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’Til Death Do Us Part

Rituals, such as wedding vow renewals, bring joy to a sorrowful time.

The Rev. Dr. Cathy Genthner, chaplain for Compassus–Scarborough, explains why something like renewing wedding vows can be so important.

The Value of Rituals

As a hospice chaplain, I recently had the honor of officiating at a wedding vow renewal ceremony for one of our patients and his wife.

Beth and Glenn said, “I do” again to one another at a long-term care facility in southern Maine on Oct. 20, 2016. The ceremony was like many weddings with flowers, cake, friends and a member of the clergy. The venue was non-traditional — Glenn’s room had been transformed into a wedding chapel for the special occasion.

They were both able to say those precious words of commitment and loyalty to one another, affirming their marriage, which has weathered the storms and reaped the blessings of life.

“I wanted to renew our wedding vows because it was a way to publicly say that we still love each other and we are still a couple,” Beth says. “Glenn has given up on a lot of things because of his health but I didn’t want him to give up on our relationship. This renewal was important to me because I needed the encouragement at this time in my life. Even though he is in a long-term care facility, we still love each other and trust each other. He is my husband and I am his wife.”

Happy Times

The couple was first married Oct. 4, 2003, by a justice of the peace at Portland (Maine) City Hall. Glenn got a job as a truck driver, driving to all parts of the United States. Beth accompanied him on many cross-country trips and considers it one of the happiest times of her life.

“I was able to go along in the tractor trailer and we had a blast. I was able to see some really beautiful parts of the country that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, including the West Coast, which was breathtaking,” Beth says. “We grew closer over the years and then he became ill just a few years ago.”

However, illness couldn’t stand in the way of love as Beth expressed to me a desire to renew their vows before Glenn passed. I wrote a traditional ceremony and arranged the time and date with the facility. Nicole, our hospice volunteer coordinator, took care of every blissful detail, from the flowers to the cake, to inviting guests.

“The ceremony was a challenge at first because Glenn turned down many visits from volunteers just because he isn’t a social person and often doesn’t feel very well,” Nicole says. “I wanted their renewal ceremony to be beautiful for both of them and to give Beth a warm memory of her beloved husband.”

The ceremony was as beautiful as everyone had envisioned.

“Once Rev. Cathy started reciting the vows, you could feel the love in the air. Beth would squeeze his hand during the ceremony and he would smile just a little,” Nicole says. “With each minute he got a little more comfortable and even started joking around a bit with his guests!”

“I felt a great deal of gratitude in that moment that we could help two human beings who are hurting and give them a shared memory and experience during this painful situation,” Nicole continues. “Beth was so appreciative and I would guess that Glenn’s rarely seen smile was indicative of a successful renewal!”

Meaningful Rituals

The special ceremony included traditional vows, flowers, a wedding cake and invited guests.

Ritual is so important, especially in the last days of one’s life. Celebrating those milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries, even though they may be our last, take us gracefully along life’s journey to the end of the road. Ritual grounds us to who we are and what we mean to one another.

“Love is eternal and rituals are important in every culture, symbolic of different stages in life and even more so as one of the couple is facing end of life,” says Rebecca, a social worker for the Scarborough office. “It is a very powerful reaffirmation of love for any couple and it can bring some joy to a time of life that can often be sorrowful.”

This is not the first wedding vow renewal ceremony for me. I performed one a year ago at the same facility. That one was not as carefully planned out and was performed spontaneously at the request of the wife who was at the bedside of her dying husband with many children, grandchildren and other family members present. The timing was crucial. The husband died a few days later but the memory of that ceremony lives on in the hearts of his wife and family.

Beth will have her memories and photos of the ceremony to reflect on, following Glenn’s passing.

“It meant a lot to me to have some of the residents and staff there, (and) it was important to me to verify to the staff, no matter what is going on, we are still a couple,” Beth says. “Glenn really enjoyed it. He was pleased that I suggested we do it. He needed the encouragement and the blessing from the Lord that God loves us. This time we said our vows before a minister and it seemed to have so much more meaning.”

Over 13 years ago, Glenn and Beth took their wedding vows seriously and literally. Their undying love for each other is a living commitment to their words they spoke at the marriage and renewal ceremonies, “in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.”

This article originally appeared in Everyday Compassion magazine. To browse full issues of the magazine, click here.