Here are some scary truths: 70 percent of new Alzheimer's patients in Canada will be women, and we're diagnosed with depression and dementia at twice the rate of men. But new research says there are three simple lifestyle changes we can make right now to keep our brains healthy as we age.
You brush your teeth to prevent tooth decay and check your blood pressure to monitor for signs of heart problems. But are you doing anything to keep your brain in tip-top shape? Because you should be. Brain health, which experts define as a combination of cognitive (memory, attention, thinking) and mental (emotional well-being) fitness, is a major, albeit under-the- radar, health issue for Canadian women.
It's major because as we age, so do our brains. Vascular changes can decrease blood flow; we can lose volume in key areas, including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, the regions responsible for learning and memory. Myelin, a fatty material that makes up the protective coating around nerve fibres, starts to deteriorate, causing the brain to slow down. And nerve cells can develop plaques and tangles— structures caused by the buildup of proteins called beta-amyloids that can disrupt the brain's normal function. In some people, these and other signs of normal aging can cause mental health problems, strokes and brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's, and increase the risk of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Brain health is an under-the-radar issue because, though women are more likely to experience cognitive decline (thanks to dementia or Alzheimer's) and to suffer from depression, most of the research on these conditions still focuses on men.
Thankfully, studies are showing that straightforward lifestyle changes—exercising regularly and not smoking are at the top of the list—help shore up what researchers call "cognitive reserve," a buffer that "delays the changes or makes your body better equipped to handle those changes," says Lauren Drogos, a brain researcher at the University of Calgary.
In fact, Drogos says there's evidence to show that, in some people, even serious symptoms do not necessarily develop into cognitive impairment. She points to the Nun Study, a famous long-running research project on aging and Alzheimer's that has been tracking 678 nuns from convents across the United States since the mid-1980s. One of the nuns, Sister Mary, died at the age of 101 showing no outward signs of cognitive decline—but when researchers examined her brain, they were shocked to find she had "abundant neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques, the classic lesions of Alzheimer's disease." Scientists don't know exactly why some people can have severe symptoms, such as plaques and tangles, without experiencing cognitive decline, but, happily, cases like Sister Mary do show that dementia isn't an inevitable part of aging.
And since women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with many of these problems, the more we consider brain health when making our day-to-day lifestyle decisions, the better. (Bonus: These changes also benefit your heart and help prevent other diseases, including Type 2 diabetes and cancer.) So here's what you can do to take care of your brain.
This is your brain on exercise If you had to pick just one lifestyle change to make in the name of brain health, experts agree exercise tops the list—especially for women.
We consider neuroplasticity, the brain's capacity to form new neural connections, an exciting part of a child's development, but we now know our brains can continue to grow, repair and improve as adults, too. Physical activity is a well-researched trigger. Not only can working out bolster our day-to-day functioning and alertness but it also appears to help us repair brain damage. Plus, it slows down aging and the onset of age-related brain diseases.
Working up a sweat and pumping up your heart rate can lead to a healthier vascular system in the brain, which decreases blood pressure and oxidative stress (when your body's antioxidants can't fight off free radicals), and increases antioxidant activity, according to Marc Poulin, an Alzheimer's researcher and professor of physiology at the University of Calgary. Vigorous exercise also floods the bloodstream with a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which readies the body for repair and heightens the brain's ability to learn and form new memories. Plus, hitting the gym helps the brain repair myelin; a lack of the nerve fibre–protecting substance is a factor in developing multiple sclerosis.
Exercising can also restore crucial brain volume. Research has shown that the hippocampus— home to memory, learning and emotion—starts shrinking after age 55 by about one to two percent a year, but just one year of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise done three days a week can increase its size by two percent.
And while most of the research is about the benefits of getting in your cardio, Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an associate professor and Canada research chair at The University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, says strength training is also effective, as it can enhance brain performance and function by 11 to 17 percent. "Women live longer [than men], and age itself is the greatest risk factor for dementia," she says. "But the good news is when we look at the benefit of aerobic exercise on cognition in older adults, women seem to benefit more."
