How Can We Help Our Grieving Au Pair?

by cv harquail on April 18, 2013

About three weeks ago my au pair’s boyfriend (local in the USA) died suddenly in an accident.

By way of background, she has been with us since last June and is planning to stay another year.  We have twin boys that are 13 months old.  Both my husband and I work in demanding jobs.  We all adore her.

For the first two weeks following her boyfriend’s death, she didn’t work. We scrambled to find (and pay for) backup care and we did OK.  We have slowly increased her workload back to normal, almost.

She seems to be doing OK, but not all the time.  She seems more quiet and withdrawn, emotionally fragile, and low energy. She wants to stay here for another year (after briefly considering returning home).

I care about her, sympathize with her loss and grief, and do want the best for her.

I am also concerned about my kids.

My mind is going to all sorts of places envisioning the results of her being distracted while caring for my toddlers. Apart from safety issues, I worry that she’s just lacking energy and generally depressed (again, totally understandable).

She is getting counseling, but I think it will be a long process.

Has anyone out there dealt with a similar situation?

How can we help our au pair during this difficult time, and how can we also make sure our kids are okay too?

Thanks in advance for your advice ~


Taking a Computer Lunch April 19, 2013 at 7:03 am

Grief is strongest in the first three months after a death. Any depression your au pair is experiencing is not clinical, it is a reaction to the death of someone close to her. If it is the first time she has experienced a death in her “family” (e.g. all her grandparents, parents, and siblings are alive) then the grief will really rock her.

Since it has been three weeks since the death, have you witnessed actual distraction while caring for your children? Have their been signs that they have been neglected? Does she show up for her shift on time? Caregiving for your children might actually be a good distraction for her – a way not to feel completely burdened by her grief and mourning. Obviously she loves your children and the fact that she wants to stay in the country despite the loss of the boyfriend, shows that your family means a lot to her.

In my experience, people experiencing grief need to talk. So a way you can help her get to the other side (where she’s sad but not depressed), is to sit down and offer her a few quiet moments to talk. Ask her how she’s feeling. Don’t tell her it will get better, don’t tell her that she will move and fine someone new. Both may be true, but what she really needs right now is to deal with her emotions. The best thing you can do is listen when she needs to talk.

You may find that decision-making is difficult. Whereas before the accident, she may have worked independently to take your children to story time, to the playground, or create activities for them, she might need help for the next few weeks in doing that. If she seems like she is still able to do that, then don’t worry about it.

Since she is in counselling, she’s being pro-active about her grief. If you and your family think it would be helpful, you could offer to join in a session, but you shouldn’t interfere with the therapist/patient relationship.

Finally, I assume the boyfriend is someone she met during her year in the U.S., not someone with whom she had a relationship before her arrival. While to her it might feel like losing a spouse, I don’t think her long-term reaction will be equivalent.

Your support will be essential to her and I think you might find it draws her closer to your family. (While I haven’t lost a close family member, other than grandparents, I can tell you that I am more fond of the people who take time out to see me when The Camel has one of her extended hospital stays than those who don’t reach out in fear of saying or doing something wrong.)

CA Host Mom April 19, 2013 at 11:59 am

I am so sorry to hear that your Au Pair and your family is dealing with such a loss.

A few years ago, I lost my younger brother (then 24) in a motorcycle accident. Though it is not quite the same situation, I would say that I completely agree with TACL about the first 3 months being the most difficult and ‘raw’ in terms of the emotions that I experienced. It was like a dark heavy cloud was draped over any and everything that I thought and set out to do. I still managed to function, work, and interact with family and friends (I don’t think many people noticed) but it was really difficult to feel (much less project) a positive attitude.
And I absolutely agree with TACLs comment about people who push through their own fears about not knowing what to say, or worrying about making it worse, and just approached me to talk. I found so much comfort in talks and hugs from those people.

