How Do I Plan a Wedding after My Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis?


My fiancé says we should do what we want

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

woman with coffee and "guts over fear" tattoo

Q:Two big life events just transpired, I got engaged (wohoo) and my mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer (not wohoo). My mom was diagnosed a few months before the engagement and while the outlook isn’t great long term, she’s undergoing treatment in hopes that there are a few good years left. My fiancé and I have long wanted to do a destination wedding (across the country) in the summer/fall. Because of the timing of the engagement, this means we’ll likely get married more than a year from now (about sixteen months). With the news of my mom’s diagnosis, I’m struggling to reconcile what I want with the reality of the situation.

There is no way to know if my mother will be healthy enough to travel, if she’ll be gravely ill, or if she will have passed before our wedding. My fiancé really feels that we need to do what we want and what is right for us, that we can’t plan around things we cannot control. We’ve discussed doing a small city hall ceremony if my mother’s health takes a turn, but I’m still wondering if this destination wedding more than a year away is the right thing to do. Some family members have mentioned that we may want to plan the wedding sooner and closer, but that is not the wedding we want. Nor do I feel ready to get married in in that time frame.

That said, I’m stressed and feel guilty planning a wedding when there are so many scary unknowns. What if my mom dies the week of the wedding? What if she becomes seriously ill right before the wedding and my sisters and other close family don’t want to leave her side (which I understand)? How do I plan such a happy event while trying to process my mother’s illness?

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

I’m so sorry. There’s not a good time to receive this news, but it certainly feels like you’re hearing it at one of the worst times possible.

Tune out your partner for a minute. I’m sure they’re trying to be helpful, but the ~follow your heart~ sentiment feels a bit tone-deaf. It’s probably hard to hear in the middle of so many complicated feelings.

If it helps (I know it doesn’t), everybody, on some level, has to resolve the tension between “the wedding we want” and reality. What you’re facing is albeit more urgent, and definitely more painful, but you’re not alone. Don’t ask yourself, “What is our dream wedding?” but instead, “What is the very best wedding we can pull together with all of these difficult factors looming?” It’s a hard, disappointing question, but easier to answer than trying to force an impractical ideal. Sure, your dream wedding Pinterest board might look one way, but if it doesn’t fit your mom in and you know you want to, it’s probably time to adjust. And as you do, it might help to read from ladies who experienced great loss during their wedding planning. Particularly this one, this, this, and this one who is in almost your exact situation.

Just based on what you wrote, it sounds to me like a sooner, closer wedding is in the cards. It’s not what you wanted, I know. And while coping with news of your mom’s cancer, it can be hard to imagine mustering up some wedding planning excitement any time soon. But it also could be a great distraction and a good chance for some bonding with your mom. All things to consider. But, it’s also okay to decide that it’s right for you (for you, not just your fiancé) to wait and get married later, and instead spend this time with your mom in a different way.

No matter what you decide, give yourself a little space to grieve the wedding that you wanted. The one with your mom, and no cancer, and all the little details you had planned. That’s tough. It can feel a little weird or selfish to be sad about your wedding right now (it’s not), so make sure you grant yourself that room. And then, eventually, get back to planning next year’s trip. Maybe you won’t be getting married then, like you planned, but it doesn’t mean you can’t travel. I’m sending my very best wishes that your mom will be able to go with you just the same, that all of this planning and hurrying will be for nothing.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

Staff Picks

[Read comment policy before commenting]

  • rg223

    Definitely agree with Liz about tuning out the partner for a sec, and reading the APW posts listed. You’re not alone, LW.

    I want to pull out one particular phrase from the letter too: “Nor do I feel ready to get married in in that time frame.” LW, do you mean you don’t feel ready in the sense of “I won’t have time to get everything done that needs doing” or “I need more time to be emotionally/mentally ready to commit to my partner”? Because if it’s the latter, I think that’s a great reason to keep your original wedding timeline. As difficult as this situation is, it’s not ideal to rush into a marriage if you still need time to process. Hugs and good luck, LW!

    • penguin

      Hard agree, that line stood out to me too. Don’t get married if you’re not ready!

    • Lawyerette510

      I was just scrolling down here to write the same thing. I think it’s the only piece of advice missing from Liz’s response. If the LW does not feel ready to be married in the shorter time-frame, then she shouldn’t rush to be married because of her mom’s diagnosis. If the LW isn’t sure about having a wedding in that time frame, then she should fully embrace Liz’s advice.

    • Yeah I was really confused by that line… why would you get engaged if you don’t feel ready to be married?