The takeaway: You can reap the rewards from even a 15-minute walk. Of course, the longer you exercise, the better, especially if you get your sweat on and your heart rate up. If you want to tick a few other brain health tips off your list, consider joining a team sport. It blends physical, social and cognitive skills, and "can also add pleasure and meaning to our lives," says Dr. Nasreen Khatri, a registered clinical psychologist, gerontologist and neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto.
If you have an office job and find you're sedentary most of the day, take a few minutes every hour or so to get up and move around. Research also suggests switching to a standup desk may improve your brain function.
Did you know? Taking care of a loved one—most often a spouse in your later years—can be a risk factor for developing depression and, eventually, dementia . But research out of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto found, for the first time, that cognitive behavioural therapy, a form of talk therapy, can improve both mood and cognition.
This is your brain on sleep After a good night's sleep, you feel alert and ready to tackle the day. But that's not just because your brain has been resting. It has also been busy filing away memories and taking out the trash, so to speak, thanks to the glymphatic system, which washes the brain of waste materials. For example, a protein called betaamyloid, which is known to play a role in the development of Alzheimer's, acts as a neurotoxin when it builds up, killing neural cells in the brain. But a good sleep removes excess beta-amyloid and other waste materials, says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.
Because one of the common symptoms of Alzheimer's is disrupted sleep, it's unclear whether a lack of shut-eye should be considered part of the progression of the disease or a risk factor on its own, due to the buildup of beta-amyloids.
Nevertheless, poor sleep hastens your brain's aging process—much like sitting in the sun sans SPF speeds up your skin's aging process. And disturbed sleeping has been linked to all aspects of brain health, including an increased risk of depression and a decline in cognitive functions such as memory and reasoning. In one U.K. study out of University College London Medical School, middle-aged women who reported a drop in the average number of hours they slept had lower scores on cognitive tests involving reasoning and vocabulary.
What's more, our central clocks—a.k.a. our circadian rhythms—can drift from the patterns of our childhood, making it hard to get that much-needed rest. "As we age, our central clock is less sensitive to stimuli like light, food and physical activity," says Dr. Liu-Ambrose; this change makes it harder to fall, and stay, asleep. We can also become more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, which further disrupt those rhythms.
One way to combat these fluctuations is to try what seasoned travellers do for jet-lag recovery: Get exposure to real daylight and eat your meals on time to nudge your brain into a routine. And don't use bright screens at night, especially before bed, because they mimic sunlight and tell our circadian system that it's day, not night—and, therefore, not time to sleep. Those who need more help might consider light therapies that have been developed to treat seasonal affective disorder, says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.
The takeaway: Many researchers consider six to eight hours of sleep a night to be the standard sweet spot, though this can vary by individual. If you're routinely getting less than that and waking often in the night, not feeling refreshed in the morning and experiencing bouts of sleepiness during the day, talk to your doctor about sleep strategies—especially if you're experiencing anxiety or depression. In the short term, napping can reverse some of the effects of poor sleep, including memory loss and increased stress. And you only need a 30-minute catnap to feel the results.
This is your brain on a healthy diet There's no perfect "brain food," but eating a nutritious diet (lots of veggies and fruit, lean meat, fish and healthy fats) is the smartest way to maintain long-term brain function and memory, and to slow the development of brain diseases.
Getting enough of specific nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids is important but not the holy grail. University of Pittsburgh researchers recently found that people who eat broiled or baked fish at least once a week have larger brain volumes in the areas used for memory and cognition, despite varying levels of omega-3 in the fish they ate. Senior researcher James Becker concluded that he and his colleagues were "tapping into a more general set of lifestyle factors that were affecting brain health, of which diet is just one part."
In a 2015 study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, researchers looked at the broad set of eating habits of more than 900 people over 4 1/2 years and found that those who adhered to a diet high in fish, vegetables, nuts and berries, and low in fat and sugar, slowed down their brains' aging by about 7 1/2 years when compared to those with less-healthy diets. The healthy eaters cut their risk of Alzheimer's by up to 53 percent. And even when those people only adhered to the diet part time, they saw some benefits— an effect that has not been found in other diets, says Drogos.
The researchers dubbed the most promising cluster of these eating habits the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which blends the longevity-boosting Mediterranean diet and the heart-healthy low-fat DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet that doctors recommend to patients at risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. More studies need to be done on why it works, but in the meantime, there's no downside to eating healthier and ditching the junk.
