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INTERVIEW

Wedding Photographer Finds True Meaning in Her Job After Losing Both Parents to Cancer

Kelsey Combe PhotographyKelsey Combe Photography

Kelsey Combe’s 2017 was a year peppered with emotional highs and lows. The 30-year-old wedding photographer found herself shuttling between New York, where she lived and worked, and her family’s cottage in Michigan as first her mother and then her father succumbed to rare forms of cancer just three months apart.

Her mother, Sharon Fuller, was first diagnosed and treated for lung cancer in 2014, but was declared cancer-free that same year; the following year, however, the family was informed that the cancer had in fact spread to her spinal cord and that she was terminal. She was thankfully accepted into a clinical trial that extended her life another year and a half, but during that time, Combe’s father Doug Fuller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

When Sharon’s condition worsened following a hip surgery, Combe and her siblings—Elliott Fuller and Crissie Vitale—took their parents to Michigan, Sharon’s favorite place, to enjoy their remaining time together as a family.

Her mother eventually passed away on June 14, and her father followed three months later, on Sept. 25.

It’s been 6 months today since my mother left this world. I was prepared for today to be really dark and difficult, but honestly I’m having a good week and it hasn’t been bad. Last week is another story, but I know that’s just how grief is. Especially double grief. This 6 months without her has been the hardest of my life- and the 3 years leading up to her death were no picnic. I don’t have any real wise words to say, or lessons learned. I just miss her terribly. And also, all I’ve really learned is that life is a little cruel and life is a lot of pain. That’s just the reality. We love people- it’s why we are here. And we are born to die. So we will inevitably lose the people we love most and have to go through those losses. And never really recover from them. Mainly I’m lonely. I don’t have parents anymore. You know- when things happen, good or bad, who do you call? Those people are gone for me. I talked to my mom every day, we shared everything. She never judged me. She was always interested. She was my mother. And I talk to her still, but I miss her wise words and responses. I have learned not to take the people we love for granted. Today also happens to be one my my best friend’s birthdays (and my sister-in-law’s bday, too). And I’m very aware that even tho it’s a dark day for me, it’s a bright day too- because I have no idea where I would be without @annazuckdowns. The good comes with the bad. The highs come with the lows. And I will keep going through this knowing with each day, I am closer to the shore on the other end. #anniversary #loss #grief #mom #love #fullerflyers

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During that difficult time leading up to their deaths, Combe tells The Knot, one thing that helped the family to cope with the painful process was going through old photographs together, including one particularly impactful picture.

“It’s actually a photo from my sister’s wedding, the summer before my mother died,” she tells us. “The photographer captured her sitting with my dog, Xander, in her lap. She’s holding him and comforting him amidst all the wedding crazy. She had recently lost her hair, and is wearing a scarf. She looks absolutely beautiful, and she had a really special relationship with my dog, so I’m so so thankful for that photo. I didn’t even see it happening that day.”

“I think that exemplifies the power of wedding photography,” she continues. “A wedding photographer can capture moments that you might miss on the day of your wedding. And those images can end up being the most important ones.”

Combe also took it upon herself to use her photography skills to document her parents’ final days, following the gentle advice of a friend who had similarly lost both her parents to cancer within a year.

“At first I thought there was no way I could or would do that, but I brought my camera to the last few days of my mother’s life and worked to document it,” she says. “When you are in the presence of death, it’s a blur. It’s quite literally putting one foot in front of the other. There’s not guidelines—no rule book. No one has prepared you or told you what to do. To that extent, having my camera helped me process what was happening.”

She explains that her brother recently saw a photo she took of him lying next to their mother while her sister comforted him. “He said it made him cry, but he was so happy we have that photo,” Combe says.

🙌🏻💪🏻🌺

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Following each of her parents’ deaths, Combe got right back to work photographing other people’s weddings, a task that she said she found difficult but also, in a way, necessary.

“Honestly, the weddings were really hard,” she says. (Combe shot a wedding just three days after her mother’s death and another just five days after her father’s). “I was angry at times, emotional for most of it, and tired. The mother of the bride at the wedding three days after my mother died found me hiding and crying during the reception and just hugged me for about ten minutes. There was no perfect moment or realization it was the right thing. I was just in ‘go-mode’ and trying to get through it. I knew it was important, and I knew it was my job, but I had just been through such severe trauma and being surrounded by happy families was really difficult.”

Rain is the enemy of not just brides- but also wedding photographers. I used to dread it so much. It makes our job so much harder, makes the day more stressful, makes things messier and less controlled. As most of you know, my mother died in June, after a long illness. Mom was absolutely in love with huge thunderstorms. She would sit on her porch in Michigan and stare out at them, for as long as I can remember. Just after she died, a huge thunderstorm hit- bigger than any my sister had ever seen (I was at the airport on my way home to NY). So now when it rains, I know it’s my mother saying hello. Since she died, the rain has been really kind to me. Each wedding this year that had rain expected managed to hold off for portraits. My engagement sessions have had little sprinkles, but held off as well. It’s silly, but I feel like she’s helping out. Keeping the storms on Tuesdays. And giving my couples beautiful backdrops on their gloomy wedding days. Rain isn’t so bad after all. #rain #rainydays #rainywedding #turndownsforzuck

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“What really helped me was messages over the last few months from past brides and grooms, letting me know what their photos meant,” she adds. “And some in particular—I had a past bride who lost her uncle in a motorcycle accident just weeks after her wedding. When I found out, I immediately went through her gallery and found all the photos of him, printed them, and sent them to her family. She wrote to tell me how much that helped them all. I had another client, a groom, whose mother died of cancer a few months after their wedding. He still talks about how important the photos are that they have of her, looking healthy and feeling good, just a few months prior to her death. Those are the things that really kept me going.”

Another thing that kept her going was thinking of her parents and how kind and giving they had always been; Combe says she wanted to honor them in her work by being just as generous with her time and efforts.

“My parents will always be remembered as kind, loving, giving humans,” she says. “They gave to others, they were patient and wise, and they loved each other dearly. I think that someday I’d like to be remembered that way, too. So to honor their legacy, I’m going to work hard to be kind and giving for the rest of my life.”

“I think it’s also important to step back and recognize when you are in the really happy times,” she says. “Like your wedding day: it really is one of the best days of your life. Everyone you love is there, celebrating you and your significant other. I’m lucky and honored to witness it and document it for you.”

In honor of her parents, Combe and her brother and sister will be riding with their Cycle for Survival team, the Fuller Flyers, this year for the third year, to help raise money for rare cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where her parents received treatment. Combe’s sister Crissie, who started the team the first winter after their mother’s diagnosis, will head up a team in Chicago while Combe will ride with a New York branch of the team in New York (the team is largely comprised of her past brides and grooms).

“We have five bikes total, and have raised over $28,000 so far this year,” she says. “One hundred percent of the money raised goes directly to rare cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where both my parents were in clinical trials. So it means a lot to be a part of this, to know that the money we are raising is working to save lives, lengthen lives, and give families hope. My mother was so proud last year when we all traveled to Chicago to ride in her honor. I know that both my parents would be so touched and proud of us for what we’ve accomplished so far this year. I will never stop riding for them.”