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Nanny Angel Michelle Donais

Meet Nanny Angel Michelle

Like the children she cares for, Michelle Donais has parents with cancer. She has witnessed firsthand just how painfully difficult it can be to deal with the illness and its treatments, along with day-to-day life, let alone caring for young children on top of it all.

Michelle has spent her life dedicating her free time to organizations benefiting children with cancer. She’s volunteered at summer camps for children with cancer, participated in fundraising events, and even plans to cycle Canada from coast to coast in order to raise awareness and funds for children with the disease. After learning about the Nanny Angel Network, Michelle submitted an application and was welcomed into the organization.

Michelle volunteers with a family that’s close to NAN’s heart. She looks after two young girls who recently lost their mother, Sherri. The parallels between their grief and Michelle’s own struggles as she cared for her own sick parents have brought her and the girls together.

“As Sherri’s cancer was progressing, I was also dealing with my own Mom’s cancer progression,” Michelle says. “I ended up moving back to my parent’s home for several months and wasn’t able to physically be with the girls because of the geography, so I arranged with their father to Skype with the girls as often as I could.”

“Their mother and my Mom shared many of the same symptoms and effects of the cancer and treatments, experiences in and out of the hospital, and their desire to be at home as their diseases advanced.” The similarities between their situations weren’t lost on the girls, either. They’d often ask Michelle questions about her own mother’s illness, which led to a dialogue about their feelings and concerns.

“They did ask me questions about my Mom and her illness, that I knew related to what Sherri was going through,” Michelle says. These questions included ‘Can your Mommy eat anything?’ (she had an NG tube, similar to their mother, and was able to eat very little), and ‘Where does she sleep?’ (in a hospital bed in the living room, also similar to their mother). “The training we were given from NAN helped me to answer them and also connect with them through our shared experiences,” Michelle says.

NAN used every resource possible to support Michelle and the family she cared for through the mother’s illness, treatment, and death. “The support from the NAN team has been tremendous. As Sherri’s disease progressed, the NAN team was incredible with providing us with various tools and resources to support the family,” Michelle says.

“Many years ago, I heard a quote that had a big impact on me: ‘No one can do anything about the quantity of life, but we all can do something about the quality.’ Being able to support Sherri during her illness, and provide her with much needed time for respite, while at the same time creating a fun environment for her kids, was meaningful and important to Sherri and her family. This has been a life changing experience for me, and I know that volunteering as a Nanny Angel has created a meaningful difference, not only for this family but also for myself. I’ve created a special bond with this family that I hope will last a lifetime.”

Volunteer Michelle with one of her NAN children, Hanora

Michelle with one of her NAN children, Hanora

A Dad’s Story: Pawan

Father’s Day is bittersweet for many of our Nanny Angel Families. Fathers often carry a tremendous burden when their partner becomes ill. We would like to celebrate the important role father’s play in helping moms during the difficult time of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. For all of the fathers who find themselves in a situation that they could never have imagined, we acknowledge that you are often the glue that keeps your family together. You deserve this special day.

For some dads, this may be the first Father’s Day that they are celebrating without their children’s mom. One such dad is Pawan Sharma. When Pawan and his wife were introduced to the Nanny Angel Network, it was just after Pawan’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with their second daughter. The Nanny Angel Network was able to support Pawan and his family through his wife’s treatment and after she passed. The Sharma family holds a special place in the heart of the Nanny Angel Network family, and we’re so thankful that Pawan agreed to share his story.

The Nanny Angel Network came into my life as its name reflects, like an angel, like hope. It’s not easy to know your loved one is in pain and is going through so much. I’ll never forget the night I was waiting outside the operation theater, praying for two lives, my wife’s and our unborn daughter’s, to come through safely. You can’t even imagine that moment. It was so heavy for me and I felt helpless.  After my wife was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, my role as a husband and as a father totally changed. On one side I had my wife, who was fighting for her life and whom I promised before marriage that I would be there for, in her happiness and her sorrow, and on the other side, I had my little angel who was born premature. I was on an emotional roller coaster but I gathered my courage and cared for my wife until the last moment of her life.

I can’t even express my gratitude and thanks to the Nanny Angel Network. NAN provided moral support to my family and a financial gift when Audrey Guth was selected as part of TD Canada Trust’s Make Today Matter campaign. The Nanny Angels assured my wife that everything would be okay and my wife was able to take satisfaction from knowing that our kids were in good hands.

When my wife passed away, I was very down emotionally. Returning to work a couple weeks later seemed like a new challenge, I was scared and unsure of what would happen. When Audrey called and told me that she would stand beside me, I felt secure. She kept her promise and I returned to my job with no worries.

Michelle, our Nanny Angel, stepped in and cared for my kids as a mother would. She gave love, affection, and support to my kids when they needed that support the most and she even provided help for my mother, who was living with me and my daughters.