The takeaway: Add more veggies to your diet. Research shows that older adults who report eating more of this food group perform better in mentally stimulating activities than those who don't.
Did you know? "Menopause brain" is a real thing. As with "pregnancy brain," its more famous counterpart, women approaching menopause really do experience memory problems and brain fog. Researchers think a drop in estrogen levels might be the cause.
Can you train your brain? Does firing up a brain-training app actually help improve your memory and ward off dementia? Sorry to disappoint, but right now, evidence for the benefits of computer-based brain games is weak, says Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an associate professor and Canada research chair at The University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal HealthResearch Institute. Brain games appear to help you learn to play them better, but research doesn't show that those tasks transfer to other aspects of brain performance. The same goes for crossword puzzles and sudoku, which help your vocabulary and math skills, but nothing more.
How to maintain your mental edge at any age
In your 30s: This is the time to make sure you establish healthy habits—such as getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and eating a good diet—that will affect your brain health throughout your adult years. "When it comes to maintaining brain health, the best time to start is yesterday," says Dr. Nasreen Khatri, a registered clinical psychologist, gerontologist and neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. If you feel you need a boost at work, consider old-fashioned writing instead of typing on your computer. A study in the journal Psychological Science found that university students who made handwritten notes were better equipped to recall conceptual ideas from their professors' lectures than those who had typed notes on their laptops.
In your 40s and 50s: People in this age group are part of the "sandwich generation," and often face caring for their aging parents on top of dealing with their other work, financial and parenting obligations. So, unsurprisingly, they're super stressed—and this can affect both mental health and day-to-day brain function. Dr. Khatri says it's essential to prioritize and edit out activities and commitments that increase stress without adding value to your productivity or happiness. That's because "maintaining mental health in early and mid life is key to safeguarding cognitive health later on," she says. "Untreated depression in midlife doubles your risk of developing dementia in later life."
In your 60s and beyond: In your senior years, socializing with friends and family, and picking up activities that allow you to connect, such as volunteering, are key to maintaining brain health. And sorry, keeping up with folks on Facebook isn't enough. "Ask yourself: Is social media rounding out my real-life social experiences?" suggests Dr. Khatri. What you need is face-to-face interaction.
Keep those toes nice and warm this winter with this super simple knit.
Keep your tootsies toasty with a cozy pair of hand-knitted socks that are sure to be the favourite pair in your drawer. This easy (and free!) pattern is knit in Fine Tweed Yarn, which is made up of a mix of superfine alpaca, soft merino wool and viscose for warm and soft sock.
Knitting Tips: The Anthony Socks are an intermediate level pattern, and a great first foray into knitting socks. You'll have lots of practice picking up stitches, purling and knitting in the round on double pointed needles. Don't be intimidated by the heel, it isn't as hard as you think. By the time you finish the first sock, you'll be tackling the second with confidence and excitement.
Materials: - 1 skein (Women's size S, M, L), 2 skeins ( Men's S, M, L) of Americo Fine Tweed (25% Superfine alpaca / 55% Merino Wool/ 20% Viscose) 100g / 465 yards (425 m) - 2.5 mm (US 1) set of 4 or 5 Double-pointed NeedlesNOTE: if you prefer a denser fabric, you can use 2.25 mm needles. Socks will be slightly smaller, but not significantly - Yarn needle or crochet hook - Stitch holder
Note about the yarn:Americo Fine Tweed is available through Americo Original online and at select yarn stores. You can substitute for other fingering weight yarns in your stash. Remember that you will need 1 skein for women's size S, M, L and 2 skeins for men's S, M, L.
Gauge: 36 stitches and 44 rows = 4 inches (10 cm) in stocking stitch using 2.5 mm (US 1) size needles or size needed to achieve gauge.