      • Liz

        Yeah, I think she probably meant “I won’t be ready to have a wedding” in that timeframe.

      • K.K.

        Could be other things she wants to tie up first (closing a long-distance relationship, completing grad school, paying off debt)?

  • honeycomehome

    You mention what you (probably) want and what your partner (probably) wants, but it made me wonder: What does your mom want? What will bring her joy? Seeing her daughter embracing life and a planning a dream wedding? Or is seeing her daughter get married more important? I don’t think there is a right answer, because different moms would feel differently. It’s a tough conversation, but I think it’s one you should have with your mom. She might have wishes that will help clarify your own.

  • Sarah

    So it comes down to priorities- although your choices are more difficult to make than the normal fancy with fewer guests vs. budget with lots of guests decision most brides are making.

    What is most important: having Mom see you get married or having the wedding that you (and maybe Mom too) dreamed about. There is no right or wrong answer.

    If you do plan on doing the quick simple wedding where Mom can come, there is nothing to stop you in the future from doing a vowel renewal the way you wanted your wedding to be.

  • sage

    I am so sorry, LW. Completely agree with Liz about giving yourself time and space to grieve the destination wedding you wanted where your mom is healthy and in attendance. With a sick parent a lot of plans can go out the window unexpectedly, and the unknowns are awful. And it sounds like you are getting people’s opinions and pressure on all sides, which (even if they are well-meaning) totally sucks.

    Do whatever works best for you right now, with the information you have now, and adjust as needed during your engagement.

    My fiance’s mom has been very sick for some time now, and still we are having a wedding with a long lead up. Fiance has long been processing the loss of his mother (mentally and physically) over years, so he did not feel the need to speed things up when her health declined significantly over this past Christmas. However, if my own mother received a diagnosis of terminal cancer right now, you bet there would be some recalculations happening. Your partner needs to take cues from you on this, as this situation affects you more.

  • penguin

    We are in a similar situation, although it’s not the same (it’s my grandfather who I’m close to, not a parent). He was diagnosed with terminal cancer about a year ago, and we got engaged this past December. At his diagnosis, they gave him about a year. We didn’t know what to do in terms of wedding planning – have a small wedding with him now, and a big wedding later? Have the wedding we want later, and nothing right now?

    My fiancé was open to whatever I wanted to do, although we both agreed that we weren’t ready to get married right away, even if we’d have another wedding later on. I ended up talking it through with my grandmother. She and I are very close, and talk several times a week anyway. She told me to do whatever we wanted to do, and whatever would make us happy. She said that they would both do their best to be there, but that we shouldn’t try to plan around grandpa. “He could be dead tomorrow, or he could still be here in a couple years” were her words. What we ended up doing was planning our wedding for October, so our engagement will be about 10 months long. This is what was best for us, that calculation will be different for everyone.

  • Eh

    My mother passed away from cancer when I was a teenager. After her diagnosis we thought we would have two years with her but it turned out we had four months. It’s really difficult to know how someone with terminal cancer is going to feel on any given day, and sometimes things happen very quickly. I attended Prom while my mom was in the hospital. Something that should have been such a happy event was not what I dreamed of at all. My dad was with my mom at the hospital, an hour away, so my younger sister was the one that took the pictures of me and my boyfriend. I was so sad about having fun while my mom was sick that I ended up leaving early. At the time I thought a lot about the things my mom would miss and how I wish I could have sped up my life so she could see graduate high school, get married, have children. Some of those things seemed possible when we thought she had two years to live, but were impossible with a four month timeline. I know (and knew at the time) that getting married and having children with my boyfriend at the time was a bad idea. That didn’t make going through those events, more than 10 years after she passed away, any easier. I still wish my mom could have been at my wedding (and my siblings weddings). I am still sad that my mom never got to meet any of her grandchildren.

    You have to do what you are comfortable with. If you are ready to get married and couldn’t imagine getting married without her there, then you will have to make some accommodations to your dream wedding. If you can’t imagine planning a wedding while your mother is ill, you might need to push your wedding out further. Either way, as Liz said, give yourself space to grieve (and that is for any life event that you assumed your mom would be there for).

  • Sarah

    I agree with a lot of the advice already given, so I won’t repeat any of that. What I do want to add is that I have no regrets about having a different wedding than I had imagined because of my mother’s cancer diagnosis. Planning the wedding was also a fun distraction for us during months of chemo treatments and surgery recovery. Much love to you.

