Three deaths make wedding plans hard

I want the occasion to be joyous, but I might crack with grief

Published June 29, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

I very much enjoyed Monday's comments to the "What do lovers talk about when they talk about philosophy?" column. It had been quite some time since I had been able to read through the whole comments section, actually, and I was taken at the depth and complexity -- and warmth! -- of the responses. I now feel humble and honored that mine is among these many voices.--ct

Dear Cary,

I am in my mid-20s, recently engaged to my long-term boyfriend (we've been together since our freshman year of college). We are very excited to be getting married next spring and we are looking forward to hosting a very nice, but small celebration to bring together our friends and families, who are strewn all over the country and the world and many of whom have not met each other before.

I am having a very hard time beginning to plan our wedding, though. As excited as I am to be marrying a man I love dearly, I am in a lot of pain from past tragedies. Over the last three years, three of the people I was closest to in the world have passed away. Two of these people were my best friends from childhood who died separately, a year apart from each other, both as a result of tragic accidents. The third person was my closest cousin, with whom I had always shared a strong bond, who was diagnosed last year with a very aggressive leukemia and died five months later.

I am still very much in the grieving process and miss all three of these people terribly. Many days it is hard for me to even get through my daily routine of going to school and work. I am the sort of person who has always had just a very few, very close friends. These three people were it for me, essentially. I have few remaining close friends, apart from my fiancé. Without my very supportive fiancé and family, for whom I am immensely thankful, I have no idea how I would have the strength to get through it at all. It hasn't gotten easier with time, especially since each loss was so closely followed by another unimaginable loss. This tragic series of events and the degree of pain that I am continuously experiencing weighs on me greatly and I am not sure when, if ever, I will get through it. This has made it really difficult to try to begin planning what I want to be a happy and joyous wedding.

My biggest issue obviously is that I am still trying to make sense of this new reality, that I will forever be without my three closest and most beloved friends. That is first and foremost. I remain very close to my two deceased best friends' families (and of course to my cousin's family as well) and I try to do much in my life to honor their lives and to not let my memory of all of the wonderful times and bonds we shared fade. I write about my memories and thoughts often and it helps a lot. I talk about these things with my fiancé, my family and their families. I don't ever want to (and don't believe I ever could) reach a point where they are not prominent in my thoughts. So in planning a wedding, I want to include them as well.

I always just assumed that all three of them would be a part of my wedding. If I ever imagined my wedding as a girl, I naturally pictured the three of them as my bridesmaids. I now have to let that image go, of course, and that is heartbreaking. But more than that, it is heartbreaking that life goes on without them, that happy occasions can take place in their absence. I am supposed to be (and I am) happy for all the good things in my life. But I am overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. Part of me fears that my wedding will turn out to be too emotional for me; I will break down during the ceremony. And that part of me wants to just elope. But then I feel that this is a wonderful opportunity to finally bring together all of the people that my fiancé and I care about in one place and I know that my friends and cousin would want me to do this.

I am not sure what I'm asking for here, I just feel at a loss in the middle, somewhere between grief and happiness. I need encouragement, a way of thinking that I will somehow be able to handle the emotions and stress of planning and having this wedding.

Is there anything I could do to respectfully and tactfully honor my friends and cousin during the wedding itself? Also, I am trying to figure out how to arrange the wedding party. I am not at all concerned with having a traditional wedding and I'm a very easygoing and laid-back person most of the time, not the type to get all stressed out about details (and I don't care about the appearance of having balanced girls/guys or anything like that). But I don't know what to do about this.

Since I really don't have any other close female friends or cousins and since I have no sisters, I have considered: not having a wedding party at all (though this is not really desirable because my fiancé has several good friends he would like to ask to be groomsmen), asking my brothers to be a part of my "side" instead of bridesmaids, or asking not-so-close female friends. I would not create a fuss about their participation in any way so I seriously doubt it would be a burden on them (I wouldn't expect them to buy a particular dress/shoes and I wouldn't expect them to host a shower or anything else, especially since -- if they agreed -- they would be coming from out of town). I have discussed this with my fiancé and my family, of course, but I remain unsure of how best to proceed. This wedding party stuff is a very minor detail but I have to admit it is another thing that has made planning this wedding quite painful for me, as it just reminds me that I no longer have close female friends in my life and reminds me of just two years ago when I served as a bridesmaid for one of my friends who is now gone.

I believe anything you could tell me would be of help.

Planning a Happy Occasion While Grieving

Dear Planning a Happy Occasion While Grieving,

After reading a letter like yours we place ourselves in your shoes. We imagine the desolation of losing these people and we ask, Where will the strength come from, how will we do this? How will we get the wisdom to make the right decision? Not to mention the whole inner, spiritual part of this: How do you manage day-to-day, how you feel as you go from work to school to home to work to school?

And then we turn to others. We know we can't do it alone so we begin looking around us for allies.

People do come through for us. The bigger and more tragic the circumstance the more willing certain people are. People like to rise to the occasion. They will let us down in small things but perform miracles when it matters.

So I suggest you think deeply about your not-so-close female friends and spend some time with each of them with an eye toward choosing one of them to be your female partner in this enterprise. I am not sure what the right word would be for this person. The traditional word is presumably "maid of honor" but "project manager" might be more descriptive.

It will be best to spend time with potential candidates and observe without stating your reasons. It will be best to do this over a period of weeks. What you are doing is scouting. You are looking for a new best friend but also for a purposeful ally. It will be helpful but not necessary for this person to have also experienced some loss, so that she can more easily understand what you have been through and how difficult this is for you.

You will want someone whom you do very much like but also someone capable of understanding that she is being asked to play an important part in your life both emotionally and in a practical way. Pay attention to how you feel around them and also observing if they are practical, balanced, thoughtful and compassionate and willing to undertake what you ask of them.

Do this because even if you were not going to get married you need to replenish your supply of girlfriends. In the past, things just worked out. Then they went tragically wrong, in a way so systematic as to suggest a sinister design.

I'm no expert on weddings but it seems to me it would be appropriate to ask an articulate friend or family member to eulogize these three important people in your life who would be in your wedding party if they were alive today. This might be done at the time that seems most appropriate to you and others -- at a private dinner or at the wedding reception or perhaps even as apart of the ceremony. Make a careful choice.

Maybe photographs can be displayed, or music they loved can be played. Such an acknowledgment can be as discreet or as elaborate as seems tasteful. Try to gain consensus on how to do this. Some people may have clear and fixed ideas about what is permissible at a wedding. Their thoughts will help delineate the boundaries of "good taste," but the decision will be yours.

If you do this with courage and an open heart, it may prove to be literally a rite of passage out of grief into new life.


Citizens of the Dream

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