Abbreviations and Terminology: K, k: knit P, p: purl Rib: Rib (bed), ribbing – a pattern stitch – has vertical columns of knit and purl stitches, side by side, with elastic properties. Examples: (K1, P1) aka 1 x 1 ribbing; (K2, P2) aka 2 x 2 ribbing etc. k2t (slant to R): Knit 2 together - Insert the needle into the front of the 2 knit stitches from left to right. Draw the yarn through to the front knitwise, and drop both stitches from the needle. p2t (slant to R):Purl 2 together - Insert the R needle into the front of the next 2 stitches, from R to L. Draw yarn through both stitches purlwise and drop these stitches from the needle. ssk (slant to L): Slip-Slip-Knit - Slip 2 stitches knit wise onto the R needle. Insert L needle into the front of both slipped stitches and draw yarn through to the front. Drop both stitches from the needle. DPN(s): double pointed needle(s) - A needle with points at both ends; used in sets of used singly or in sets or 4 or 5, for knitting in the round; also used for working narrow pieces of knitting, or for cable patterns Grafting: Hold the needles parallel with the purl sides facing each other and the needle tips pointing in the same direction. Thread a tapestry needle with a tail of yarn long enough to get across the entire row of stitches that are being grafted. Before you begin grafting you need to do two actions to set up for the technique one time only. First: Insert the tapestry needle into the first stitch on the needle closest to you as if to purl it and pull the yarn through leaving the stitch on the needle. Second: Insert the needle into the first stitch on the back needle as if to knit the stitch. Leave the stitch on the needle and pull your yarn through. Now you are ready to follow the 4-step technique called grafting: Step 1: Insert the tapestry needle into the first stitch on the front needle knitwise, and slip the stitch off the needle. Step 2: Insert the needle into the next stitch on the front needle purlwise and leave it on the needle. Pull the length of yarn through gently. Step 3: Insert needle into the first stitch on the back needle purlwise, and slip it off the end of the needle. Step 4: Insert the tapestry needle into the next stitch on the back needle knitwise and leave it on the needle. Pull the length of yarn through gently. Repeat these four steps for a few inches / cm. End at the end of your steps so you know where to start up again. Use a crochet hook to adjust the tension of the yarn you have been weaving through the stitches to match your gauge. Continue to end. Tip: I find an easy way to remember what I am doing after the initial set up row is to say over and over: Knit 1 slip it off, purl 1 leave it on, purl 1-slip it off, knit 1 leave it on. Eventually you just remember what you are doing.
Finished Foot Circumference: Woman's S, Woman's M, Women's L, Man's S, Man's M, Man's L 7.5 8* 8.5 9 9.5 10 inches 19 20.5 21.5 23 24 25.5 cm
Instructions: Leg: Using a 2.5 mm (US 1) size needles, cast on 68(72, 76, 80, 84, 88). For a stretchy cast on, we used the Twisted German Cast on for our sample. Instructions for it can be found here. Alternatively, you can use a long tail cast on using a needle one size larger for the cast on only. Arrange stitches as evenly as possible on 3 DPN's. Place marker and join, being careful not to twist the stitches.
Work k2, p2 ribbing until piece measures 3 inches (7.5 cm). Now work in stocking stitch, until piece measures 8 inches (20.5 cm), or desired length, from the beginning.
Heel: Knit across 17(18, 19, 20, 21, 22) stitches. Turn work, and purl across 34(36, 38, 40, 42, 44) stitches. These are the heel stitches.
Place the remaining 34(36, 38, 40, 42, 44) stitches on a spare needle or stitch holder to be worked later (called Instep stitches ).
Heel Flap (using the Eye of Partridge stitch pattern) Work back and forth on the heel stitches as follows: Row1: (RS) *Slip 1 purlwise with yarn in back (wyib), k1: rep from *. Row 2:(WS) Slip 1 purlwise with yarn in front (wyif), purl to end. Rep Rows 1 and 2 until the following number of rows have been worked 34(36, 38, 40, 42, 44)
There will be 17(18, 19, 20, 21, 22) chain selvedge stitches on both edges of your work.
Turn Heel: Row 1 (RS): Knit across, 19(20, 21, 22, 23, 24) stitches, ssk, k1, turn work. Row 2 (WS): Slip 1 purlwise, purl 5, p2t, p1, turn. Row 3 (RS): Slip 1 purlwise, knit to 1 stitch before gap, ssk (1 stitch from each side of gap), k1, turn. Row 4(WS): Slip 1 purlwise, purl to 1 stitch before gap, p2tog (1 stitch from each side of gap), p1, turn.