    • Katelyn

      Having a distraction is always really nice when anyone is very ill. My sister-in-law has brain cancer and after her surgery and during chemo, I was helping out with their kids on weekends. It was really nice to be looking at homes to buy at the same time, so we could talk about that together, instead of “so how’s the hole in your head feeling?”

      • penguin

        Especially if people are frequently asking them about the illness/injury they have. So with my grandpa we’ll talk about our gardens, or whatever, to get a break from all the cancer talk.

      • Eh

        My cousin was planning her wedding while my mom was sick (unfortunately it was a few weeks after she passed away). I know it was a nice distraction for my mom, and took away the attention from her illness sometimes.

  • Emily

    I’m am so so sorry LW. I hope you, your partner, and your family are able to talk about this and come to decision that feels mostly right for everyone. One of my favorite weddings I’ve ever read about (seriously, it’s my “Don’t Panic!” wedding reference – I have the link on the front page of my planning docs) is the backyard wedding planned in 17 days, which was done due to familial cancer: https://apracticalwedding.com/silverlake-backyard-wedding/. Beautiful things don’t always take time, so rest easy knowing you have some space to come to terms with all these life changes. Big hugs.

  • Mackinaw

    My advice would be to at least have a conversation with your mom’s doctor about what kind of timeline would be realistic.

    I got engaged a little over a year ago, married this past March, and lost my mom to cancer a little over a month later. We had originally planned to get married this coming Labor Day, but pushed up the wedding date as a result of mom’s oncologist saying that he couldn’t guarantee that she would be able to make it to September. While we had to change some things around, one of our major priorities for our wedding was to have the people that we loved be there. We couldn’t make sure that happened with a later date, so we compromised. It was well worth it for her to be able to walk me down the aisle, give a wonderful toast, and most importantly have a really good day to focus on as she entered a decline in her disease.

    We actually got notice that she was going into hospice while we were on our honeymoon. While that was sad enough, I would have hated to have the wedding itself shadowed by an empty chair for my mom.

  • Zoya

    Oof, this hits close to home. Right after we announced our engagement, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. The very first thing she said to us was, “Please don’t change your wedding plans on my account.” So we didn’t, exactly. We’d already been planning a big wedding for over a year out, and we decided to stick with that plan. But we’d also been toying with the idea of a separate legal ceremony (for a variety of boring logistical reasons, plus I’ve always secretly wanted to elope to San Francisco City Hall). So we didn’t change our plans “for her,” but it gave us the push we needed. We got legally married last year with our immediate families, and our big wedding is in a month (From today! Aaaaa!)

    For us, this was 100 percent the right decision. We got to eat our cake and have it too. For us, the City Hall ceremony wasn’t a compromise–it stands on its own. It was the intimate day I wanted, a chance to let the legal and emotional stuff settle before plunging into wedding planning madness, and also a way to make sure his mother could be present. The big wedding is when we’ll do the religious/spiritual ceremony (in our case, Jewish), when we’ll exchange rings, and when we’ll have the big fun dance party my husband has dreamed of. And none of this is a secret–we did a combined marriage announcement/save-the-date, and have had nothing but warmth and support from our families and friends about it. (I’ve gotten some mild teasing at work, but that I can handle.)

    That said, there was a lot of soul-searching that went into this, and some pretty hard conversations before we arrived at the two-wedding decision. If we weren’t already genuinely excited about a City Hall ceremony–if it would have felt like a lesser option or a compromise–I could easily see us making a different choice.

    At the time we got legally hitched, it wasn’t clear whether his mom would make it to the big wedding. She passed away in April. So we’re deep in those grief-infested waters now. Planning a wedding while grieving a loved one is HARD, but it is easier knowing that we got to celebrate with her in a way that worked for us. And I am letting myself mourn, just a little, the innocent and uncomplicated wedding we thought we were planning when we started out last spring.

    Best of luck to you, LW. None of this is easy, and whatever decision you make will be the right one. Not the easy one, not the regret-free one, but the right one.

    • NolaJael

      “Please don’t change your wedding plans on my account.” This is a more common reaction than people who haven’t dealt with a lot of cancer might expect. Often the cancer patient feel like their diagnosis is a burden to others or is upending their life and shouldn’t necessarily have a domino effect on others. Family members might want to throw up their hands and shout “of course everything is different!” which only adds stress and guilt on the patient. It’s important to respect the patient’s feelings in the moment even if you do end up changing your plans because of the diagnosis.