She came to my house everyday and gave a bath to the kids, fed them, read stories and allowed my mom to take breaks and relax. At that time my older daughter missed her mother a lot, and was experiencing many emotional difficulties. Life was not normal anymore, but our Nanny Angel supported us and became our savior.

My younger daughter knows nothing regarding our situation; she is still too young to understand what happened, but my older daughter went through a very emotional phase. She visited the hospital many times to see her mother before she passed, and asked so many questions. “Why is mom not coming home? When is she coming back?” After my wife’s death, she went through the grief phase, just like us. It’s so hard to even think of now, I am just so thankful to God that NAN came into our lives.

The Nanny Angels touched our lives and I hope and pray that they will touch many more in the future.

Pawan’s story has touched the hearts of those at the Nanny Angel Network and it is so uplifting to know the difference NAN is making in the lives of those experiencing such challenging and exhausting circumstances. Pawan and his daughters are one of many families who lives have been profoundly impacted by the presence of a Nanny Angel. This impact is exactly the kind of difference NAN aims to make in the lives of every family they serve.

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Text: Mia Shulman       Photo: Omar Duragos

Grief and Loss

On a chilly Sunday in late February I found myself wandering around the basement of the Toronto General Hospital in search of the ELLICSR centre. Inside, I found a lovely and warm space in which I would spend the next eight hours.

I was at the centre to attend Grief and Loss training as part of the Nanny Angel Network’s volunteer training program. Though I am not a nanny, I was there to see what nannies going through the required training learn. The seminar is hosted by NAN every other month, and is taught by Andrea Warnick. Andrea is a nurse psychotherapist, educator, and thanatologist with twenty years of experience in supporting grieving children and families.

As Andrea introduced herself, she explained that she first began to explore issues surrounding death and dying when working as a nurse. Working on the frontline of healthcare and regularly interacting with bereaved families, Andrea realized that medical personnel were not receiving sufficient training in how to talk to kids about cancer, death, and grief. Though there was a wealth of research surrounding kids and death, from how to talk to kids about death to how to recognize and help with children’s grief, this research was not being put into practice.

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It is no surprise, when one considers our general cultural-wide discomfort with the subject of death, that we would be bad at speaking about it with children. Parents understandably want to protect their children from news of a serious illness, and especially from the death of a loved one. They worry about the impact a death, whether of a parent or of a loved one, will have upon their child. With this in mind, they will often avoid speaking to their children about the approaching death, attempting to spare the child from trauma.

Study after study has shown, however, that the opposite is true. The best way to protect children from being negatively impacted by the death of a loved one is to prepare them for it. Instead of not speaking about it with children, discussing it openly and in age appropriate terms helps children psychologically cope with the death of a loved one both during their childhood and as adults. Grief is something that never really leaves us, though we may cope with it differently at different ages.

While Andrea discussed the complexities and difficulties of discussing death with children of all ages, in the end she summed it up in a few central principles. Be honest with your child. Use simple, but correct language –  euphemisms can be confusing, especially if a child is still at an age where they take everything very literally. Foster an environment where they can ask questions. They might not be asking questions only because they are picking up on the fact that the adults don’t want to discuss it. Finally, be prepared to not have all the answers. You aren’t going to mess your child up forever because you didn’t know the answer to one of their questions. Do some research, or wonder at life’s mysteries with them.

Children’s concerns around cancer and death often fall into four central questions – did I cause it? Can I catch it? Can I cure it? And who is going to take care of me? Explaining cancer to a child involves answering these four questions, using real terms, and explaining what is going on in as much detail as the child can comprehend… if the child wants! Ultimately, the level of explanation depends on the kid, and how much they want to know.

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After the death of a loved one, children will grieve and mourn just as adults do, though their grieving will look different from an adult’s grief. Play is often part of a child’s grieving, as well as moving between intense sadness and normal happiness. It is important to discuss, encourage, and model the expression of all emotions, in a range of healthy ways. If a child is expressing their grief through inappropriate behaviours, feel free to correct those behaviours, but it is important to distinguish between the emotions and the behaviours ­– the emotions are not the problem. Offer children the chance to talk, but don’t force them to if they don’t want to, and help them develop rituals to stay connected to their deceased loved one.

Ultimately, every person is different, and every child is going to react to illness and death differently. The important thing to remember is that even young children are fully capable of understanding cancer and death – if the adults in their lives explain it to them and are prepared to take the time to engage with them fully on their level. I left the course with a far greater understanding of the importance of creating safe spaces for children and fostering honest conversations with them. The knowledge Nanny Angels gain from this seminar allows them to do just this. If the children they are visiting want to talk to their Nanny Angel about the things they are afraid to discuss with their parents, our volunteers are prepared.

For more information and resources on how to help children cope with grief and loss, check out Andrea Warnick’s website and follow the conversation at #nanGL on twitter, where we regularly post links to resources and community programs designed to help bereaved children.


Text: Jensine Jones          Photos: Becka Soyka