Repeat Rows 3 and 4 until all heel stitches have been worked, ending with a WS row.
There will remain 20(20, 22, 22, 24, 24) stitches.
Heel Gusset: Knit across all heel stitches and, with same dpn (needle 1), pick up and knit: 17(18, 19, 20, 21, 22) stitches, along the selvedge edge of heel flap: with another dpn, (needle 2) work across the held instep stitches; with another dpn (needle 3), pick up and knit: 17(18, 19, 20, 21, 22) stitches along the other side of the heel, and knit across half of the heel stitches. Total stitches: 88(92, 98, 102, 108, 112) stitches.
The round now begins at the Centre Back Heel:
Round 1: Knit to the last 3 stitches on needle 1, K2tog, k1; knit across all instep stitches on needle 2; at beginning of needle 3, k1, ssk, knit to end - 2 gusset stitches have been decreased.
Round 2: Knit.
Repeat Rounds 1 and 2 until there remain: 68(72, 76, 80, 84, 88) stitches.
Foot: Work even in stocking stitch until piece measures from the back of heel: 6.5(7.5, 8, 8, 8.5, 9) inches [ 16.5, (19, 20.5, 20.5, 21.5, 23) cm ]OR about 1.75(2, 2, 2.25, 2.25, 2.5) inches [4.5(5, 5, 5.5, 5,5) cm ] less than desired total foot length.
Toe: Round 1: Needle 1- knit to last 3 stitches, k2t, k1; Needle 2- k1, ssk, knit to last 3 stitches, k2t, k1; Needle 3- k1, ssk, knit to end (4 toe stitches decreased). Round 2: Knit.
Repeat Rounds 1 and 2 until there remain: 32(36, 40, 40, 44, 44) stitches.
Repeat Round 1 only until there remain 12 stitches for all sizes.
Knit the stitches from Needle 1 onto Needle 3. There will now be 6 stitches on each of the two needles. Cut yarn leaving an 18 inch (46cm) tail. Graft the two sides of the toe together.
Finishing: Sew in all loose ends.
Americo Original is a Canadian yarn company and online knitting shop with its own line of quality yarns, knitwear patterns and accessories. Americo’s yarns are made exclusively in the Andean highlands of South America, using only natural fibres, including luxurious wool, llama, alpaca, cotton, linen, silk and cashmere. Americo and its in-house design lab are based in Toronto, offering international shipping from its online store: americo.ca/shop.
Conquer your closet with clever tips that will allow you to add to your shoe collection without losing your mind.
1. Sliding drawers
Multiple open-face pull-out drawers help compartmentalize items based on season and style, making it easier to keep folded items in check without them spilling over.
2. Custom order
Install an adjustable closet system that allows for modifications (hanging height, shelving and drawer space) and includes a shoe system.
3. Group therapy
To give your closet an orderly appearance, use one style of hangers. Also, group clothing by category, like colour or style.
4. Reach for the top
Rotate wardrobe staples seasonally and designate top-shelf storage for rarely used or offseason pieces. Use up-to-the-ceiling shelves to maximize space and discourage boxes from pooling on the ground.
How one woman found love with someone who had lost it.
After my husband and I separated, I didn't think I would ever fall in love again. I had two little children and couldn't imagine being in another relationship. I felt unlucky in love, as if perhaps I didn't deserve to be happy. Besides, I hadn't dated in 15 years and, now, didn't know where to begin. But six months after I separated, a mom I'd just met called to ask if I'd be interested in going on a blind date with her friend James*, a single dad who had recently lost his wife to cancer.
By then, every single person I'd met had baggage, including me, so it never occurred to me that dating a widower would be different from dating anyone else. I didn't even really consider the possibility that a first date might lead to a second. But from the get-go, I could tell James was different. The conversation flowed easily, he was funny and interesting…we ended up going on that second date, then a third. When he asked me to date him exclusively a few weeks later, I was ecstatic— but a few months into our relationship, something weird started happening. There were a series of days when, inexplicably, he wasn't himself. He was quiet and sad and didn't want to talk.
