I wasn’t the type of kid that planned my fantasy wedding growing up. (That didn’t happen until my college roommate and I discovered Pinterest.) But ever since the day my dad died I knew that someday, if I was lucky enough to meet my soulmate, I would have to get married without my dad by my side. No father-daughter dance, no seat for him at the dinner table, and no Daddy walking me down the aisle – simple enough. I like to think I coped with the loss of my dad very well when I was a kid. But nobody told me that when I became an adult, I would have to grieve his loss all over again. Nobody told me that the pain of losing him would creep back up from wounds that had healed long ago.
Nobody told me that planning my wedding would also feel like planning a funeral.
The pain of getting married without my dad actually started long before I was even engaged. Ryan and I would talk about getting married every once in a while in a “someday” kind of way. But one time, he said something that struck me pretty unexpectedly: “It kind of sucks that I won’t be able to ask your dad’s permission to propose to you.”
I sat there speechless, and as I thought about it I realized that he was right. It did suck. And not just ‘kinda,’ but it actually really, really, really, really sucked. My dad never had the chance to give us his blessing to spend the rest of our lives together. What bothered me wasn’t wondering whether or not he would have given us his blessing, but the fact that he never even had the opportunity to give us his blessing. He never even got a chance to meet Ryan and that just breaks my heart. I know Ryan is exactly the man my dad would want me to be with; he’s patient, hardworking, laid back, naturally kindhearted, musically inclined, talented beyond words, and most importantly, he laughs at all the jokes I learned from my dad. In a lot of ways, I think Ryan is everything my dad always wanted to be, but that’s a story for another day.
With no doubt in my mind that Ryan was the one for me, the day came when he proposed. We were 19 and oh-so-in-love and oh-so-sure of ourselves. The proposal was adorable, funny, romantic, and overwhelmingly sweet. We couldn’t wait to share the news with everyone.
We got to share the excitement with all of our families and friends… except, not with my dad.
The wedding planning began shortly after. The planning itself was easy; Ryan and I have very simple taste and we wanted the wedding to be easy and breezy – which it was. But with every invitation I addressed, I grew more and more frustrated. I can’t explain exactly why I felt the way I did, but I talked about this with my brother at one point and I remember finally being able to put some of my feelings into words. I told him, I think it would be easier if my dad was alive, but not involved in my life because then, I could send him an invitation and he could just not show up to the wedding and that would be his choice. But it just kills me that he doesn’t have that choice; that he never even got the chance to decide whether or not he would be there.
He just can’t be there and there is no way around it.
After my dad died, I always knew my brother would walk me down the aisle on my wedding day, if I ever got married. My brother is truly amazing and I could go on and on about how awesome he is. There’s no one else that I could have pictured giving me away to be husband-to-be, since my dad couldn’t do it. Even still, when it came time to ask my brother to walk me down the aisle, I procrastinated for months. It actually got so close to the wedding that my mom would call me twice a day and ask “Have you talked to Eric yet?” and every day I’d give a reluctant “…No.”
The thing is, it just wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Just casually calling my brother up and saying “Hey, wanna give me away at my wedding?” wasn’t easy. I knew he wouldn’t say ‘no,’ but I also knew that once I asked my brother to walk me down the aisle, it would confirm the fact that my dad wouldn’t be there with me on my wedding day. Once I said it aloud, I couldn’t take it back; I couldn’t change my reality and I couldn’t escape the pain. I had to give up all hope that somehow, someway, life without my dad had all just been one big, sick, practical joke and he’d show up at my wedding and tell me some amazing story about why he’d been away for over a decade and couldn’t contact us for fear of our safety… or something like that. Obviously deep down I always knew that wasn’t going to happen. We watched him die and saw him in lay his casket. Giving up hope just doesn’t sit well with me.
Once I gave his fatherly duty away to someone else, no matter how loving and deserving that someone else was, it meant he was really gone… forever.
You might be wondering if/when I ever got the courage to call my brother up and ask him if he’d walk me down the aisle at my wedding. The answer is: no. In true Emily fashion, I sat down and wrote him a 6 page letter, then I mailed it to him, even though he lived just down the street. At the end of the letter, I did ask the question. Writing that letter was both heart-wrenching and therapeutic. The people in my family aren’t big on talking about feelings, which is where I’m extremely different from them, so writing seems to be the one way I can communicate with my family that’s comfortable for all of us. Eric did call me to tell me that he received my letter and that yes, of course he would walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. Hearing his answer made me equally happy and sad.
The constant gnawing of the absence of my dad seemed to fade away during the week before the wedding. We were so busy with the errands and the parties and the rehearsal and the decorations that I really didn’t have time to think about anything other than the logistics of the wedding.