Where I found (and continue to find) a positive outlet for my grief was in planning for and hosting an annual golf tournament that benefits a scholarship fund that we established in my brother’s name, a book that I am writing about siblings (my brother and sister specifically) and love, as well as keeping the memory of him close (photos, staying in touch with his friends, etc.). As TACL says above – due to the nature of your APs relationship, the long-term impact to her life likely won’t be the same as it would be if it were a sibling, but perhaps there are positive things related to him, or with his family, that she can participate in? Was she close with his family? Or friends?

The worst thing (for me) was when people would infer that “we’d be OK soon enough” or “time will heal” (even though it does!) or make me feel like I had to hurry up and move on, get better, etc.

As a Mom, I completely understand your worry about your own children. So this is a really tough situation to navigate through. But I wholeheartedly agree with TACL about giving your AP some leeway to heal. And I also see it as a good (healthy) sign that she is talking to a counselor.

MonkeyMom April 19, 2013 at 10:41 am

I think it is great advice to try to relieve some stress by helping her plan out activities, so it is one less thing for her to think about. As TACL suggested, she may find relief in her work time. I know my work would offer that to me.

However, the other thing I would suggest is to, when the time is right, have a talk with her about how long she wants to stay. It sounds like she has committed to staying until next June, which is a very long time.

I would let my au pair know we understand that she may come to the conclusion that she can not live up to that commitment. And, we will work with her on changing her plans. In working with her, we would appreciate being given time to plan for her departure, rather than a decision at the spur of the moment.

She may decide she can only extend for 3 or 6 months. With that amount of notice, in my experience with a similar situation, your agency can work with you. One of my au pairs needed to go home early during her second year and when she let the agency know, her end date was open ended until we found a replacement. That allowed us to review out of country and rematch au pairs. It allowed us to take our time and not have to rush into any decisions. When we found our replacement, we set a date with the agency and they pro rated fees, etc.

I think it will help relieve stress from her that you are willing to work with her if she leaves early, but set expectations about the amount of notice you need. In my situation, I told the au pair that we wanted three months to sort things out and she hung in there until we figured things out.

MajorMom April 19, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I’ve been visiting this website for over a year and have really enjoyed the information and various opinions on some really tough topics. When I read this last night- my heart broke as we were in a very similar situation about 14 months ago with Au Pair #2. A little bit of background– Au Pair #1 left our family at her 8 month mark because an immediate family member became terminally ill- she left with our blessing when I was 9 months pregnant with baby #3 and while it was tremendously stressful for our family- she was able to be with him and he passed away 3 weeks later. Au Pair #2 arrived to our home the day we brought baby #3 home from the hospital and was with us for about 8 months when we agreed on extending for a second year. One month before her 1st year was up – her father died. She was devastated and we told her we understood if she wanted to return to her country to be with her family and go to the funeral– here’s where the problem arose– our agency told us that since she was so close to completing her 1st year- there was no guarantee her country would allow her to return. Our poor Au Pair had to make a very difficult decision- and very quickly… she should return home to be with her family and risk not returning to the US or stay with us and not be able to be with her loved ones during such a tragic time? She chose to stay with us–
My father passed away 4 years ago- so I could identify with some of the emotions she was going through. We had family in the area and told her to take time to deal with the immediate stages of her grief and to let us know when she was ready to start working with the children again. After 2 days she told me she wanted to work again as the children reminded her of all that was good in the world. I was home on maternity leave at the time so we had some flexibility with hours and I was also home to watch the kids if she felt she was having a rough day. With that said, she never asked for additional time off due to her grief and she continued to be an amazing and loving care provider for my children. During the day when we were around the children we would keep things light and fun– but a few times a week at night I would knock on her door and ask her how she was doing. We talked, we cried and we grieved together– I believe we both helped each other as we shared many stories about our fathers– often laughing and sobbing at the same time. These tearful sessions became less frequent and my Au Pair became a much more social young lady. Her first year she was very shy and studious– and a few months after her dad died she decided to “live life to the fullest” and started going out more often and I believe she really started enjoying her time in America a lot more.
She left last month and we are now on Au Pair #3 (who seems to be amazing as well!) Au Pair #2 and I took comfort in knowing that our fathers had lived long and wonderful lives– we knew they wanted us to move forward and take on the world.. with yours losing her boyfriend the path is often harder.
Having lost not only my father but many fellow Soldiers during my time in Iraq– I can honestly say everyone deals with death (especially those that are sudden) in their own way. I would highly recommend you continue to monitor her with your children and have the courage to ask the tough questions– people that are grieving will often welcome a chance to share their pain. I’d also recommend she look into some local support groups- she may take comfort in being with others who are going through the same thing and learn some healthy coping mechanisms.
You, your Au Pair and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.