I knew what it felt like when a man wasn't interested in me anymore—that's how my marriage had ended. So when he would clam up and be distant, I had a familiar sickening feeling. We met for a drink at a quiet neighbourhood bar, where I cut to the chase. "I'm sorry, James, but I don't know what to do when you won't talk to me. I can't do it," I told him, too sad to drink my wine. I hoped ending things would spare him the trouble of dumping me and spare myself the pain of having yet another person leave me. I was beside myself: I couldn't believe things were ending when everything had been going so well.
Only now, James was ready to talk. "I've mentioned that my wife died two years ago, and I'm sorry for not being able to communicate with you better. Certain days of the year are hard for me, and I've just got through some very difficult back-to-back anniversaries," he explained, his eyes fixed on his lap. "Some days, I don't want to talk, but I'm feeling better again and I don't want you to take it personally. I'm just trying to cope as best I can; it has nothing to do with you. I really like you and I like where this relationship is going."
He looked up into my eyes and stretched his arms across the table. His warm hands enveloped my own. It hadn't occurred to me that he was going through a rough patch; because of my own history, I assumed it was something I had done. I didn't yet know enough about his life or about grief to understand his personality or the dates that would be difficult for him. When he communicated his feelings, I felt as though I understood him, like we were connecting on a deeper level. I realized then that this man was different kinder, deeper, stronger and more compassionate—than anyone else I was likely to meet. As a newly single mother struggling to get back on my feet, I had my own set of issues and insecurities; dating a widower on top of it all wouldn't be easy, but I had fallen in love. I had to try.
My situation isn't as unique as you might think. In 2016, about 1.83 million widowed people were living in Canada, and many of them are finding their way back onto the dating market. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States, 19 percent of those who are currently divorced, separated or widowed report using online dating. In fact, Match.com saw an 8.3 percent increase in the proportion of widowed users in Canada from 2015 to 2016.
Rebecca Cooper Traynor, a Toronto matchmaker who founded Match Me Canada, has seen a similar trend. "I'd say that about 10 percent of my clients are widowers," she says; most of them are 55 and older, but some are only in their 30s and 40s. And at the same time as this group has become more interested in dating, she has also seen a shift in perceptions about them. "I've noticed that my other clients are more open to dating a widower now than when I started my business eight years ago," she says. "Some people are tired of dating divorcés and hearing about their anger and resentment on a date. They want to meet someone in a different space, someone who knows how to love."
A delicate balance As in any relationship, James and I have challenges—but some of the things we face are specific to his widowed status. For example, in the five years since we went on our blind date, I've learned to give James space on significant dates, such as on his late wife's birthday, their wedding anniversary and the day she died. Since our near-breakup early on, I've marked those days on my calendar so I can call to say I'm thinking of him and see if I can help. Being in tune with your partner's needs is often the best thing you can do, says Roy Ellis, a grief counsellor with the Nova Scotia Health Authority in Halifax. "Ask your partner what you can do to make those tough days better. Your awareness itself can be a lovely gesture. Maybe you don't need to be involved and you can give your partner the space he or she needs to continue that grief work," he says. "That can be a gift in and of itself."
I've also learned that, contrary to the proverbial "five stages of grief," how we mourn doesn't fit into easy steps. In fact, the psychiatrist who first identified those stages, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, never intended them to apply to the living—her research was on people who were facing their own deaths. In other words, watching for signs of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance is no way to tell whether a mourner is ready to move forward.
Rather, many grief specialists champion the "companioning" philosophy espoused by author, counsellor and educator Alan Wolfelt. They believe that the process is individual and that bereaved people tend to know when they are ready to move forward. According to this model of grief, mourners have six needs that must be met in order to reconcile their loss: acknowledging the reality of the death; embracing the pain of the loss; remembering the person who died; developing a new self-identity; searching for meaning; and receiving ongoing support from others. But this isn't a checklist and there's no time frame for completion, or a particular order in which they must happen.
"The companioning model of bereavement distinguishes between grieving—the internal experiencing of pain—and mourning, which is the outward expression of that pain," says Maureen Theberge, a psychologist at Viewpoint Counselling Psychology in Calgary. "Grief isn't something you 'get over' any more than you 'get over' love, but those who can mourn well will have a better outcome for moving forward. Having a way to remember the dead, to honour and acknowledge them, especially when the mourner has children, can be healing. It's meaningful and may offer comfort."