  • Cellistec

    LW, you’re not alone. I went through this too. Less than 4 months after I got engaged, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He thought he had 3 months; he turned out to have 3 weeks. During that time my now-husband and I decided to put wedding planning on hold and opted not to have a civil ceremony at my parents’ house with my dad. My rationale at the time was A) like you, I knew it wasn’t the wedding I wanted, and B) I didn’t want my younger sister to be the only one of us 6 kids to get married without our dad there.

    It was the best I could do at the time. But in hindsight, I would give anything–anything–to have wedding photos with my dad in them. But these are the kind of things you can’t know at the time. Just be willing to forgive yourself in the future, because these decisions are almost impossible.

  • A big ol’ yes to grieving the wedding you wanted. We all deal with our struggles and knowing this I personally have a hard time feeling sad about things when I know some people have it so, so much worse. But allowing yourself some time to just be sad about it is not selfish. <3

  • Mrrpaderp

    So sorry LW. Great advice here, just wanted to add some practical points. My now-ex’s mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months after we got engaged. We decided to move forward with our 1.5 year engagement and a local, rather large wedding.

    But we knew that if his mom passed, like, a month before the wedding, no one would feel like celebrating. Even though it’s awful to think about, you can take steps early in the planning process to protect yourself. Read your contracts carefully and negotiate the cancellation clauses. A typical cancellation clause says that the vendor keeps the deposit if you cancel for any reason. A lot of vendors will work with you under these circumstances, though. Talk to them and see what they’re willing to do. Refund part or all of the deposit? Apply the deposit to a new, mutually-agreeable date? At the very least, if the worst happens, you’ll have one less logistical and financial nightmare to deal with.

    • EF

      absolutely seconding this advice. it’s one reason we did catering the way we did.

  • Pingback: How Do I Plan a Wedding after My Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis? – Jewelry Finder 4 U()

  • Griefandjoy

    Sending good wishes to the LW and her mom, that’s such a tough situation to be in. I experienced a pretty different situation, but just wanted to chime in on your worry of what if my mom dies a week before the wedding. I lost my dad suddenly a month before our wedding. Obviously we couldn’t plan around that because it came out of nowhere. If this happens, you can still have a wedding. A beautiful joyful wedding. A wedding full of more support than you can imagine. We had a memorial service, and then two and a half weeks later, we had a wedding, and it was pretty powerful to have some of those same people, plus more loving friends, present and willing to celebrate our joy. I definitely had a moment of wondering if it should be put off, or if I needed a very private ceremony to manage my feelings, but ultimately, we went ahead with our plans. The heart has room for joy and grief at the same time, it’s pretty amazing, and if you decide to go ahead with your longer timeline, you will be OK (some therapy in the weeks between might not hurt either).

    • “The heart has room for joy and grief at the same time,…” Yes, this is something I was surprised to discover. For me (with different circumstances and a less immediate loss), it meant I didn’t have the idealistic experience I thought it would be, but it felt very real and meaningful…

  • Abs

    My father died a little more than two years before my wedding, after a short illness. At the time, my partner and I were planning to get married someday, but not ready to be engaged. I had periodic wild notions of getting married so that he could be there–but in fact it was right for me to wait a year after he died before starting to plan.

    When a parent is dying it is normal to be overwhelmed by all the milestones they are going to miss. Having just had a wedding without my dad, though, I think that, for me, all the other days I’ve missed him wouldn’t have been any easier if he had been there for that one. If a closer, sooner wedding is something that you and your family need in this moment, that can be wonderful. But I think that my dad just wanted to know I was ok, and with a person who made me happy. He would have hated a wedding that was all about him and his illness.

    Basically, it’s easy to focus on the milestones, but they’re not always as important as you think.

