How might an Au Pair help a grieving family?

by cv harquail on July 17, 2013

Dear Au Pair Moms –

I was an AP for 2 years with a family, then came back home. Now, two years later, I will be going back to help the family during a very difficult time.

I wanted to go back ¬†because my HD got diagnosed with cancer last year, and with the kids’ current AP leaving soon, my HM thought it’d be a good idea to have someone they already know and love to care for them in this difficult time. I love the kids, of course, and knew it would be a challenge.

chasing vineThis week the sadness took over all of us when my dear HD passed away. He was so very young, good, loving with his family and friends. An amazing human being.

My question is: I will be arriving there in a very short time, and the situation is even harder than I’d imagined. I wonder, how do I help grieving children? They are very, very young. A pre-teen, and 3 under 5.

It breaks my heart to think how hard this time will be for them so I want to be prepared, I want to do my best for this family that helped me and loved me so much during my time there. It will also be hard for my HM, of course, she’s lost the love of her life and father of her children. I want to be there for her too.

I know I won’t be “alone” because their families are knit together and will always be there to help but when everybody in the extended family is gone, it’ll be just me, helping them get back to school, and regain their footing as a family.

Do you parents and au pairs have ideas for how I could approach this situation? Any advice?
Thank you very much.  Alex.


PA AP Mom July 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

First, I want to say that I really admire you for being willing to jump in and help this poor family when they need it most. Your compassion and maturity are quite apparent in your post and I’m sure your host mom and host kids feel so lucky to have you.

Please remember that this is a difficult time for everyone involved. The range of emotions during this grieving period can range from sadness, to anger, to despair and even to self-doubt and blame. Be prepared, especially with a teenager.

My suggestion would be to just ask the HM what would be the best way that you could help. Maybe she is feeling too overwhelmed to go to the grocery store or someone needs a new pair of shoes but going to the mall seems like too big of a task. Just the little things can often be the most hope.

Good luck!

TexasHM July 18, 2013 at 9:52 am

Completely agree. Hopefully someone on here is a counselor and can respond with professional advice. I’m only responding because I felt the need to also commend you for being not only a fantastic au pair, but an exceptional human being. I would encourage you to make sure you have an established support structure outside of the family so you too can grieve and vent on the tough days. It will be a rollercoaster, the only advice I can give is love them, which you obviously already do. The stages of grief will show, likely at different times, in a different order, in different family members. It’s important they all remember how much he loved them and that their memories are theirs forever. No one else will ever fill his place and I’m not sure if they are religious or not but if they are many churches have grief counseling and groups, I would highly encourage that. Here you don’t have to be a member of the church to attend. Be flexible and non judgmental. Don’t let them destroy pictures or anything, if they can’t bear to look at them pack them up in a closet somewhere for awhile, they will be so thankful later. My prayers for you and this precious family!

Taking a Computer Lunch July 18, 2013 at 12:57 pm

While we have not had a death in our immediate family, we have a medically fragile child who has been on life support for several days at a time more than once, which has been extremely stressful for our family. It takes a mature AP to realize:

1) not to take grief personally – you seem levelheaded and aware that you are not going back to the same family. The younger kids might not remember you or find your presence as comforting as the older ones. They may appear extreme in their reaction to the loss of their current AP, because to them it’s another loss in their life. If you’re really strong, then talk openly with them about the outgoing AP, what she’s doing – maybe even arrange Skype sessions so they can see that she’s well and misses them.

2) grieving people can appear indecisive. Your HM is going to be going through a tough year. She is going to remember her relationship with you and count on you to be reliable and remain strong. She’ll need you to do a little more than she might expect from any other new AP, because you know the household’s routine and where things go. She may need your help remembering what school supplies the kids need, which outgrown clothes need to be replaced.

3) that it’s okay to walk away. You may find it very difficult to go away for an evening or a weekend because the house is having a tough time. However, it is your year, too, and if you allow yourself to become mired in grief, then you won’t be able to help when needed. Allow yourself time to get away from the family and do activities that allow you to relax and enjoy yourself.

Children respond to grief in different ways. My ‘tween became afraid to be alone at night, and even now, years later, obsesses about not making it through to the morning.

Alex July 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I am the OP, thank you for your advice.

I do know the family is different now, one of the babies was born while I was at home but the 2 older kids are excited to have me back. I talked to their current AP about the feeling you get when it’s ~your~ time to leave. I told her she shouldn’t feel replaced because I was in that same place two years ago, and the kids never forgot about me or stopped loving me. On the contrary, the missed me even more.
It will be difficult, I know, but I am eager to help. I have many friends there so I know I’ll have a support group myself to keep me fresh every day.
I would’ve thought trying to take the children’s mind off the whole loss issue would be the best but reading a different site about grieving children I read that I should talk about their dad, about the good times they had, tell stories, that might comfort them. It talks, too, about the child needing more security, assuring him that he is loved and not alone.

I just want to do things right for and by them.

Thank you all for the kind words of advice and encouragement :)

JenNC July 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm

First I want to commend you on wanting to be there for your old host family and children. This says so much about you.