Finding your way For the first few years, James commemorated special days only with his close family, but recently, I've been invited to participate by attending an annual memorial service and being with his family to remember his wife's birthday. I'm happy to support him in this way, much as he has supported me through my divorce—but the truth is, it can be hard for me emotionally. Sometimes, I'm sad for days afterward. I want to weep thinking about what an unfair loss James, his family and his wife suffered. I can't imagine what it must have felt like for his wife to be diagnosed with a terminal illness as a young adult, to hear she was going to die. But I've come to understand that grieving is a healthy sign. Even if the process hurts, it brings James' family and friends together. I've seen how remembering and celebrating his wife provides them with strength to continue on. We have been companioning without realizing it.
As much as I grieve with James and his family on sad days, I've also had a hard time coping with his loss on great days. It's embarrassing to admit, but sometimes, I've felt guilty for dating James. I've seen his late wife's beautiful photos, can sense how wonderful she was and feel how much she was loved—how much she still is loved. I've dissolved in tears, overwhelmed that James and I are on a romantic vacation together when he should have been with the love of his life, his wife. How was I ever going to fill her shoes? How would I measure up? What if I couldn't?
As difficult as these feelings are, experts say they're normal. Unlike dating a divorcé, Theberge says dating a widower can feel threatening because the person's partner didn't choose to leave; rather, "death tore them apart." Logically, however, jealousy doesn't help. "It's irrational," says Theberge. "You are not in competition with the deceased. Your relationship is new and unique."
Just because those feelings are irrational doesn't make them any less real, and it's important to deal with them, says Ellis. He suggests looking within at why you're feeling insecure. "We are each responsible for our self-esteem and self-love. Take stock, find out what's hurting and share it with your partner, but not in an accusing way," he says.
Overcoming feelings of insecurity isn't easy. As Ellis says, "You have to learn to integrate the presence of the deceased in a new relationship the way you don't in divorce. With divorce, you're out; with death, you've got to come to terms with the fact the other person is still loved and recognized." But while the challenges are different, "it doesn't mean you can't have a successful relationship."
Talk therapy In order to do that, though, you have to communicate. I knew I had to tell James how I was feeling, but it was difficult to have that conversation, to admit my insecurities. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt awash with shame. But James was patient and loving and told me his wife wanted him to be happy. Talking to him made me realize I couldn't change his past, but I could have a future with him—and I was helping him move forward, which is what his wife wanted.
Over time, I've grown to believe that we don't have only one soul mate for life. It's possible to love more than one person. When you have a second child, after all, you don't stop loving the first; you make more room in your heart. And now I see that grieving is good, that talking about fears and sadness can be healing. I know not to compare, not to think of myself as an inadequate replacement for the woman he really wanted.
James and I know too well that life can be fleeting. We understand that time is precious. We are taking things slowly—not rushing to combine families or get married—but when I look into his eyes, when I hold his hand on good days and bad, I know we are moving forward together.
Success factors Five tips from the experts for building a healthy relationship with a widower.
1. Communicate, even if it hurts, says Suzanne Farmer, a psychologist (candidate register) at Cornerstone Psychological Services in Halifax. "There will be times when your partner will think about his deceased spouse and miss her; there will be times when you might feel threatened or hurt. You have to be able to communicate these feelings."
2 Be open-hearted and understanding. "Sometimes your partner might experience bursts of grief, and you have to let him be sad and feel his pain. It's normal. It's not a judgment about you," says Calgary-based psychologist Maureen Theberge.
3. See your partner as a whole person. His experience of loving someone and having that person die is just part of his story.
4. Be ready for sudden mood swings. "Sex and emotional intimacy can sometimes trigger upwellings of grief and emotion," says Roy Ellis, a grief counsellor in Halifax. The best way to prepare yourself for the possibility is to have discussions about intimacy in advance.
5. Be open to a new life. "Your partner will never 'get over' the loss— he will be forever changed—but it doesn't mean life can't be beautiful again," says Theberge.