Planning a wedding without your mom

Every day, I think about my mom. Sometimes I’ll look in the mirror and see a resemblance — the same high cheekbones, the same thin lips. Or I’ll hear a song she liked and start singing along to it.Love shack, baby love shack!

Other times I’ll see material things that remind me of her — her old eyelash curler, which I admittedly still keep in my makeup bag. The crosstitch she made that’s now hanging in my home office. The small sterling silver bracelet she once wore that I now wear every day.

Mom died of breast cancer 16 years ago this Saturday. I was 11 when she died — old enough to tell her about my first crush in the third grade, and old enough to go dress shopping with her just before my first middle school dance. I never got to ask her for dating advice, though, or tell her about the night in October 2012 when my fiance Troy proposed.

I’ve gotten used to Mom not being here for the big moments. But a wedding without a mom is different. You can’t help but feel the loss. You can’t go wedding dress shopping with her or ask for her opinion while planning for the big day. (“What do you think about this venue? … “Should our floral centerpieces be short or tall? … How do you think I should address the ‘we-can’t-invite-everyone-even though-we-wish-we-could’ situation?”) It’s not to say I’d even ask my mom all of these questions if she were alive, but I’d like to know I could.

Weddings aren’t just about brides and grooms; they’re about mothers and daughters. Mother-daughter traditions make way for assumptions that pop up in wedding magazines and in conversations with acquaintances; it’s in our nature to assume (and hope) that if you’re a young bride-to-be, you must have a mom.

On more than one occasion, people who don’t know me well have said something to the effect of:

“Your mom must be so excited for you! Are you going to go wedding dress shopping with her?”

“Actually, my mom passed away when I was younger,” I kindly tell them.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then, they switch to the bridal party — something seemingly more fun.

“Who’s going to be in your bridal party? Your sisters?”

“Actually, I’m an only child.”


Cue the awkwardness.

These conversations are a reminder of what I don’t have. But they’re also an opportunity to think about how I can incorporate what I do have into the wedding: memories.

I’m going to put one of the costume jewelry pins my mom bought me on my bouquet, and see if the priest who’s marrying us will say a prayer for her during our ceremony. I’m also going to ask our DJ to play “Love Shack” during the reception. “Everybody’s movin,’ everybody’s groovin’ baby!” (As for the lack of sisters? My cousin and close friends make up for that.)

My dad and I can’t help but think of Mom when we talk about the wedding. Recently, he found Mom’s wedding dress in the attic of my grandma’s house. It had been there, wrapped neatly in a box, for nearly 30 years.

“It still looks brand new,” Dad said. “It’s yours if you want it.” I contemplated wearing it, but decided I want to shop for my own dress. It’s possible I could take a piece from her dress — some lace or ribbon — and add it to my own.

The last time I was home in Massachusetts, my dad showed me their wedding album. As I flipped through the yellow-tinted pages, I held my camera up to the pictures. Snap, smile. Snap, smile.

“Wow, look how beautiful Mom was — and how skinny you were!”

“Yep,” my dad said, a look of nostalgia in his eyes. “Mom really was a beautiful bride. You will be, too.”

Ever the sentimentalist, Dad got an emotional look on his face. He went on to tell me about his special day with Mom and how right it felt. Then he reached for a wedding CD he had made me. He stuck it in his CD player and skipped to no. 2 — Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter.” “I thought this would be a good father-daughter song for us,” he said. As we listened to it, he started to cry.

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two wooo
There could never be a father who loved
His daughter more than I love you

I wish Mom could have been there with me to hug my dad — and poke a little fun at him. I wish she could be here to help me do all the stuff that moms are “supposed to do” for weddings. But she can’t, so I have to find other ways to fill the void. I know that on the big day — October 19, 2013 — Troy and I will be surrounded by people we care about; family members, friends and coworkers have all offered to help us plan and celebrate our wedding. I feel lucky, and loved.

For as much as I think about the past, I get more excited when I think about my future. Troy and I have a lot to look forward to as a married couple. We’ll carry on some of the pastimes we’ve shared with our families and start our own traditions. We’ll share new experiences — and we’ll create new memories, together.

