10 years ago I married my high school sweetheart, the man of my dreams, my best friend, my soul mate.
The day after we got married I said to Adam, I want to do that again. He laughed and said something along to lines of “oh dear god” and we agreed right there on day 1 of our married life that we would renew our vows for our 10th wedding anniversary. At the time, 10 years seemed like such a long time away.
As it turns out, time passed in a blink, with every year feeling like it passed quicker than the last. Every anniversary I reminded Adam it was one year down to ‘getting married’ again. On our 8th wedding anniversary we started talking about it more discussing what would we could do and where would we have it. We thought about how we would include our daughter, son and new little baby who was safely growing inside at the time. When we found out that little baby was another boy I immediately began imagining him at our renewals. I calculated how old he would be and thought of how he would be walking by then. We talked about how cute it was going to be having a little page boy walking down the aisle with a matching outfit to his big brother.
A month later these together with a life time of dreams were broken when he died during his entry into the world. An event I had been talking about for 8 years suddenly became too heartbreaking to think about and we placed it in the ‘no longer happening basket’.
There was 9 months between his birth and our next anniversary. I dared to asked the question “Are we still going to renew our vows?”
My husband couldn’t bear the thought at that stage. He said he didn’t want to stand up with only one son, that it was all too soon and it was all too raw still. He asked me,
How do you have a celebration about our family when one of our children is not there?
I also thought that it may be all too soon. After all, we had both struggled through nearly every celebration and special day so far, feeling our youngest son’s absence so much more on those days. Behind our smiles these events felt like a taunt of everything our baby would never experience or be part of, ripping at the wounds of our hearts. Even the good days and happiest of moments are bittersweet, with an ache and longing that hangs in the background that comes from missing someone who is a part of you.
We didn’t speak about it for a while but I kept thinking about it which told me that maybe, we were (or I was) ready to take a step and push through. I began thinking how it was important to honour a part of our old life and the plans we once had. I asked the question again and I continued to ask that question (to myself and to my husband) many times, over many months, without either of us being able to make a decision on what we wanted. We could never talk about it for long. When we talked about outfits it pained us to know we already had this discussion but it involved two little boys in matching outfits, something that clearly wasn’t happening now. We struggled to talk about a guest list as we now, for one reason or another (but all relating to Elliott), had strained if not nearly dissolved relationships with some who would have been at the top of that list before,. This was an upsetting situation all in itself. When we mentioned photos it hurt inside knowing our beautiful son will never be in a family photo. Every part of it hurt because it was just another celebration he was supposed to be part of but wouldn’t be.
Adam asked again, why put the effort and money into something that may be a giant trigger? What if we are left feeling hurt, angry, lost and sad? I told him, because it’s important to show the children all sorts of things outside of birthdays and Christmas are worth celebrating. Because we could have easily been broken apart but here we were, still standing, more in love with each other than ever, bonded in a new way- changed, scarred and healing together. It was more significant than ever to commemorate such a milestone and reaffirm our love that we carried with us into our new lives. Because I was starting to desperately miss the part of the old me who loved parties and planning and I wanted to try to see if I could get a little bit of her back. Because our hearts and our lives will always have this gaping hole in it whether or not we celebrate things. Because I wanted to give something special to our children to look forward to and include them all in it.
“OK” he said. “I love you, let’s do this.”
We knew the only way we would be able to go through with it (and hope to enjoy it) was to have a simple, tiny and intimate event and make decisions, including some very difficult ones, that were the kindest options for us. We accepted that we might feel sad in the lead up and on the day, but that was OK. We reminded ourselves that everyone who would be there is comfortable around our grief, and no-one would expect or want us to wear a mask. Being sad and hurting isn’t the hardest thing, it’s having to pretend you’re not. It’s a freedom when you know you don’t have to. We agreed that if it was too much we could call the whole thing off at the very last minute and everyone would understand. We decided we would tackle this like everything else- with HOPE but no set expectations.
Emma was beyond delighted when we told her, bursting at the seams with excitement that she was going to be my flower girl and our celebrant. Ashton on the other hand would become quiet and withdrawn every time it was mentioned. Two weeks before the date he let it out.
“Are you excited to be daddy’s best man?” I asked him.
“No” he told me.
“I don’t want to be, I just want to sit inside with Elliott”.
I asked him if he wanted to hold his bear as he stands next to daddy.
“No, I want to hold HIM.”
Emma was practising her speech at the same time and he asked if he could do one too. He took the microphone she was using and looking straight at me said,
“And we are all going to celebrate Elliott too.”