  • Zahava

    I so feel for you. My dad died from cancer a few days before our wedding. After he had been sick with cancer for nearly a decade, he died…a few days before our wedding. We had taken his illness into account when choosing our wedding date (it was one factor in our choosing to get married just five months after we got engaged) and our wedding location (local to him because by the time we got engaged he couldn’t travel comfortably) but there was no way we could know how much time he had with enough certainty for it to really help us in making plans. In case it’s useful for you, some of the things that helped me were:
    – Talking to him about what he wanted. It was really hard to talk with him about how he was going to die soon. Really hard. But I’m so glad that he was able to tell me what he most wanted, which was to see me in a pretty white dress making vows to my now-wife. When he took a major downturn a few months before our wedding date, we went ahead and had a small commitment ceremony in his hospital room. We considered going ahead and having our legal marriage ceremony then, but decided for some other reasons that we preferred to stick with our original date for that, and he was totally happy with the dresses and vows of commitment (and champagne and flowers). That we had this ceremony with him is one of maybe the top three things in my life that I’m most grateful for.
    – Planning ahead for how to handle the different difficult possibilities: planning how to include him in our wedding if he had died before it (we put his favorite flowers in our bouquets), planning ahead for what we would do if he was alive the day of our wedding but not well enough to attend, planning ahead for what he would do if he was well enough to attend but needed significant assistance to be out and about.
    – Getting help. We ended up getting a month-of coordinator who saved our lives. Our wedding was pretty simple and we hadn’t thought we would need that kind of help, but when my dad went into hospice two months before the wedding we realized there was no way we could spend the time we needed to with him and also plan the wedding that we wanted. Luckily we had the financial resources to hire the coordinator. We also had a ton of friends who pitched in in every way imaginable. It turned out to be especially meaningful that so many of our dear friends contributed in practical ways to making our wedding happen — we felt so incredibly supported by our community, which was something we especially valued since much of my wife’s family didn’t support our marriage. You might not need to get all this in place now, but it could be useful to consider what resources you could call on if you do need to.
    – Reminding myself that what my dad most wanted was for me to enjoy my wedding and have happiness with my wife. Sometimes I felt like there was no way I could actually be happy, even if he would want me to be, but it was good to remind myself that being happy wasn’t a betrayal of him — if anything, it was honoring him.
    I’m so sorry that you’re not going to be able to have the wedding that you dreamed of, with a mom without serious health problems. I trust that whatever you decide, it will still be wonderful and full of love.

  • EF

    so also someone who’s been through a very similar situation. we got engaged, told everyone, the inlaws planned a celebration outing 2 weeks later…..except that was cancelled because my future mother in law was having emergency surgery. turned out it was cancer, and bad.

    we changed things a lot. suddenly, the question of which country to get married in wasn’t a question, we’d get married in the country my partner is from (and where we live, and where his parents live). we looked at venues that were accessible, because we knew she might need a wheelchair by then. we got special food that she could eat. we had a short wedding – ceremony, reception upstairs, midafternoon and done by 6, because we knew she wouldn’t have the energy for more. we also paid for a professional photographer rather than a student at the last minute, and were absolutely right that that was the last time there would be professional pictures of that whole family together. i wore a dress, because it was important to her. there were other smaller things too.

    was it what we wanted? meh, sorta, somewhat, not really – depends what day you ask me.

    but yknow what? anything that we didn’t do, we can do later. we keep saying we’ll have a badass anniversary party in a few years to do all the things we didn’t do originally. and that’s fine. because she was an awesome lady, and she deserved to see her son have a ton of joy, to see her family all together one last time, and to know that life would continue.

  • Pingback: How Do I Plan a Wedding after My Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis? | Wedding Adviser()

  • Snowdog

    So sorry to hear about your Mum, life seems so unfair at times. I will share my similar experience in case it might help in any way. My partner and I always dreamed of a beach destination wedding somewhere in Fiji with just a couple of our closest friends and family with lots of sunshine. But, my Mum is in kidney failure and has been on dialysis for about 2 years now waiting on a transplant meaning she can’t travel out of the country and needs a clean private area to do her type of dialysis 5 times a day. It was a no brainer for me that she would have to be at the wedding so we found a small private beach not far from our house that has 2 batches onsite we have hired, meaning Mum can slip away from the party when she needs to do an exchange or have a nap since she gets tired easily. To start with my partner was a bit upset that we couldn’t have the day exactly like he had always dreamed but now we have the wedding planned we are both so excited about it and couldn’t have pictured anything better. And to top it off, my Mum has a transplant scheduled for next week :)

  • D.

    I’m so sorry you’re facing this decision. I was in a similar situation, where my Dad was battling cancer at the time that I got engaged in January, two years ago. A few family members suggested planning the wedding for April or May, but that just wasn’t realistic and also I would have felt robbed of a lot of that happy engaged time that I’d witnessed my cousin and friends enjoying. We ended up getting married at the end of August, and while my Dad was still able to attend, he was declining and in pain during our wedding.

    The time from January to August was filled with some of my happiest memories but also with a lot of tears, pain, and doubt about the very same concerns you mentioned. I kept thinking about what would happen if my Dad couldn’t be there, and how I would feel on my wedding day if he had just died days before. I remember a huge weight lifting off my shoulders in the days after the wedding once I could stop going through those worst-case scenarios.

    It’s such an impossible decision, and I truly feel for you.