©iStockphoto.com/kali9 Image by: ©iStockphoto.com/kali9
©iStockphoto.com/kali9 Image by: ©iStockphoto.com/kali9
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."
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.
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.
*Names have been changed.
Stylist Sasha Seymour creates containers with unexpected plant combinations to dress up your garden for summer.
The combination of silvery grey, chartreuse and purple plantings is fresh and modern, especially when set in a contemporary concrete container.
Tip: Trailing herbs make fantastic fillers.
A grouping of containers in different sizes is unified by the plants within and the palette.
Tip: Choose three shades of hydrangea for a trendy ombré effect.
Texture is the word here. The arrangement is much like a border of mixed perennials on a smaller scale.
Tip: At the end of the season, plant hardy perennials in your garden.
This classy container is potted with a dashing trio— English lavender, common flowering quince and tuberous begonia.
Tip: Add lovely fragrance to your container with English cucumber.
The sunny blooms of the peony and begonia, combined with hyacinth and Boston fern, have welcoming appeal.
Tip: Decorate your outdoor dining table with this cheeful container.
Pick your pot
Make a statement in your garden with one of these shapely containers.
1. Carnivale large white planter, $70, crateandbarrel.com.
2. Footed urn planter, $149, crateandbarrel.com.
3. Radius medium planter, $99, westelm.com.
4. Root and Stock rectangular planter box, from $159, wayfair.ca.
5. Canvas modern urn planter, $70, canadiantire.ca.
Check out how to make a living floral arrangement.
West Coast Salmon Saltimbocca Image by: Joe Kim
A known source of heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a dinnertime superstar as it is rich, flavourful and healthy. Expand your salmon dinner repertoire with one of these favourite recipes.
There is nothing quite like salmon skin cooked to crispy perfection. The secret to the crispness is cooking the fish 90 percent of the way through on the skin side (in a nonstick pan!); the key to maintaining it is serving the fish skin side up so that the moisture from the fish and vegetables doesn't turn it soggy.
A handful of stellar ingredients pack a lot of flavour into this heart-healthy weeknight meal. Serve the dish alongside steamed mini potatoes tossed with olive oil and fresh garden herbs.
Everyone has a favourite go-to macaroni casserole, but this Salmon Cheddaroni from our archives might just become your new weeknight comfort meal. An easy bread-crumb topping creates a crispy crust, making every bite as tasty as the last. Serve with steamed vegetables.
A refreshing alternative to beef burgers, this salmon version is flavoured with tangy lemon juice and grainy mustard. For an even lighter dish, replace the sour cream with Greek yogurt.
There are few things more comforting than a bowl of rich, creamy seafood chowder. Sweet, licorice-like fennel naturally complements the seafood. Serve with oyster crackers or crusty bread and a simple green salad for a complete meal.
Nothing makes a tender fillet of salmon more appealing than a crunchy layer of panko. For even cooking, ask for salmon fillets that are all the same size and thickness. Serve with a simple tossed green salad or steamed asparagus.
Chef Gail McCully of Port Alberni, B.C., created this dish, which was the winner of the 2009 Master Garlic Chef cook-off. Port Alberni, the salmon capital of the world, has since adopted this delicious prosciutto-wrapped salmon as the official recipe of the Alberni Valley. Opt for wild-caught salmon if possible for our adaptation of the recipe.
A few fresh ingredients and a bit of flaky salmon give leftover mashed potatoes a tasty new lease on life. Depending on how salty your mashed potatoes are, you might want to add an extra pinch of salt. Serve with a simple green salad for a light lunch or dinner.
Golden, curry-scented kedgeree is a British dish traditionally made with smoked fish and basmati rice. We've borrowed a lot of the same flavours, added some healthful ingredients like kale, and taken a few shortcuts so you can create this dish in only 30 minutes, with minimal effort.
Choose thick skin-on fillets, as they'll hold together on the grill. Be gentle when turning the fish; it's best to use two spatulas, placing one under and one over the fillet.
Serve with hot cooked brown, wild or white rice. If the bok choy are tiny, you'll need two per person. You can use this marinade for other fish fillets, such as white fish, salmon, trout or tilapia, for equally delicious results.
The combination of sweet orange, savoury salmon and fresh herbs makes this pasta salad a tasty, healthful option. If you like, serve smaller portions as a side dish at your next gathering.
A simple mustard vinaigrette is all you need to amp up the fresh flavour of salmon. Currants add a touch of sweetness to the Swiss chard, but you can also use dried cranberries for an extra pop of colour. Chard stems are denser than the leaves, so be sure to cook them for longer.
Bursting with fresh flavours and bright colours, this summery main is a shoo-in for weeknight entertaining. Toast the couscous before cooking for a nice nutty flavour.
Miso paste brings a heady hit of umami to any dish; combined with the rich flavour of salmon, it'll hit dinner out of the park. Use a wide spatula to release the delicate fish from the grill and a pair of tongs to gently turn it.
This speedy yet elegant meal will impress even the most discerning dinner guest. If you can't find baby kale, you can easily substitute baby spinach.
Not all soba noodles are created equal. Check the ingredient list on the package to make sure your noodles have been made with 100 percent buckwheat flour. (Many brands use a mix of buckwheat and regular wheat flour.) Look for gluten-free soba noodles in health food stores.
This updated take on colcannon gets a nutrient boost from kale and substitutes less-starchy cauliflower for some of the traditional white potato. We've used a food processor to create a superfine purée, but you can use a food mill for an even smoother texture.
Grilling the salmon on water-soaked cedar planks infuses it with a delightfully smoky taste, plus the sauce gives it a golden glaze. If you can't do this outside, bake it on planks in a 425°F (220°C) oven for about 12 minutes.
These easy fish cakes are mostly made from ingredients you might have on hand. Fresh bread crumbs and eggs help to hold the cakes together. Make your own fresh bread crumbs by pulsing day-old bread in a food processor until it resembles fine crumbs. Freeze them in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
Buying art is easier than ever thanks to online shops that offer everything from contemporary abstracts to landscapes—often in a variety of sizes. With prices that won't blow the budget, you can curate an art collection from the comfort of your couch.
The image wraps around the sides so you can enjoy its beauty from every angle.
This landscape was inspired by the striking country-road views of the American Midwest.
$30 to $246, minted.com.
Canadian artist Yangyang Pan's stunning print will add drama to any space.
$62 to $192, siiso.etsy.com.
Download this fun photo and print it in any size you want!
Muted colours and textures give this piece a vintage feel.
Artist Helena Wurzel's work feels like a modern take on folk art.
$79 to $1,586, 20x200.com.
Artist Hailey Mitchell's portraits are inspired by strong women around the world.
Photography from a favourite travel destination keeps memories alive.
$30 to $299, annawithloveshop.com.
Perch this preppy greeting at the front door to welcome your guests in style.