Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband Burt died two years ago, and for the most part my family and I are doing fine. The first year was very hard, but it was made easier by a lovely memorial service we had for him on a beach where he used to sail, when we had a family clambake and bonfire, told stories and read passages of poetry that had meant a lot to Burt, or that said a lot to us about the kind of values he had–for family, and for the natural environment. Now, as my son and daughter move into their own adult lives, I admit that I feel a bit lonely in the new home that we bought before we learned Burt was ill, but I love my work as a special education teacher, stay in touch with the kids, and have a circle of friends.
But recently I’ve been struggling with Burt’s loss again, as our daughter, Carrie, in her late 20’s, has gotten engaged to a man from another part of the country whose family comes from a higher social sphere than we do; they are used to fancy social gatherings in posh settings, and probably have never hiked a trail, lit a campfire,or pitched a tent in their lives. They’re nice enough, really, and Carrie and Joel seem to be well-matched, but his parents are accustomed to arranging big events, and so are marching ahead with making big plans for the wedding.
My problem is that as Carrie prepares to take this step, I’m feeling Burt’s absence more than ever… and I think she might be, too. It just feels so wrong to have to rely on her uncle to walk her down the aisle, and to know that it is her father’s arm she should be holding. I want so much for Burt to be recognized in some way, but I worry that Joel’s parents would say that this is not about him–they never met him, after all–but about our children. On top of that, I’m sort of an introvert, and Joel’s mother is really a force of nature, and I don’t know how to talk with her about this, or if Carrie would even want me to.
I’m so confused, and even a little tearful. What advice would you give someone like me?
It seems to be the way of grief, just as it is the way of love, to have to keep redefining the terms of our connection to our loved ones as life moves forward. Surely you would not be the first widow, nor Carrie the first bride, to feel a husband or father’s absence keenly during a subsequent marriage or other life passage. After all, Burt is half the reason that she is even in the world to walk down that aisle, and to bar him from even symbolic presence at the event seems to compound the sense of injustice that surrounds his absence. So what might be done to address this, for the sake of all parties?
The first thing to do is to talk with Carrie. Explain how you are feeling, and see if she shares some of your concerns and wishes, as very probably she will. Then brainstorm together some creative or ritual ways that you might bring Burt into the wedding weekend in appropriate places, while keeping the spotlight on the couple. This needn’t be hard, as some of these might be quite unobtrusive: perhaps your son might wear one of your husband’s ties, a song might be included that had special meaning to Burt, or a wedding gift given to the couple that reinforces your family’s love of nature, and invites Joel more fully into it. Or Burt might make a somewhat fuller symbolic appearance on the occasion, as you toast the couple in the rehearsal dinner on his behalf, reserve an empty seat alongside you in the pew, or suggest to the funeral celebrant a reading or story that would have a special meaning to both father and daughter. Not all of this needs to be negotiated between you, of course–some things can simply be a welcome surprise–but if you learn that Carrie too would welcome a tip of the hat to her father in the service, and that Joel would not object, then you could arrange a mother-to-mother talk with your counterpart and solicit her understanding and creative input as well.
In summary, in the several hours that most wedding functions last, and given the role traditionally played by proud parents in blessing their children’s new lives, it seems appropriate that all four of them have some brief opportunity to participate in this meaningful ritual of family transition–even in absentia. Bringing Burt in to play a symbolic celebratory role may prove bittersweet, but the whole family is likely to feel enlarged and affirmed by your doing so.