PhillyMom April 21, 2013 at 9:34 pm

MajorMom, sorry for offtopic, but how is it possible for another country to prohibit an AuPair from returning to the USA? What country would that be? Our AuPair bought a ticket to fly home after staying with us for 9 month.

hOstCDmom April 21, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Some countries require “exit visas” for their citizens, i.e. permission to leave. For example, going back many years, the Eastern Bloc countries did, as did the former Soviet Union. I believe China may do so in some form currently(?), as may some Central Asian states; Iran and a few other middle eastern countries do also.

However, the previous poster may have been referring to the AP’s ability to get her US visa renewed by the US Embassy in her country?

Host Mom X April 22, 2013 at 10:06 am

That does seem to be the case – our au pair, from an eastern European country, is on her second year; she got her J-1 visa extended through the au pair program (i.e. permission to be in our country), but did not leave the U.S. or go back to her country before the year was up to get her exit visa renewed. When she was looking into whether she could visit her country during the second year, she was told she should not risk a visit back to her home country because she could not be guaranteed another exit visa.

MajorMom April 22, 2013 at 11:12 am

AP#2’s dad passed away during her 11th month with us. While our agency said she could return home- they cautioned her that her country might not let her return since her Visa was approaching the 1 year mark. The agency could not guarentee she would be allowed to go home, stay a week or two and return without issues. If it had happened earlier it would not have been a problem– however, she didn’t want to risk not being allowed to come back to the US. Hope that clarifies!

PhillyMom April 22, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Thank you. Our AuPair is from Ukraine and told us that as long as she has American visa and official extension paperwork , coming back should not be a problem . Ukraine does nor require exit visas.

HRHM April 29, 2013 at 8:00 am

As long as your AP has a valid visa within 2 months of expiration, this is probably true. Take a look at the visa in her passport and see when the expiration date is. Some expire even before their year as an AP is over. If the visa is issued for strictly one year and it was issued in the month or so prior to leaving for AP school, then it may expire a month or so before her year as an AP is up. Unfortunately, when the agency “extends” the AP for a second year, this DOES NOT change the expiration date on her visa. Those second year APs are in the US for the year without a valid visa, but they are here legally because they get a new ds2019 (I think that’s the form) from the agency. During that time period, they are free to stay in the US, but if they leave, the INS person at the airport customs desk here in the US will NOT readmit them unless, while they are gone they have returned to their home country, had an appt and an interview and been issued a NEW visa with a new expiration date on it. Sometime, even if the first visa hasn’t expired, the agency cautions that if it’s close to the expiration date (within a month or so) they may be denied re-entry – although we brought one AP on vacation (a cruise) in her last month and had no problems.

Skny April 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Phillymom, off topic but how do you like your Ukrainian au pair. My teen was adopted from Ukraine and speak fluent Ukrainian and Russian. I always wondered about an Ukrainian au pair but worried about the prejudice Ukrainians have against kids from orphanages…

PhillyMom April 28, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Skny, I have no problem with my AuPAir and I never heard that people from Ukraine were prejudiced against adopted kids or kids from an orphanages. I think that it really depends on education, traditions and family upbringing. Younger generation is more open-minded:). For the first 6 years, since my twins were born, I hired live-in nannies from Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belorussia. It was actually a former teacher, 56 years old from Belorussia who spoke strongly against adoption and degraded kids who were left by their parents in foster families, labeling them ” unworthy”. It offended me so deeply, that I actually warned her that I might cancel her employment with my family. She stopped discussing this issue, but I could never understand how a person, with degree in education and 20 year elementary school teaching experience has no compassion or sympathy towards unfortunate children!!!

