In October 2016, my other half and I got engaged. He surprised me with a trip to Paris and proposed overlooking the Eiffel Tower. We spent the weekend drinking champagne, walking by the Seine and eating macarons.
It’s a long journey from proposal to vows; 20 months, on average, and everyone has an idea of the experiences you’ll have along the way, the boxes you’ll tick; booking the venue, posting your invites, dress shopping, cake tasting, your hen weekend: all much-anticipated milestones on most brides’ lists.
Whizzing through the countryside on the Eurostar home, we wondered, wide-eyed at the things that might happen between now and our wedding. Would any other friends be engaged? Pregnant, even?
I couldn’t have anticipated the direction our wedding planning road would take.
In January, 15 months after we stood in that hotel room in Paris and 3 months before our wedding, I found myself in an ambulance, holding my mum’s hand as we were blue-lighted to A&E. At 6am that morning, I’d found myself on the phone to NHS 111. By 7am, a (wonderful) GP was in mum’s bedroom, asking if she could raise her arms above her head.
By that evening, my dad was persuading me to leave the chair next to her where I’d curled up, half asleep, holding her hand. Dazed and weary, we went home.
Mum had encephalitis, a brain infection brought on by, of all things, shingles (a nasty nerve infection, similar to chickenpox). It normally pops up on your chest or torso, but Mum’s was on her face. And where do the nerves on your face go? Yep, your brain.
She was put into an induced coma and spent eight days in intensive care. For those eight days, we didn’t know what would happen. Brains are all different; it was just a case of wait and see. She came round, but being awake wasn’t the same as being better. It was another six weeks before she could come home, and even then, a hospital bed, physiotherapist and interim care team came with her.
Obviously it goes without saying that the wedding fell completely off my radar. The only thing that mattered was Mum. But as the weeks and days ticked by, however irrelevant it all felt, decisions did have to be made.
We didn’t know if the wedding would need to be cancelled, or postponed, or done differently. We didn’t know how much she’d recover, or when. We didn’t know when we’d be able to make a decision. We just didn’t know.
You’re allowed to be heartbroken that you aren’t getting that wedding journey experience that everyone around you seems to be getting.
What I needed was real, practical advice on the situation I was facing. I tentatively googled “loved one + illness + wedding”. The results offered slim pickings; a few blog posts or forum chats, mostly pretty outdated, mostly American (and we all know how different the expectations around a wedding can be over there). And all with the same relentlessly chipper, infuriatingly unhelpful reprise: “do it anyway!”. Reading them, all I thought was, “I don’t want to…”
But what the hell should I do instead?
You may be dreaming of the fairytale wedding, but life isn’t a fairytale; it throws us curveballs sometimes. So for anyone facing a similar situation, here are a few things I have learned. I hope that in some way, however small, they might help you too.
1. Get Wedding insurance
I cannot stress this enough. When you get engaged, you never think you might have to have the ‘should we cancel our wedding?’ conversation. But it does, sometimes, happen. It’s not being morbid or paranoid; it’s being prepared.
When we’d had a few days for the giant question mark hovering over our wedding to sink in, my other half contacted our insurers to fill them in on the situation. He said it was ongoing, and that we would keep them informed as things developed. They replied almost straight away and told us not to worry; whatever happened, we’d be covered.
He did the same with our venue and suppliers. Every single one was fantastic. They came back with words of kindness and support and said, “Just let us know what you decide to do.” Remember that while these people are in the wedding biz, and that this huge day in your life is a normal day at the office for them… they are also people. They’ll get it.
It gave us so much peace of mind to know we were covered, and, more importantly, gave us the freedom to make the decision that worked for us.
2. Lean on your other half
My other half was my rock during all this. I can hand-on-heart say I would not have got through it without him. He made me dinner after another soul-destroying four-hour round trip to the hospital. He fielded emails from suppliers and texts from our friends when I couldn’t summon the energy to respond.
You are getting married because you love each other and want to support each other, for the rest of your lives. You’re marrying them “in sickness and in health”; it doesn’t specify whose health.
Make your wedding plans together, so that it’s no issue if you need to “hand over” control while you focus on your loved one. We had done a lot of planning by the time Mum fell ill. Making our decisions together meant that when I had to step back, he made sure it didn’t stall and that all the little things that could have slipped through the cracks when I did, still happened.
And let them look after you. You have limited energy and, if you’re anything like me, will be desperate to control something. Don’t. Don’t take on too much. Just be there for the person who needs you.
