The would-be bride Amber and her father, Robert. (Photos by Leah Dorr)
Like any bride the week prior to her Big Day, 35-year-old Amber Jones was all ready to say, “I do.” But just days before the wedding, her fiancé suddenly said, “I don’t.”
Amber describes the mounting tension leading up to their nuptials like a spark here and a spark there — all of which suddenly ignites a growing blaze. “You simply can’t imagine living a lifetime in that kind of heat,” she tells Yahoo Health. Her fiancé “decided to get out of the proverbial kitchen, despite my efforts to remind him we were the best firefighting team around.”
The Columbia, South Carolina, resident was left with a wedding, already planned, but no groom.
Despite the fact that that no one would be exchanging vows, Amber’s family decided to rally around her. They flew to New Orleans, the city where her wedding was supposed to take place, to be her support system — which caused Amber to begin to view her situation differently.
“What I learned is that a wedding is something entirely different from a marriage,” Amber says. “A wedding is about all the people and things that come together to witness two people get married — a marriage is just about the bride and groom. So when my entire family decided to come to New Orleans anyway and see me through the aftermath, it became evident that all the same people and things that made up my wedding still existed. There just wasn’t going to be a marriage.”
At first, Amber still wasn’t looking on the sunny side; she was simply glad she wasn’t going to have to spend her wedding day alone. But then she called her wedding photographer Leah Dorr. “She called me four days before her wedding and told me,” Dorr tells Yahoo Health. “She was devastated, I was devastated for her. We both cried. We could have canceled photography coverage, but we decided together that documenting the grieving she was going through had potential to be powerful and meaningful.”
Dorr flew to New Orleans with Amber’s family, and the group embraced the loss of the relationship together. “It was the first time my entire family was together in one place, just for the sake of being together, for over a decade,” Amber says. “And they all came together to hold me up. Somehow, the solidarity, and seeing and feeling unconditional, forgiving love radiate from them, made the pain of [my fiancé’s] decision almost irrelevant.”
Before they dove into photography, Dorr asked Amber what emotions she wanted to capture. She wanted to convey that “with family and resilience you can have comfort and even happiness in the middle of the storm,” Dorr recalls. “How your loved ones surround you. How you have to move boxes, and make decisions about possessions, and how to live a new life. Amber said that tragedy is like spring rain. Somehow in the storm, these little blooms of hope appear until eventually you’re through to summer again.”
Amber saw beautiful moments within her wedding-gone-awry, and felt empowered in what could have been a helpless position. “With my family’s strength and support, I could face the battle of heartbreak without fear or humiliation,” she says. “I cried. I laughed. I sang. I danced. And somehow, in an indescribable way, I won.”
Art Markman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says that grief is not a one-size-fits-all process. It’s not always five stages, it never looks exactly the same from person to person. “Any kind of traumatic event — a death, an accident, having a wedding called off — creates a tear in the narrative of people’s lives,” he tells Yahoo Health. “That tear is stressful, and dealing with these traumatic events requires finding a way to weave them into the fabric of your life story.”
Markman says there are lots of ways to embrace the downs of life, along with the ups. “Talking about it with others can be helpful, because it helps to create a story around why the event occurred,” he explains. “In this case, the bride went ahead and had the pictures taken. It was a way of bringing closure to an emotionally difficult event in a public way.”
By facing the pain directly instead of blocking it out, Amber was putting her frustration and sadness into perspective, accepting the fact that sometimes circumstances change and some things are beyond our control. “It was also a way to make a public statement,” Markman says. “The hardest traumas to bear are the ones that people have to go through alone — and shame and guilt can prevent people from reaching out to others. By making a public statement, the bride gives her family and friends permission to talk about it, and that also helps the healing process move forward.”
Markman likens Amber’s grief to a similar tragic event for many women. “This reminds me of what many women go through when they have a miscarriage,” he says. “Women experience a profound sense of loss following a miscarriage, yet there are few rituals or culturally approved ways for people to bring the event into the open and to create conversations and opportunities for social support; having a way to move forward that creates opportunities for social interaction is almost always a benefit to the person suffering a loss.”
Amber knows she may have some rough moments ahead — but she’s finally optimistic. “Do I still have a lot grieving and healing yet to do? Yes,” she says. “But all of that will be okay in time because, in the end, I got so much more than a wedding.”
Below, Leah Dorr’s photographs of Amber and her family and friends in New Orleans:
Amber and her best friend, Jen, participating in some emotional first aid: jumping on the bed…
… and candy, of course.
Amber’s reception dress.
Amber getting ready.
Amber’s best friend, Jen, helping her get dressed.
Amber hugging her father, Robert.
Amber with her father, Robert. “With my family’s love and support I could push through to the next stages of grieving without fear or isolation.”
Amber in her would-be reception dress, walking down a street in New Orleans.
Amber in the fountain in Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “There were a lot of ‘hardest parts’ about going through with the process. Just the absence of the groom was devastating. It was seeing how beautiful everything and everyone was and knowing he should have been there. I wasn’t suppose be alone at the fountain; he was suppose to be in the my family pictures. Whenever the emptiness of his absence struck me, I had a very hard time. Especially because we all loved him. We had hope and forgiveness in our hearts.”
Amber sitting in the Jackson Square fountain.
Amber made 603 paper flowers (all herself!) for her wedding. Some were for bouquets, some were for centerpieces, boutonnieres, and so on. She started making these months ago.
Amber, in her ceremony dress, giving her mother, Donna, the “mother of the bride” gift, a special perfume she had bought for her in Hawaii. “The pictures, getting dressed, giving gifts, going to all the places, it gave me the opportunity to realize all those things I had imagined myself doing, albeit in an entirely different way. So when it was all over, I wasn’t left with a complete void psychologically. I got to walk with my father, laugh with my brother, put my dresses on with my best friend, and cry with my mom. I imagined all those things, and going through with the process allowed me to still realize all those things. That’s the best part.”
Amber with her sister-in-law, Kim and her niece, Skylar. Both would have been in the bridal party. She was giving them their “maid of honor” gifts on the hotel balcony.
Amber with her father, Robert, who was supposed to officiate the wedding.
Amber and her parents, in an embrace. “When we lose someone we love, grief is inevitable. But I think there is a unique element to losing a living person. Death offers a finite element we can not fantasize our way out of. When we lose someone who still exists, you can spend a lot of emotional energy imagining alternative endings and actions. You can stagnate in the bargaining phase. If I wait until this, then maybe that … Or if I call, maybe… Or what if he… And when the person is real and alive these bargains can seem like very real options. But they are not.”
Amber with her whole family who traveled from New York and Virginia to be with her over what would have been her wedding weekend in New Orleans. “My advice to anyone grieving a ‘living loss,’ move forward boldly toward acceptance. Gather every support network you have and reach out for them everyday until you are healed.”
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