue to be happy.

    Anyway, yeah. timely posts today. it’s been rough. but others have had it worse, and ultimately these are just facts of life. there’s no right or wrong way to continue on, just what’s right or wrong for you. and good luck to all those in similar circumstances.

  • Amanda L

    I am so so sorry about your MIL. I cannot imagine that emotion on top of the wedding planning emotions in general. What I wanted to say, which comes from a place of pure vanity, is that your wedding looks absolutely gorgeous. And a photo that captures your happiness, and the love of your husband for his mother? Priceless.

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  • Louise

    This story couldn’t be more relevant to me. My wedding is right in the middle of planning, like 8 months to go. But we just found out this week my Mum has stage 4 ovarian cancer. We don’t know yet how long the doctors expect she’s got, but it’s spread to her liver, and she was already in hospital for a separate heart condition when it was diagnosed, so things aren’t looking good for her. I don’t know whether we should be looking at changing the wedding date, or just seeing how it goes for now.

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  • anon

    this made me so tearful.
    my future MIL whom I’m adore with all my heart has had alzheimer’s for nearly 5 years now, and it has deteriorated alarmingly fast in the last year or so. She now spends all her time bed ridden, unable to speak and extremely weak, it breaks my fiance’s heart. We know that if she’s around when we get married, there’s no way she could possibly attend. And part of me wishes that we just threw all caution to the wind and eloped a year ago so she would have been able to enjoy our marriage. I’m also constantly wondering if she’ll even be alive at all when our wedding finally happens. Thank you for this, for this reminder that while disease and grief are a huge part of our lives, they don’t swallow up the joy that come with our marriages.

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  • Heather

    This post appeared on the day my dad was admitted into the hospital–I saw it as somewhat of a sign, but he seemed positive. He told everyone his only goal was to get out in time for my wedding and he kept asking if he’d be able to fly.

    He died today. I’m getting married in 5 weeks and…

    I’m only at the “and” right now.

    • Caroline

      I am so, so sorry for your loss. Sending you light to surround that suspension in “and…”

  • This is so creepy. I think I cant celebrate a party if there’s someone dying specially if it is one of your love ones.