Here are some photos from my mom and dad’s wedding album. (You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Pretty mom.
Mom, the beautiful bride. I love how elegant her dress looks.
Mom and dad.
Mom and dad.
First dance. (No, they didn’t dance to “Love Shack.”)
Mom and her bridesmaids. (That’s my aunt, second from the left.)
Mom and Dad with my maternal grandparents.
With family.
Mom and Dad with my paternal grandparents.
Gramz and my late grandpa (or Pop-Pop, as I used to call him). The height difference is striking. I know my Gramz would like to be at the wedding, but her health has declined. (She’s going to be 90 in March!) I’m keeping my fingers crossed she can make it.
Grandma and Grandpa. Gramps died about 10 years ago. Gram is alive and well. Just this week, I talked with her by phone about the wedding. “What kind of dress are you thinking of getting, Mal? A topless one?” she asked. “Well, I’m sure Troy would like that,” I said, jokingly. “But I think you meant to say a ‘strapless one’!” Whoops. We couldn’t stop laughing.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at

15 thoughts on “Planning a wedding without your mom

  1. I don’t even know where to start. Another well-written, beautiful insight into your mind. This piece touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes because of our similar situations. I’ve often thought about not having my mom around and the things she would’ve loved to help plan. I’m also an only child, but I too feel like I’ve made incredible friends who have become my family. Your wedding day will be wonderful. Just remember, you carry your mom in your heart; she couldn’t be much closer on your special day. All your friends look forward to sharing that amazing day with you and Troy.

  2. Mal, this is a very touching story. I think it would be awesome to somehow use the lace of your Mom’s old wedding dress. And then perhaps Mal Jr. can use some of the lace from your dress for her wedding gown. A new tradition has been born. 🙂

  3. Ive been reading your post through tears. I couldnt be happier for you and Troy and know your mom and troys dad will be with you every moment of your special day!

  4. As I typed into my google search, “wedding dress shopping without a mom”, your article was first to catch my eye. I want to thank you for sharing such a personal testimonial on your experiences without your mom. I too lost my mother to cancer when I was 11 and recently got engaged December of 2012. Growing up and going through all of the big life milestones has been difficult without her, but what has really been hitting home is planning my wedding. It’s nice to see that I am not alone in my struggles, and it feels good to know that it’s normal to feel the way I do. I wish you the best of luck this year and I hope you find peace in knowing that your mom will be with you throughout the entire process:)

    1. Also, I wanted to share with you that although I won’t be wearing my mom’s wedding dress either, I plan to wrap a piece of lace from it around my bouquet. This was you aren’t chopping too much of a treasured heirloom, and she will get to be with you when you wall down the aisle…..moreover, the space that would’ve been hers at the ceremony (along with my late brother as well) will be reserved with a little sign saying, “We knew you’d be here today, if heaven wern’t so far away”….I wanted to share these ideas with you as a follow-up:). All my best.

      1. Hi Leanne,

        I’m so glad you came across my blog post. Thanks for sharing your story with me. Like you, I’ve decided I’m going to use a part of my mom’s veil on my bouquet.

        Best wishes to you!

  5. I really relate to this post.. it made me cry to think that there are other women like me. My mom passed when i was sixteen and my father was never around and thank god my moms boyfriend stuck around to raise me. Im an only child too. Its always awkward when people ask about my family and really i dont have any. That’s great that you are so positive about your future. That helps me think that i will be able to plan a wedding without my mom too.

    1. Hi Megan,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment. I’m glad it helped you realize you’re not alone. I just married about two weeks ago, and while it was hard not having my mom there, I found other ways to remember her. I wrapped part of her veil, for instance, around my bouquet. And she’s the first person I thought of before I walked down the aisle. You’ll be ok; just hold her close to your heart when that special day comes!


  6. I enjoyed reading this because I can relate and it’s nice to know I’m not alone. I’m 20 years old, soon to be 21 and I lost my mom about 6 or so years ago when I was 14, she died of cancer, having been sick on and off since I was 9. I definitely feel the loss more than usual lately and I almost feel like I’m not very excited for my wedding (which in just over a month). I am also not close with my father or sister at all and it adds to the pain I feel. My fiancées family is great and Im glad for that but I don’t know how to accept their love without feeling a little nervous. I just miss my mom so much all the time and find it hard not to dwell on the past. I find I’m focusing on all the things I don’t have when planning my wedding. Do you have any advice on how to look on the bright side?

    1. Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for writing. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. It seems that much more real when we go through life milestones, like weddings. I’d encourage you to find a way to recognize your mom — by mentioning her in your wedding program, putting something of hers in your bouquet, etc. I’d also turn to your future mother-in-law for support. Let her help you as you enter the final planning stages of your wedding. She’ll never replace your mom, but maybe she can become a maternal figure in your life.

      Best of luck to you,

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