When Shawn and I got married, almost six years had passed since my mother’s death. I was 25, bright-eyed and excited about the future, in a dress with a skirt so big it looked like something a barbie doll might wear. It was a great weekend, and every single one of my extended family members showed up.
The rehearsal dinner was held in the backyard of my childhood home. We got tables from somewhere (maybe the church?) and my sister put candles in bowls filled with rice like she’d once seen at a bar. A local chef cooked for us, and then – one by one – each of my family members stood up and said something. They talked about how wonderful it was to see me happy, how great it was to welcome Shawn to the family, and all of the things that they hoped for our future. Shawn’s family and friends spoke as well, but my large family dominated the night.
They almost all mentioned my mom. Sometimes it was a major part of the speech, and sometimes it was just to say, “your mother would be so happy for you.” We all cried a lot, and I loved feeling so connected to my family. I loved everything they said about my mom. I really, really missed her on that day. As a child, I had always assumed that she’d be there when I got married, and thus I was so glad that we were making her a part of the celebration.
After Shawn and I were married, I remember telling people that my family repetitively spoke about my mom at the rehearsal dinner. “Wasn’t that awkward?” some of them asked. I insisted that it wasn’t. I thought it was perfect, actually.
I think there are a lot of ways to remember those we’ve lost. Many nights at dinner, we say a prayer in which we include the names of the people we loved and who are now gone. It’s an important ritual in our family. The end goes like this, “help us remember the needs of others, and those who are not with us, including Shawn, Susan, Fred, Joe, Ethel, Sam, Jessie and Ricardo.”
I love our dinner prayer, but I don’t think we have to always remember those we’ve lost at every moment. For example, when Claire graduated from 5th grade, I certainly thought about Shawn and how he would have loved to be there. But Claire just wanted to wave from the car during the parade and celebrate with her brothers afterwards. She didn’t want to talk forever about her dad. She simply wanted to be an 11-year-old kid who made it through elementary school and got to have the whole neighborhood cheer for her.
I don’t think this meant she forgot her father or doesn’t want to remember him at critical moments in her life. I think that it means that not every moment in life is a moment when we have to remember those we’ve lost. Sometimes, the best way to honor those we’ve lost is to continue to live our lives, simply, honestly, and with joy. That’s what she was doing that day.
And that’s what I want to do this fall, on the day that Chris and I get married.
That’s right – we are getting married! Yes, you may have read about the engagement if you’re an avid reader of this blog or you may have heard about it if you have a 6th grade girl and live within a 50 mile radius of our house. While we know that the pandemic makes things difficult to fully plan, we’re hoping to tie the knot this fall, and of course we want our closest friends and family there.
I don’t have a dress yet, but I can tell you this – it will be one that fits who I am now – a 42-year-old woman with three kids who knows a bit more about the world than a did a few decades ago. Chris and I aren’t getting married in a church (though we will get married by an Episcopal priest, a faith we share) and I won’t throw a bouquet to my single friends or have a parade of bridesmaids with matching shoes. Instead we’ll have our family at the front and the wildness of the outdoors around us.
We’re so excited!
I’ve been thinking about how it might go, having many of our family members and friends in one place, knowing the history that we all carry. Shawn’s presence will be there, of course, in the hearts of our family and friends. It will also be there in the way Claire’s eyes crinkle when she smiles and in the way Austin looks when he’s serious and in the laughter that Tommy brings to every joyful event.
But also – deep breath! – I have something I need to say here, just in case you end up at our wedding or just in case you’re going to a wedding of someone who was widowed in the past. And honestly I’m a writer and so I should know how to say this more eloquently, but I don’t, so here goes…..
I’m having some anxiety about our wedding day. Not about marrying Chris. But about what people might say to me on that day.
I am marrying Chris. Not Shawn. And the wedding that Chris and I will have – the one that will take place under a bright Autumn sky – it is a wedding that will be about our love. It will be one that celebrates what Chris and I have together, what our future will be like, and the happiness that we have shared and will share together. And while there are different ways that people choose to celebrate their marriage, I know this: I want it to be a day that’s just about me and Chris. I don’t want it to be a day where people are telling me over and over again, “Shawn is here in spirit,” or, “Shawn would be so happy for you,” or some other similar sentiment.
Marrying Chris does not negate the wonderful 15 years I spent with Shawn. Not at all. But also, I don’t want to feel like I have to mitigate my happiness on my wedding day to Chris just to prove that my marriage to Shawn was also real. But that’s how it’s going to feel if people keep reminding me of how much they miss Shawn on the day I marry Chris.
It was different with my mom’s death and my wedding to Shawn, for many obvious reasons that I don’t think I need to state here. Further, I think its important to note that Chris wants me to do whatever I want to do, and I know if I told him that I wanted to say a prayer for Shawn or light a candle or something else, he’d agree happily. He loves me and wants to do what makes me happy.
But what makes me happy is the idea that I’ll be able to have our wedding day be one where I am fully, totally, completely joyful with Chris – a day that’s just about us and our love.
At Claire’s 5th grade graduation, I was thinking of Shawn. But Claire wasn’t. She was simply overwhelmed with the fun of the day, and I didn’t need her to feel everything that I was feeling. I wanted to let her be consumed by the simple happiness that comes with a childhood milestone.
Of course, elementary school graduations and weddings are pretty different events. But really, the same sentiment is there. I know that if you end up at our wedding – or the wedding of another widowed friend of yours – you may have all sorts of emotions. You may think of Shawn. You may be sad and happy at the same time, and that is completely valid. I will not tell you how to feel. I’m just telling you that what I’m going to feel – the euphoria and the happiness with Chris – will not be about Shawn.
This is not a trigger warning. I will still be joyful when I marry Chris, no matter what anyone says to me. If you’re there, or watching from afar, I invite you to remember Shawn in your thoughts on this day, if that it what you feel. My wedding day might feel bittersweet for you, and that’s okay. I have had those bittersweet moments many times since Shawn died. But the essence of our wedding day is an invitation to feel our joy. That’s what I know I’m going to feel.
I haven’t forgotten Shawn. Neither have any of our friends and family, and neither have his kids. We all loved him so much. But when he got his diagnosis, do you know what the first thing was that he said to me? He told me that I had to get remarried. He was drugged from the colonoscopy and could barely raise his head, and that’s what he managed to choke out to me before he fell back asleep. He didn’t know what getting remarried would mean, and he didn’t know the path I’d take to be in the place that I am now. He just wanted me to be happy.
That’s what I’m doing. I am happy. I am not going to forget Shawn, but I’m living the life I want to live with Chris – a man who makes me coffee every morning and reads to the boys in the evening and remains steady (against all odds) in the face of pre-teen angst. So let our wedding day be an invitation to this happiness, by making it about new hope, new futures and the love that we are so lucky to share.