COVID-19 was the third biggest killer in the US in 2020, claiming about 375,000 lives. Adults aged 65 and older were hit hardest by the disease, but many of those who died were parents — so many that nearly 40,000 kids lost at least one parent to COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and February 2021. With limited support from their friends, schools, and communities due to social isolation, the trauma of losing a parent puts these kids at high risk of long-term mental health problems.
For every 13 COVID-related deaths, a child loses a parent, according to a statistical model from researchers at Penn State University. Because of the coronavirus, about 20 percent more kids have grieved a parent’s death compared to a normal year. Most of the children who lost a parent were adolescents, but about 25 percent were elementary-aged.
“When we think of COVID-19 mortality, much of the conversation focuses on the fact that older adults are the populations at greatest risk. About 81 percent of deaths have been among those ages 65 and older,” Ashton Verdery, a professor of sociology, demography, and social data analytics at Penn State, said in a press release. “However, that leaves 19 percent of deaths among those under 65… three percent are among those in their 40s. In these younger age groups, substantial numbers of people have children, for whom the loss of a parent is a potentially devastating challenge.”
Black children are especially vulnerable. They make up 14 percent of the US child population but account for 20 percent of all kids who suffered parental loss from COVID-19.
Losing a parent is always difficult. But it’s worse during a global pandemic. Social isolation from friends, extended family, and the community means that children are lacking in support. For many families, the pandemic is also a time of great financial strain, which can make losing a parent even harder.
Social isolation can also make it harder to recognize when children are struggling with bereavement and need extra support. “Teachers are such a vital resource in terms of identifying and helping at-risk children, and it is harder for them to do that when schools are operating remotely and teachers are so overburdened, making it vital to resume in-person instruction safely and support worn-out educators,” Verdery said.
Getting children the support they need is crucial to curbing the potential long-term mental health effects of losing a parent. Kids whose parents pass away are at higher risk of traumatic grief, depression, poor educational outcomes, and unintentional death or suicide. Sometimes these risks are elevated well into adulthood, and they may be especially high when the parent dies suddenly, such as from COVID-19.
“I think the first thing we need to do is to proactively connect all children to the available supports they are entitled to, like Social Security child survivor benefits — research shows only about half of eligible children are connected to these programs in normal circumstances, but that those who do fare much better,” Verdery said. “We should also consider expanding eligibility to these resources. Second, a national effort to identify and provide counseling and related resources to all children who lose a parent is vital.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, in which 3,000 children lost a parent, the US government set up several programs to support the families of the victims. Verdery and his colleagues recommend similar programs for kids who lost a parent to COVID-19. “Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational, and economic fallout affecting children,” they wrote. Even a brief intervention can make all the difference.