My mother was killed in a car accident when I was 17, my brothers were 15 and 8. It was the worst moment in our lives. From a “child” who had just lost one of the most important people in my world, it would have been nice to have someone who was “strong” for me and my brothers , but that responsibility actually fell on my shoulders. My dad was a wreck and even adult friends of the family told me to pull it together and be strong for my brothers. I didn’t really get to grieve and so much responsibility fell on me.

My advice is be that shoulder these kids will need, if they cry hug and hold them even the big ones. The older kids may feel they can’t do this with their mom, because they will cause an emotional break down. I don’t know if this will be the case but you may see the older kids being strong for their mother, but they also need an outlet.

My second advice is try to help maintain a sense of normalcy, kids need this, life must go on, and their dad wouldn’t want the world to stop, he would want them to live, and enjoy life, so encourage sport activities, school extra curricular activities, etc. But don’t be too pushy, or you may hear” my dad just died” try to help life return to normal in a process that is comfortable for the kids. Mid the kids see that other s around them encourage them to return to activities they live, they won’t feel as guilty for pursuing them. they will have to establish new routines, maybe some old routines will be too painful for awhile, you will have to feel this out as you get there. Hopefully host mom can help. They may not want to sit at the dinner table anymore because of the empty space, maybe they will.

Be very mindful of ” things” that belonged to dad, and the respect the family members will need for them, if you get there and find his old running shoes sitting at the door, leave them. Let mom decide when it is time to move things, if she has kept things in their place. This is just an example, but, for example, if his voice is still recorded on an answering machine, make sure not to erase it. Mom maybe over sensitive about things just make sure to ask before doing something that may seem ” helpful”.

Here is something to think about doing with kids,but again, in time, not the minute you get there…. But this is therapeutic therapy- create individual memory books, they can write down favorite things about their dad, happy memories, special moments, add some “copied pictures ” of him and themselves.

I hope this helps, for children the big thing is feeling like the world goes on and forgets about their parent, if you feel kids are open talk to them about their dad, help them to feel goof about continuing to talk about him. Just because he is gone doesn’t mean his spirit isn’t still alive. Jen

Ruth July 18, 2013 at 5:23 pm

What an incredibly thoughtful and kind person you are to take on this family’s loss and their grieving. We were in the AP program until earlier this month when our AP decided to rematch for no reason other than she just wanted to relocate to NY. This happened to be the same time my mother passed away (the day before she left) leaving us without childcare and our own grief, so, again, I am here to commend your ability to go outside of of yourself to be of a HUGE help to this family when, right now, they need everything to be as familiar as possible and you are providing that to them.

You might want to let the kids and/or HM lead the way in whether they want to talk about their dad/husband. If they do, keep the door open and share in their memories. I know I openly wept all day the day my mom passed this month (it was hard having an AP here who was completely disconnected to what was going on). To have someone empathetic, caring, willing to jump in and make sure everything is taken care of will be a tremendous help! I hope this goodness comes back to you ten fold!

LookingForwardToBeAP July 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I also must congratulate you for what you are doing.

My two cents here, I lost my very dear grandmother when I was 14 and grief her many many years. Once someone told me to imagine her sitting next to me while I was crying for her, trying to tell me to be happy for her because she was very well where she was and that the only thing that made her worry was me being sad, and that I wasn’t listening because I was only thinking of myself. This shocked me because it was a hole different approach to any I had heard before and this is why I wanted to tell you about it, and thinking about it know it was the first step to heal that wound. Now everytime I am happy for anything I imagine her being happy with me and its a very nice thing, I really feel she’s part of my life.
Probably had to do with my believes and the moment that was told to me but anyway it’s an idea to keep in mind.

I wish to you and your host family the best!

Alex July 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Hello all,

Thank you SO much for your words of advice, it’s been really helpful. I will be arriving soon to their home and this’ been great. I will be strong and rely, too, on my own support group, hoping always to do my best for them and for me.

vdotw July 26, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Hi Alex,

I also commend you on your dedication to this family and the generosity of spirit you demonstrate by wanting to be there for them during such a difficult time.

My experience is nothing in comparison to the significance of losing a spouse or father, but in some ways, I can and do relate to the situation. My husband is serving overseas in Afghanistan. Our AP came into our family knowing well in advance that she was here to help me with the right kind of care for the children during a very long separation. Though we are not grieving for a permanent loss, the children have been very much affected by their father’s absence. They act in ways they normally wouldn’t. They challenge me when they otherwise would not. They break down emotionally about the danger of their father’s job in heartbreaking ways during dinner. The best recommendation I can offer an AP with a family dealing with loss (whether temporary or permanent), is to realize that ever day may be different, to offer structure and routine as a comfort, and to remain flexible on the days when emotions run high for either the children or the spouse. Children are surprisingly adaptable and resilient, but they have emotions and aren’t mature enough to control them or channel them constructively in the way adults often can.

A great day can quickly turn difficult unexpectedly, but this family will be so much better for the personal and familiar care you are willing to offer. Do whatever you can to care for yourself, and if things get too hard, don’t be afraid to be open with your host mom. If you take good care of yourself, you’ll be better prepared to help care for these children.

Thank you for what you do. I don’t think I’m alone in appreciating the outlook and dedication you offer to your host family.

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