It hit me. My little boy, not quite 6 years old, was upset we had not mentioned including Elliott. He continues to be protective of his brother and his memory, always wanting him to be acknowledged and he notices when he is not. I’m conscious about letting our children guide how present they want him to be in THEIR lives, but times like this remind me how much HE needs him to be a part of it. I’ve realised that not giving him the opportunity (at his own want) to continue a relationship with his brother is simply stifling his love and only ever results in further heartache for him.
I came up with the idea of making a ring pillow from one of Elliott’s wraps that he could hold, that way it was like Elliott had a special job too. He loved this idea and took great care and love sewing the pillow up himself.
We realised we needed to think a bit more about how we were going to include Elliott in our renewals, something that I wanted to do, but now it was clearly shown as something that was NEEDED to be done to help soothe the hearts of our children. We decided to include Elliott in a number of ways and with each one mentioned we watched Ashton become more excited about the event and beautifully began calling it “our wedding”.
Emma and I wore stars in our hair and we placed little candle holders with stars through the garden and on the side tables to shine around us. We collected sand from ‘his’ beach to filled jars to place flowers and candles in. We put a bow tie on Elliott’s bear and placed his urn, photo and candle out on display so we felt he was a part of the night.
On the day my beautiful sister took photos of us with both his urn, teddy and photo so we could have some photos of us all together.
I know some question if it’s healthy to hold on and carry a person no longer here in the way we do. I’ve often asked myself what is normal or considered strange. Then I think, who is the person to determine those things and what right do they have to do so? Anyway, when it boils down to it, I now don’t care if it is strange or makes others uncomfortable, providing it gives us or our children comfort and helps us deal with this hole in our hearts and our life. The things we need to do for ourselves and our family are, for us, healing. It isn’t that we are stuck in the past, but rather have found a way that works for us to move forward WITH him in our future. Being able to have Elliott an active part of our lives gives us a wanted opportunity to continue to parent him and express this love we can’t release through kisses and cuddles. It’s not for everyone, but it’s right (and essential) for us.
We wanted the event to be a representation of our family and the things we love to do most. Emma and Ashton painted watercolour backgrounds for our invitations and we involved them in what they wanted for the night. As our favourite things to do as a family is have picnics and go for ice-cream we decided to do just that- a picnic style event with ice-cream from a frequented cafe served for dessert, under the stars in our little backyard.
We had guests who also hold babies in their hearts and it was important for us to honour and include their babies as well. I decided to set up a stand with candles to light in memory of those held in our hearts.
I was surprised with how well the couple of weeks before went, feeling excited and happy. Then the night before, with no warning at all it surprise hit me (as grief often does) and I suddenly broke down and ugly cried, filled with sorrow and pain that Elliott wasn’t here. I was angry that this was our reality. I missed him so much and no matter how I looked at it, what we were doing to represent him, or how far we had come on our grief journey, it’s just beyond shit that one of our children was not here with us in the way he should be. There was nothing that could soothe my heavy heart or desperately aching arms. There really is nothing you can do when it hits you like this but feel the feels, howl your heart out and hope the next day you feel a bit better.
The next morning I did feel better, my heart felt lighter and my grief felt softer. A benefit to having a complete breakdown before the event. The kids were bouncing with excitement, Ashton came running into our room saying “it’s our wedding day today!”. That morning there were tiny butterflies playing just above the grass the back garden where the event was set up. We’d never seen them there before, and we haven’t seen them since. Adam told me he thought it was a sign. I imagined all the little angels gathering together knowing their families would be having a celebration that night, a lovely and comforting thought to start the day.
We all had an easy and beautiful day and the night that followed turned out to be the most beautiful and wonderful night we could have wished for. Ashton stood beside Adam happily and proudly holding Elliott’s bear and the ring pillow. Adam said he felt like his two boys were right next to him. We made our vows to each other (through some tears) and then surprised our children with vows we made to them and to Elliott. We gave them both their own rings and one for Elliott to keep in his trinket box, to symbolise our family and our promises to them.
We felt surrounded by so much love and support and everyone recognised Elliott so beautifully as a very present part of our family. While it could have gone very differently, we ended up having the the best night we have had in the last two years. We did not feel his absence, we did not feel like we stood there as a family with a missing (invisible) child, we did not feel like we had to wear a mask that smiled as we ached so badly to see our son be part of it all. Instead we felt his presence, not just with his photo and urn, but shining around us and in the hearts of everyone there. We felt happiness and peace.
The next day I received this photo from my best friend which made our hearts smile when we saw the way the light shone down on us and how Ashton was looking right up at it, as if he could sense it. There we were- a family of 5 together, celebrating something worth celebrating- love.