My Mother Passed Away a Year Before I Got Married—This Is How I Honored Her

collage of old photographs of bride, sapphire earrings, and diamond ring

Photos Courtesy of Kelli Acciardo / Design by Tiana Crispino

Growing up I never wanted to get married. Coming from a family riddled with divorce and failed relationships, I didn’t believe it was for me. I would cancel boyfriends, choose my career over couplehood and opt for traveling to new countries instead of cohabitating in my current one. And I thought I was happy with that plan—until a handsome chef with a smirky smile entered my life on the eve of my 33rd birthday.

Luke was armed with wit, jokes, and a freshly-caught sea bass he nonchalantly served en papillote for the best birthday lunch of my life. Two separate apartments morphed into one, two lives entwined, and our love became the kind that makes you fear losing it. Four years later, we were engaged—less than a month after I lost my mother.

That wasn’t exactly the timeline he had imagined, obviously. She had been sick forever, battling ovarian cancer for years, undergoing chemo twice, losing her hair, regrowing it, losing more of her memory, not regaining it. And after the third recurrence, she said no more. They gave her six months and she was gone in a little more than five; a few days before her 79th birthday and a few weeks before Luke planned on proposing on December 21, 2020. But my mom had known an engagement would come that day: Luke had told her during one of our last visits, when we all said goodbye, knowing we could lose her any moment.

I know I’m not the first bride to get married without her mother by her side, but when you’re going through the journey, feeling all the emotions, it feels like you are.

We decided on a small wedding in St. Barths—a favorite island of ours that we had been to many times—and began scouting venues. Given the fact that my mother was extremely religious, I felt the need to do her proud and get married in a church. On our last visit, we walked past St Bartholomew's Anglican Church while all the doors and windows were open, a jazz band playing inside, and palm trees swaying overhead. I took it as a sign from her; the wedding had to be there.

collage of wedding photos, earrings, and diamond ring

Photos by Emily Lab / Design by Tiana Crispino

And when meeting with our parish administrator Philip over Zoom a few months later, we finalized the details: "I think I have everything," he said before asking, "Only your mother’s name ... I don’t have that on my list. What is her name for the program?"

Choke. The first time I’d been asked. The first time I had to start telling people she wouldn’t be there. It never got easier. I know I’m not the first bride to get married without her mother by her side, but when you’re going through the journey, feeling all the emotions, it feels like you are. It feels overwhelming and isolating on every level. And there are days when you just want to sit in bed and cry and days when you’re angry and want to shout about the unfairness of it all.

But I couldn’t. I had to keep going. There were more decisions that had to be made, including the dress.

Even though I didn’t exactly grow up fantasizing about my dream wedding dress, the dress became omnipresent once I realized I had to wear some sort of clothing down an aisle in six months. I made the appointments, pinned all the inspo, and scoured dress designer sites trying to make the best of it—without her.

Thank god for sisters though. I’d be lost without mine, who arrived for my first day of fittings armed with planners, notes, tissues, and a cheerleader’s level of positivity that made me think this might actually be fun. It didn’t necessarily go in that direction. After being ushered into the last dressing room of the day, a meltdown happened.

An onslaught of full-on tears and the kind of heaving you can’t control, never mind hide from your neighbor bride-to-be in the next room. Who, by the way, was living her best life during a final fitting. "I’m sorry," I sniffled out. "I can’t do this." Out the door I ran, Julia Roberts Runaway Bride style, except I wasn’t running from love—I was running from grief. "Our mom just passed away," my sisters whispered to the dress consultant before chasing after me. "It’s OK," they comforted, "Today wasn’t the day."

Neither were the next few days, nor the next few months until I came across the Elisa Ness Ege Gown on Pinterest. It was the dreamiest dress I’d ever seen—chic, romantic, embellished with lace flowers, glass beads, and ostrich feathers—I loved it. And I knew my mom would love it just as much as I did.

collage of wedding photos

Photos by Emily Lab / Design by Tiana Crispino

I had wanted to channel my mother on her wedding day in some way, but she had opted for a long-sleeve silk taffeta stunner for her nuptials and that was just not going to happen. But the veil ... now that was an opportunity for an homage moment. My mother’s veil was shorter, but intricate and angelic nonetheless. I settled upon Azazie’s cathedral-length Charity Veil and while it may not have been short, I like to think the similar lace pattern on the bottom was a nod to my mother’s bridal fashion.

And then there was my something blue: My mother had a tiny pair of sapphire earrings ensconced in let’s just say very ‘80s gold wishbone settings. I reset them to have another piece of her with me—I was determined to collect as many as I could.

Later while wedding planning, I found myself facing a different kind of mother of the bride-less obstacle course: navigating Etsy’s 2,000-plus memorial signs, bouquet trinkets, and bridal shoe charms with photo slots for her "to walk down the aisle with you on your special day." I was down the rabbit hole searching for meaningful mementos, but everything just felt forced and depressing. The great lengths these at-home crafters have gone to fill a void for all of us in this position is pretty impressive—and incredibly comforting—but most of the options didn’t feel like me.

I know my mom would have been touched by any gesture made in her honor to begin with.

I started adding everything to my cart with maniac speed as hot tears streamed down my face knowing none of these items could make up for the fact she would not be there. Not to mention, I wasn’t sure I could make it down an aisle facing my future husband and a front-row pew sign emblazoned with the words "reserved for the mother of the bride who is celebrating with us in heaven." If that’s not a cue for immediate waterworks I don’t know what is.

collage of weddings details at reception

Photos by Emily Lab / Design by Tiana Crispino

I opted for the most important seat in the house to be reserved at the reception—a more celebratory affair—in lieu of the church. And when deciding where exactly to place her, it suddenly became clear: with us. Just the three of us, at the head table.

As for the rest of the memorial mementos, I also opted for a minimalist plaque next to the guest book and my sister Pam lovingly arranged black and white photos of our mother on her wedding day around the table. Even though I purchased a bouquet locket, it never came out of its box; another last-minute call after realizing I didn’t need all the photos of her in front of me at all times.

That’s the thing that helped me in all of this: going with my gut. I felt the need to have every detail matter, but in the end, this was a day about Luke and me and that’s what I wanted to remember, with a few items to remind me my mother was with us throughout the room. And really, I know my mom would have been touched by any gesture made in her honor to begin with.

We spent the rest of the night and the next day, dancing, laughing, and continuing the celebration with all of our friends and family at Nikki Beach before people started to head home, and then it was just my husband and me.

I had slowly started packing up the polaroid pictures, cards, vintage shell placard holders, and all the other odds and ends we had brought, but there was the plaque. It’s not the sort of thing you just pack up and fly home with, you know? So we decided to climb up a nearby hill and place Sheila there to watch over our favorite place until we returned.

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