On the day of our wedding, the absence of my dad didn’t really hit me until we were at the venue. My mom, my bridesmaids and I were all in the bridal suite while our (most amazing) photographer was in there taking some candid shots of us all getting ready. The photographer wanted some photos us just my mom and I, so she told me to just look at my mom and talk to her casually; to say whatever was on my mind. Before I could even think, I just blurted out the words “I really wish Dad was here.”
When it was time for the wedding procession to begin, the wedding coordinators told me to stay in the bridal suite while everyone took their seats and our bridal party processed in. In those few moments alone, my usually calm, held-together composure went out the window. I went into a full-blown panic attack. I just kept talking to my dad aloud, telling him that I was so mad that he couldn’t bet there; that I couldn’t do this without him; that it should have been him waiting outside my bridal suite door and crying tears of pride and joy at how I looked in my wedding dress and at the woman I’d become; that it should have been him dancing with me and giving me away to the man I love. He should have been there. I told him I knew it wasn’t his fault, but that didn’t make me any less anxious, not knowing how I could possibly go through the happiest day of my life when it was also one of the saddest days of my life because I missed my dad so terribly. Not knowing what else to do, I started to recite what I remembered of two poems that I’d read a couple of weeks before:
“My little Girl, don’t cry for me
I’ll be right by your side.
I’d never miss out on this day
that you become a bride.
I’m here with you to hold your hand
and give your heart away
To a man God chose to take care of you
forever from this day.
Today, I place your hand in his
with blessings and with pride.
My little Girl, Don’t cry for me
I’ll be right by your side.” – Author unknown
“Dear Lord please clear a spot for him;
he should have the perfect view.
His little girl’s a Bride today,
and I am counting on you.
Let me feel his presence;
as I journey down the aisle.
But let me notice his absence;
if only for a while.
Let me stop to think of him;
As I am given away.
And know that if he could;
he would be here with me today.
Dear Lord please clear a spot for him;
he should have the perfect view.
And if he should get sad today;
Dear Lord, I count on you.” – Author unknown
As I spoke lines from these poems aloud to myself, my anxiety began to fade. I started to focus my mind on Ryan and our love and the amazing journey we’d been on together. I started to feel different – better, somehow. It felt as if my dad had reminded me of those poems that I’d read before at that exact moment when I needed them most. It definitely helped to calm me down and whether it was coincidence or divine intervention, I’ll forever be in awe of the power of words.
The wedding ceremony went smoothly and it was so beautiful, beyond anything I’d imagined while we were putting it all together. (S/O to my bridesmaids and my mom.)
During the reception, we set out a photo of my dad, along with photos of my late grandmother and my late godfather, to honor their spirits.
The father/daughter dance was replaced with a dance for my brother and I to my mom’s favorite song, I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack. (She’s dedicated that song to my siblings and I since we were young. I even have the lyrics tattooed on my foot.) Since my mom pretty much raised me as a single parent for most of my life, I wanted to do something special for her at our wedding. So halfway through the song, my brother and I made our way over to my mom and she took my brother’s place in finishing the dance with me. There were a lot of tears (and I mean so, so, so many tears). Looking back at it now, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I got to share such a unique, special moment with my mom and my brother that I probably wouldn’t have had if my dad would have been there. Although it’s not a fair trade, I’m thankful for the outcome. It didn’t feel that way when we planned it, but I’m thankful to have that perspective now. I know that my dad would have wanted both my brother and my mom to have a moment of recognition at my wedding because of everything they’ve done in his absence. That’s what makes it a little easier to take.
Honestly, the rest of the wedding is all kind of a blur. An exciting, fun, happy blur with overwhelming amounts of love sparkling in the air.
Sometimes I still find myself, almost 2 years later, sitting and thinking about what it would have been like if my dad had been there dancing with us, or what about that day would have made him cry, or what color suit he would have worn. Would his hair have been gray by then? Would he have complained about having to dress up the way he always did? What goofy, outrageous things would he have done to steal the show just for a minute and make everyone laugh until their bellies hurt?
Some of those unanswered questions make me smile and some make me cry.
To this day, though, it still hurts me to think about it and to feel his absence. He has missed out on so much throughout my life, but not having my dad there with me at my wedding is one thing I have yet to fully accept.
As I watched my sister-in-law dance with my father-in-law at her wedding last summer, the pain of my dad’s absence at my own wedding hit me again.
I browse through our wedding photos every now and again and still feel defeated every time I realize my dad isn’t in a single one of them.
I don’t understand how people go through a significant loss without believing in the afterlife because sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the day is believing that my dad is with me in spirit even if he can’t be with me in the flesh. And that is what I hold onto when I get overwhelmed with sadness and my dad’s absence feels like it’s all too much to handle.
I guess there is nothing anyone could have said to me that would have prepared me for getting married without my dad. I try not to be angry or feel cheated, but sometimes, trying isn’t enough.