Once in my early twenties, I saw a photo set on the internet of a bride in a wedding dress. At first glance it was a typical, happy bride on her wedding day. But there was no groom. And she held a triangularly-folded flag. Her husband-to-be had died in active duty and this brave woman was honoring him by holding his burial flag and wearing the dress he never got to marry her in.
I remember feeling deeply moved. This was so heartbreaking and powerful. It was beautiful and it made me uncomfortable. It drew me in and pushed me away. Having never lost someone close to me, I didn’t understand grief and my natural instinct was studying her in curiosity and then averting my gaze, as if somehow coming too close to her grief would curse me.
In spite of my mixed admiration and awkwardness, this woman stood out as a hero to me. While nothing about her story resonated with me personally at the time, somehow she stayed with me. I wondered who she was and how she could go on. I couldn’t fathom how she survived each day and what her life might look like now.
Little did I know, almost a decade later I would fall completely and madly in love. And then, not long before our wedding day, I would follow in this woman’s footsteps, navigating the trail she blazed. I would survive the unthinkable. My life, my future, my deepest connection – my very identity and essence of self – forever and drastically changed in an instant.
This woman, whose name I don’t know and whose pictures I can’t find again, goes before me. Her tragedy wasn’t contagious as part of me had feared. No one has that kind of power. Rather, she is my grief ancestor. A warrior goddess I draw strength from. I look to her and many like her.
I too, wore my wedding dress. I stood in a mountain meadow that Caleb and I loved and considered for our wedding location. I wore the flower crown I chose because Caleb said I looked “angelic” with flowers in my hair. I softly ran my fingers over the lace Caleb would have loved on me but never got to see. I held his picture. I courageously took photos while drowning in a tidal wave of conflicting emotions – anguish, sadness, disbelief, love, pride, resolve, even happiness.
At Caleb’s funeral, I stood before the audience that should have been sitting in front of our wedding altar – not a podium and an urn. I wrote and shared stories that highlighted what made Caleb the incredible man he was: his character, how he healed me and the difference he made in the world. I altered my wedding vows and solemnly promised myself to Caleb just as I would have done under different circumstances. This is what I said:
“Caleb – I never got a chance to publicly declare my wedding vows to you. But today I will declare these vows to you. Caleb, I vow to keep my love for you alive every single day. I vow to spread your story throughout the earth wherever I go. I vow to be an extension of your life and to live for both of us – to do the things that you never got to do, to finish the work you began, to love the people you loved and to care for them, to embody your values. Caleb, I vow to honor you by rebuilding my life. I vow that wherever I go, people will know your name and they will know how much you radically changed my life. Caleb, I vow to be your legacy.”