grief & photography
70ish weddings in 3.5 years and I’ve been grieving this whole damn time.
The last time I saw my mom before she died was the day I shot my first wedding. August 19th 2017. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Milwaukee with my sisters and newborn niece, so my fiancé and I stopped by on the way to the wedding. I don’t recall much. My mom was my abuser. I had been in therapy for a few years at this point and I was trying (oh little Chelsea, were you trying) to get some sort of an apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing but as survivors of abuse know - those’re some lofty fucking goals. I certainly didn’t WANT to go, but I felt safe knowing that there would be a baby. You can’t scream at your daughter when there’s a newborn next to you, right? It felt like the right thing to do. So I went and saw my abuser for what would be the last time, and then shot my first wedding.
That was also the summer I got engaged. I had always wondered what would happen when I got married. Would my family magically start understanding me and want to…..celebrate me? Would my abusive mother suddenly say sweet things and smile and zip up my dress with tears in her eyes? I had photographed a few weddings at this point and I just couldn’t fathom the roles my family would play on my wedding day based on what I observed. The divide between myself and my family was always more than average, and the stress of trying to hold my mom accountable only widened the gap further. I would tell them my experiences, they’d gaslight me. The divide would crumble more. So we eloped, and planned a nice reception back in Milwaukee a few weeks after. I invited my parents, though it seemed they weren’t sure if they would be attending. My heart hurt, but it wouldn’t matter anyway.
She died on October 31st in a car accident. Our wedding reception was cancelled, and instead I sat at her standing-room only funeral. The news was even there. She seemed like a pretty cool person, if you knew that person.
The grief continued and I continued. I kept working 60+ hours at an extremely stressful nannying job and entered into 2018 fully booked with weddings. To say I was exhausted would be a huge understatement, but I didn’t know what else to do. When you’ve been abused or traumatized you become conditioned to the chaos. Your brain finds comfort in the familiar - even if that familiar is dysfunction. Feeling stressed was all I KNEW. And somehow, I kept succeeding. I kept improving my art, I kept booking weddings. I didn’t know why or how, but I didn’t want to stop.
My body began to stand up to me in the fall of 2018. It couldn’t take it anymore. I had to stop or it was going to stop for me. I was convinced I was insane. I was physically ill, throwing up from anxiety every day and crying constantly. I begged my doctor for a neuropsych exam because there was something wrong - I just knew it. Maybe a tumor, hopefully a fucking tumor at this point, I thought. Get me the fuck out of here.
He called and said it was ‘massive depression.’ I was bummed it wasn’t terminal but glad to hear a doctor give me concrete - scientific - evidence stating what I had always known. One of the biggest divides between my mom and I would arise from my feelings…..in short, she’d fight with me about them. I was always too sad, sad at the wrong times, etc. This is emotional abuse. Denying someone’s feelings and emotions and reality is abusive. The loss of identity that this led to for me was life-altering. I didn’t know how to trust myself then, and I am still working on regaining that trust with myself now.
I started an intensive outpatient program in December 2018 and saw some really amazing progress. I got a divorce and moved to Madison in June 2019. It’s been over a year and a half since I last felt suicidal.
But the grief continues. And the trauma work continues. I work through it a bit at every wedding. I can’t tell you how many tears I have cried at your weddings. To see your parents looking at you the way I will never experience. The dances. The toasts. The hugs. To hear the speeches they give, telling funny stories about you as a kid and when they first met your partner and how they just love you so much. I am so fucking happy that you get to experience that. And I am so happy I get to capture it, forever, for you. But god, does it hurt sometimes.
I think my trauma has been an important part of my success. I think that my longing for what you have allows me to capture it at its purest. I know every moment is fleeting, I know how quickly it all can change. Having unconditional parental love is unfortunately a privilege, and is often taken for granted. I want my photos to remind you how lucky you are. Please don’t take it for granted.
I’m nervous to put this out there, as a wedding photographer. But I am more than just a wedding photographer. I’m an artist with a lot to share. I love weddings and I am good at weddings - but when it’s wrapped up so tightly with grief and trauma it’s just a lot. I’m not going to be done with weddings, but I am so excited to explore photography beyond grief. I've been in a state of grief nearly the entire time I've known how to work my camera. What else am I capable of? Who is this person? Who am I now that I’m out of her grip? What art do I make just for me? What do I have to say?
I truly don’t know, and I can’t wait to find out.