How to Honor a Late Loved One at a Wedding

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Grief. It’s an impossible thing to have to encounter at your wedding. How do you balance your joy with your sorrow about the loss of a loved one? How can you go about this day as if you aren’t experiencing this pain or this loss? While there are different ways to cope, this article is going to explore how to honor a late loved one at a wedding. Whether it’s unique displays, intimate prayers, or more subtle examples, this article will be exploring grief, loss, and how to remember those you love that can’t be there with you.

Things to Remember

Grief looks different on different people

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to grieving a loss. It’s okay if your grief takes the form of quiet moments with tears or simply talking about your loved one all day. There are so many ways to process your loss (hence the following examples!) so take it slowly, and understand what’s best going to fit you.

Weddings don’t have to be 100% happy

There’s this pressure in the wedding industry for your wedding to be the best day of your life. To be 100% joyful. To want nothing about it to be different. But the reality is, this toxic mindset does nobody any favors. There are so many reasons that you may be grieving on your wedding day (beyond the loss of family/friends). Remember to give yourself so much kindness and grace and space to feel however it is you feel this day. Forcing yourself to ignore what you’re feeling will only cause the grief to bubble up after the fact.

How to Honor a Late Loved One at a Wedding

Memory Table

A classic at weddings, the memory table can be a display of photographs, memorabilia, and the like to honor those loved ones that couldn’t be with you.

Memory Table Reception
A memory tables honors the late father of the bride (center) as well as many other important loved ones.

Special Dance

For those who feel the particular loss of a parent, the first dances and parent dances can be difficult. You may choose to have a special dance to honor the person you’re missing.

Examples I’ve seen have been a groom chose one song and many of the important women in his life (aunts, sisters, cousins) took turns dancing with him. It was an upbeat song, and they made it into an incredibly fun experience for the groom. I’ve also seen uncles step in for dads, grandparents or friends step in, really the possibilities are endless.

If you’re looking for meaningful dance to honor them with less of a spotlight on you, you could choose a favorite song of your late loved one, and fill the dance floor with everybody in order to honor them. It’s one way to have a special dance without having all of the spotlight and attention on you specifically.

Honoring Late Loved One at Wedding
Hailey’s uncle walked her down the aisle and shared a special dance to fill in for her late father.

Unique Dessert/Color/Detail

Sometimes honoring a loved one can feel done best with a subtle, lesser known details. You could incorporate their favorite color into your event, have a special late-night dessert that was their favorite, the possibilities are endless on how to incorporate more subtle nods to your favorite people.

Heirloom Jewelry/Special Attire

This is a big and broad category with a lot of ideas. Do you have heirlooms that you could incorporate into the things you wear this day? A few examples of ways to incorporate heirloom items into your honoring of your family member:

  • Special patches/decals sewn into dress or jacket
  • Special Ties/heirloom ties
  • Gifted Jewelry
  • Charms

Featured Speech

For some people, honoring a loved one is an important factor, and they don’t want their remembrance to be subtle. Having a guest of honor give a special speech about the person you’re remembering is a great way to put the spotlight on the person you’re missing, while giving everybody in the room the space to feel that loss too.

Donation instead of Favors

Commonly at weddings, you’ll find that a donation was made to an organization in lieu of providing favors to guests. Take this one step further, and make a donation to represent your loved one. Whether it’s a cause they loved, or a cause related to their passing, there’s a lot of possibilities in how to create good in the world in honor of this person that means so much to you.

Visiting their Resting Place

If your loved one is buried near the town you’re getting married in, carve out some time to visit them graveside. You may initially think that it’s too morbid or sad to do on your wedding day, but the reality is different. Grief looks many different ways, and can be worked through in many different ways.

Some people find that scheduling the time to grieve, visit their loved one, talk about this day, what they miss, etc can be not only cathartic, but positive for them on their wedding day. It may feel like a way to see and speak with your person even if they can’t be present in the flesh.

Honoring Late Loved one at Wedding
Ryan, who’s three brothers were killed together in a car accident, brings them their favorite beverage and shares a prayer with his soon-to-be wife.

A Special Prayer Circle

Some individuals want to do everything possible to not cry or acknowledge their loss on their wedding day. But for others, that loss is going to be so prevalent, so big in the room, it can’t be ignored. Taking dedicated time during your day to honor/pray/grieve not only alone, but with your guests, may be a solution that works for you.

There’s a good chance that the loss you’re feeling is felt by others in the room too. By making space for what everybody is feeling, you’re creating a collective space to express this, you’re reminding others that they aren’t alone in their grief, and that there’s space for that grief on this day that some believe is “supposed” be only be joyous.

This article from The Washington Post is written by a wedding planner who experience a grief circle/prayer during an event. She recounts her experience, and the way that honoring grief and loss changed the feeling of the event.

Write a Letter to Them

This idea may be just the opposite of prayer circle. Sometimes the grief you’re feeling you want to make small, personal, contained. One way to do this is to write a letter to the person that you’re missing, only for you to express. You can be alone when you write it, or in a room full of people. You can write out all the things you wish you could say and experience with them, you can burn the letter or store it in your bouquet or coat pocket. The smaller, quieter ways of grieving are just as valid as the big ones.

Ceremony Touches

Write about them in the program

Are you designing a program to go on seats at your ceremony? Use a space in the program to write about this person who couldn’t be here with you. Talk about what they loved, what they meant to you, anything that feels like a detail you’d love to share.

The Empty Chair

The empty chair is a remembrance rite I’ve seen in the last few years. Couples will leave a few empty chairs in the front row, to honor and symbolize for those who couldn’t be there in person. Often times they’ll put an image of that person on the chair, to honor their memory and how much they wish they could be present.

No two situations are the same. There’s no rulebook on how to experience grief or how to honor a late loved one at your wedding.

Give yourself plenty of time to consider how you’ll feel about different ideas and situations to determine what’s the best fit for you. Remember to never put you or your grief into a box, and that it’s okay to experience tough feelings on the day of your marriage.

Also remember to share important intentions with those close to you that can help you accomplish your goals. If you’re spending a grieving moment alone, ask a dear friend to guard the door and keep anybody out. If you’re writing a letter or visiting a gravesite, remember to speak with your planner and photographer to make sure this time is respected and documented. Remember that all of these people love you and are on your team – they all want you to experience your wedding in a way that’s best for you.

Additional Resources

This article from The Washington Post is written by a wedding planner who experience a grief circle/prayer during an event. She recounts her experience, and the way that honoring grief and loss changed the feeling of the event.

Personal account of navigating wedding planning while grieving.

Personal account of navigating a wedding after the loss of a sister-figure.

4 personal accounts of losing a parent prior to their wedding, and navigating that loss.


Hey! I'm Makayla, a wedding photojournalist based in Duluth, MN and Saint Paul, MN. 

I believe that stories are best told untouched, undirected, and with intentionality and meaning.

This blog is a space to share advice for couples about weddings, advice for photographers about witnessing events with intention, and steps to create decisions based on your values and what matters most to you.

Grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair, and let's get to know each other.

M

The Autumn Dog Studio

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