Kiara April 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm

During my third month as an au pair, a close family member passed away. It was very sudden and very traumatic for my family back home. I informed my host family and asked them to please understand if I was not myself for the following couple of days. What got to me the most is that they never spoke to me about it again. They never asked how I was doing or if I needed to talk to someone. Their concern, more so by my host mother, was more focused on what would happen if I needed to return home to attend the funeral. Although they suggested the option, it was done in a manner which made me feel that it would be a great inconvenience to them. The result being that when one of my best and closest friends passed away from a heart attack during my sixth month, I could not talk to them about it. I remember chatting to him on Facebook the night before he passed away. I was crushed by his passing and spent hours crying my heart out. I was lucky in the sense that by that time I had made amazing friends in the US who supported me and literally wiped away my tears. My point being, please talk to and support her as much as you can. I understand your concerns but you are all that she has right now. Not having the emotional support of my host family was devastating and played a major role in my healing process. Sometimes, all we need is a hug and to know that we have a shoulder to cry on when the grief and pain becomes too much.

Host Mom in the City April 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm

How terrible Kiara! Our AP had her grandmother die in her fourth month with us and I immediately told her whatever she needed to do was totally fine and that she needed to think about her family first. She ended up going back home for a week, which I absolutely would have done in her position myself. We did not charge her vacation days even though it was a real scramble for the week, especially since it was so sudden. I was also worried that she wouldn’t come back. But it all turned out fine.

Taking a Computer Lunch April 29, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I have had many friends say nothing out of fear of saying something wrong. It’s too bad that your HM could not have stepped away from her own needs and been more supportive of yours. She may not have realized that by failing to support you in your grief with a hug, a kindly worded question, and offers to make other childcare plans so you could attend the funeral, that she affected her relationship with you for the rest of your year. However, I am not surprised that she said nothing. In my experience, many Americans have trouble dealing with grief. Of course, she could have been waiting for you to talk first, not realizing that she had inadvertently closed the conversation by not being more supportive.

German Au-Pair April 30, 2013 at 12:36 am

When my grandma passed away during my year, I informed my host mum that I might be distracted for a couple of days. I wouldn’t have told her otherwise. She said she was sorry and that I could’ve told her anyway but that was the last thing she’s ever said about it.
My host parents are just not the cuddly, warm family-type kind of people and I didn’t take it personally. I had been with them for almost a year but it’s just not who they are and sometimes we need to accept that and find our own way. I would not want a FORCED hug either. I’d rather know where I stand than be in the incredibly awkward position of them feeling obligated to act a certain way.

PassionateWorrier July 16, 2013 at 4:27 am

I had a similar experience when my grandma passed in my fourth month, right before thanksgiving.

I only found out my grandma had died by accident (called my father who lived half an hour away from the rest of my family [divorced] who asked me how I was feeling and then had to break it to me that she had actually died a week ago and he had heard from neighbors who knew his second MIL) and on a weekend when my HF wasn’t around. I called my best friend, she picked me up, we spent the day… but when I came home to an empty house later in the day I ended up crying in the dark in the living room where my HF found me when they returned.
They said they were sorry, I got a hug from everybody, they told me I could go home if I wanted to (I didn’t) and they would arrange something but after that nobody ever asked me how I was.

I didn’t mind that much then and there because I was so mad at my family that they hadn’t called me when it happened but I had to hear it from my dad, who non of them were talking to, who had heard from someone who had been told by someone [you get the picture]… but now, a few (manymany) years later… I don’t know if I shouldn’t have expected being asked how I was doing after a little while? Not hugging or anything but just asking if I was okay and how I was coping? Maybe I left the impression I was copying better than I was?

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