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Wedding with Terminally Ill Parent?

Should we wait or should we hold the wedding with this special person present?

First, I acknowledge this is not an easy conversation to have or even a consideration any couple wants to make. And yet, with a growing number of mature people becoming wed later in life, aging parents are part of reality. I witness couples making decisions intrepidly, when situations unfold around a terminally ill parent or other family member. I’ve led brief ceremonies in ICU units or at homes — when the timing is urgent — yet perspectives are grounded. Since I’m finding little written on the topic, I hope this post will add to a dialogue that hopefully grows.

Candle light and shells were important elements in the ceremony.

Candle light and shells were important elements in the ceremony.

This month I led a living room wedding ceremony with a brave and brilliant Mother of the Bride present, who was living her final days in home hospice care. The experience felt surreal at times. It also prompted me to share a few ideas about what I respect as a very personal decision making process. These are relevant questions if you or someone you know is wedding planning in the wake of terminal illness:

Do we choose love or fear? The family with whom I led this recent wedding stared this question right in the face. They chose love; to have a wedding with those they hold dearest, along with a healthy dose of respect for an inevitable course of events they could not change. Choosing love meant asking each other tough questions about who needed what and how they would each be involved.

Whom do we ask to be present? Simplicity reigns supreme here. Keeping the guest list limited to the utmost inner-circle, especially when the person nearing the end of his or her life needs minimal to no external stimulation, is key.

When do we move a set wedding date forward? Do we cancel or keep the original date? Obviously, this involves countless variables. Venue reservations, vendors under contract, guests’ travel plans and so on might be just the beginning. Moving a wedding closer in time to involve an intimate circle of people — most importantly the person who is terminally ill — does involve being creative and taking risks. If a true ceremony is held where the couple and everyone in attendance knows marriage occurred, not just a ‘show’ for the sake of photos or egos, then another wedding ceremony itself may not be necessary. A wider circle of family and friends attending a reception and celebration later, though? Could be just what everyone would appreciate and enjoy.

What kind of ceremony or celebration is fitting? Again: think simplicity. Involving soft music and the elements (candles, water, soothing scents) may be more appropriate than usual. Keeping voices soft and messages brief are also important aspects. For the ceremony I mentioned earlier, I shared a family poem of deep meaning, written by the Mother of the Bride and read by her at previous family weddings. Then we shared short albeit heartfelt vows, a ring exchange and pronouncement. Simple. True. Real.

Beyond a home wedding, people may choose to hold ceremonies in a hospital or other care facility. With the presence of compassionate staff, many possibilities for families do exist. This article highlights an example where a couple and their families acted swiftly, in a hospital environment. The Mother of the Bride was failing quickly and the wedding was held very quickly to honor her presence and daughter’s wishes.

This is not easy terrain to walk. I wish you a calm heart and steady vision, based in love, if you or someone you love is walking it now. Feel free to contact me anytime for further conversation.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve led weddings whose date was moved forward because of an ailing parent. It really changes the mood of the event. I’ve Skyped the event to the person in the hospital even. But always base your decision on love.

    February 28, 2013
  2. Kristne #

    Yes! Based the decision upon love and be prepared for emotions . . . right Alan? Thanks for chiming in. Always good to hear from you.

    March 11, 2013
  3. Penelope #

    That’s for writing on this difficult subject. It has really helped me prepare for a ceremony I am working on at the moment.

    October 19, 2013
    • You are very welcome. It is tough and yet so vital. Best wishes to you . . .

      October 20, 2013
  4. Michelle #

    Thank you for writing this article – it was the first one i found about a year ago while trying to start planning our wedding – my mom has metastatic breast cancer and was not reacting well to the drug they had her on. My priest (Anglican) had lost his wife when his son was engaged so between your article and the my conversations with my priest I was able to move from frozen with fear to planning our wedding. My Mom would not let us move up the date and we are looking forward to our April 2014 wedding, my mom is still with us although a recent change in chemo drug has made her unwell again. this has been an emotional rollercoaster for me and i am sure there are others going through the same struggle.

    March 7, 2014
    • Dear Michelle, thank you for sharing your story. I am so heartened to hear you let your fear ‘melt’ or at least thaw – and began with your wedding planning. I hear you about the emotional rollercoaster and please know you are not alone. Blessings to you and your family, Kristine

      March 7, 2014
  5. A Hopeful Mom #

    We want to bless our daughter and new son-in-law to be by helping them have the wedding they would like. The grooms father is terminally ill, the prognosis is from a few months to 2+ years. We would all like the grooms father to be able to attend, and the kids want a fall wedding. The issue we are running into is that of cancellation policies. Most venues in our area require that you still pay the full event price if you have to cancel. Event insurance will not cover pre-existing conditions. Do you know of a way we might negotiate the contract given our current situation?
    Thank You.

    December 27, 2015
    • Hello Hopeful Mom,

      While I don’t know of a way to negotiate a legal contract to address your concerns, I can say that the couple choosing to hold a small ritual with the groom’s father and other family members or a having a private wedding with family only may be something worth considering. The larger event at a venue scaled for a larger guest list could still be held, in any case. It is a very difficult situation, no doubt. These are life decisions that have an impact, yes? And one truth I encounter again and again with terminal illnesses is that it is better to embrace “don’t wait” than to not. With best wishes for finding a way to the decision that uplifts all of your spirits and hearts, Kristine

      January 2, 2016

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