3. Involve them in it.
It gave me a lot of comfort to know that, if the worst should happen, Mum knew exactly what the wedding would be like.
She had seen my dress, she’d seen the bridesmaids dresses, knew what car we’d booked, had been to the venue. She’d seen my Pinterest board with ideas for flowers. While I’m not saying they suddenly become the centre of all your decisions (this is important: it’s still your day, not theirs), talk to them about the day, and help them picture it.
You are probably desperate for some kind of normality in all this – and theyprobably are too. I knew my mum wanted me to be excited about my wedding day. It was nice to have some of the “normal” wedding planning experiences, flicking through magazines together, even if it was on a hospital ward. It made her happy that I was happy.
Remember: They don’t want any of this to be happening either. They don’t want it to be about them.
4. Embrace technology
Mum was in hospital for two of my dress fittings. I was lucky in that she was awake by then, so I could beam it all to her live and in technicolour via FaceTime. She said it felt like she was there – and it did.
It may have been on my bridesmaid’s iPhone and interrupted by various hospital staff, but it meant I got to see her reaction to me in my dress for the first time. I heard her gasp and saw her cover her mouth with her hands. I was surprised; I thought it would seem clunky and awkward and just make me feel worse, but I’m so glad we gave it a try.
It also made both of us feel a lot better about Mum having to miss my hen do. We felt reassured – almost (who’d have thought it?) happy! I’d FaceTime her again and it would feel like she was a part of it.
I can be guilty of the mentality, “if it isn’t perfect then I don’t want to do it at all”. I’d decided if she couldn’t be there, it was going to be horrible, and that was that. If that’s you, try and let thatgo. Try other things. Try and make it work.
Sometimes, when confronted with a speedbump, technology can help you find a way around it.
5. Do what works for YOU
I knew, deep down, that my mum wouldn’t want me to cancel my wedding. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about what my mum wanted. It was about what I wanted.
You don’t have to “do it anyway”. You don’t owe it to anyone, including the person who is ill, to do it any way except the way you and your other half want to do it. It’s still your day.
If it becomes apparent they won’t be able to be there, and you decide you want to go ahead with it – go for it.
If you decide, for whatever reason, that you want to wait – then wait.
If you decide to do something else entirely, like bring it forward, or bring it to them (both options we considered) – then do that. It’s completely and utterly your decision, and yours only.
Nobody in their right mind would ever think that cancelling your wedding was a decision taken lightly. Nobody will judge you. Nobody will mind.
Listen to your heart, talk to your partner, be honest with yourself and do what is right for you.
6. Don’t sweat the small stuff – unless you want to
A wedding is just a day: a fabulous day, a magical day, a memorable day, but a day just the same. It’s a party, with two people at the heart of it. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember what is truly important.
That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a wedding. Even in the midst of a terrible situation, you are allowed to want a wedding! You are allowed to be upset, and angry, and wonder what the hell you’ve done to deserve this. You’re allowed to be heartbroken that you aren’t getting that wedding journey experience that everyone around you seems to be getting. It doesn’t make you a bridezilla, or a terrible person, or a heartless daughter/sister/mother/friend. It just makes you human.
We decided the wedding was going ahead six weeks before. I would have been heartbroken if it had looked rushed, or unfinished, or if all I saw around the venue were empty spaces where I’d planned to do some beautiful, painstakingly handcrafted extravaganza. But I had to be realistic.
I narrowed it down and in the end I made our table name cards. I do calligraphy in my spare time and handwrote 89 individual tags, tied with grey silk ribbon. I was so proud of them. It made me so happy to see them on the tables, and I have kept and framed the ones saying “Bride” and “Groom”.
Those little touches made it feel like “our wedding”, and not a party in Mum’s honour.
In the grand scheme of things, most of “the small stuff” doesn’t matter. But if there’s something you’ve had your heart set on from the start, that will genuinely make you glow to see on your wedding day, that will just make you feel “weddingy” at a time when you really deserve to – then do it. That small stuff is perfectly valid.
We got married on 28th April 2018, with Mum beaming from the front row. She’s still got some way to go, but she’s getting there. I toasted the intensive care nurses in my speech (another note: make a speech!).
A wedding is just a day: 24 hours. That’s it. The planning process is a lot longer. And while I’d never wish what we went through on anyone, I wouldn’t have changed our day for the world. And that’s what really matters.
If you are struggling, if you’re in the eye of the storm, you’re not alone. Not everyone gets ‘the fairytale’. And remember, you are stronger and more loved than you think. And you’ll get through this.