Thousands of toddlers have lost their parents to Covid. Where is help for them?
Five months after her husband died from Covid-19, Valerie Villegas can see the grief hurt her children.
Nicholas, the baby who was 1 and almost weaned when his father died, now wants to breastfeed around the clock and calls every tall, dark-haired man “Dada,” the only word he knows. Robert, 3, regularly breaks down into furious tantrums, stops using the big potty, and worries about sick people giving him germs. Ayden, 5, recently announced that it is his job to “be strong” and protect his mother and brothers.
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Their older children – Kai Flores (13), Andrew Vaiz (16) and Alexis Vaiz (18) – are often calm and sad or angry and sad, depending on the day. The two elders, gripped by anxiety that make it difficult to concentrate and sleep, were prescribed antidepressants shortly after the loss of their stepfather.
“I spend half the nights crying,” said Villegas, 41, a hospice nurse from Portland, Texas. She was widowed on January 25, just three weeks after Robert Villegas, 45, a strong, healthy truck driver and Jiujitsu expert, tested positive for the virus.
“My children, they are my main concern,” she said. “And we need help.”
But in a country where researchers calculate that more than 46,000 children have lost one or both parents to Covid-19 since February 2020, Villegas and other survivors say there are basic services for their grieving children – counseling, peer support groups, financial support – finding it was difficult, if not impossible.
“They say it’s out there,” said Villegas. “But trying to get it was a nightmare.”
Interviews with nearly two dozen researchers, therapists and other experts on the subject of loss and grief, as well as families whose relatives have died of Covid-19, show how scarce access to grief groups and therapists became during the pandemic. Providers made an effort to switch from face-to-face to virtual visits, and waiting lists grew so that the deprived children and their surviving parents can often get by on their own.
“Losing a parent is devastating to a child,” said Alyssa Label, San Diego therapist and program manager at SmartCare Behavioral Health Consultation Services. “The loss of a parent during a pandemic is a special form of torture.”
Children can receive survivor benefits if one parent dies after that parent has worked long enough in a job that requires the payment of social security taxes. During the pandemic, the number of underage children of deceased workers who received new benefits has increased, reaching nearly 200,000 in 2020, up from an average of 180,000 in the previous three years. Social Security Administration officials do not track the cause of death, but the latest numbers mark most awards since 1994. Covid deaths have “undoubtedly fueled this surge,” according to the SSA’s Chief Actuary’s office.
And the number of children who are entitled to these benefits is certainly higher. According to a 2019 analysis by David Weaver of the Congressional Budget Office, only about half of the 2 million children in the US who lost a parent by 2014 received their social security benefits.
The counselors said many families have no idea that children are entitled to benefits when a working parent dies or don’t know how to enroll.
In a country that has showered philanthropic and government aid to the 3,000 children who lost their parents in the September 11th terrorist attacks, there have been no organized efforts to identify, prosecute, or support the tens of thousands of children who are were left behind by Covid-19.
“I don’t know of any group working on it,” said Joyal Mulheron, founder of Evermore, a nonprofit foundation focused on public policy related to bereavement. “Because the scale of the problem is so large, the scale of the solution has to match it.”
Covid-19 has claimed more than 600,000 lives in the United States, and researchers writing in JAMA Pediatrics magazine have calculated that for every 13 deaths caused by the virus, a child under 18 lost a parent. According to estimates by the researchers, that would mean more than 46,000 children on June 15. Three quarters of the children are young people; the others are children under 10 years of age. About 20 percent of the children who have lost their parents are black, even though they make up 14 percent of the population.
“There’s this shadow pandemic,” said Rachel Kidman, associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York who was part of the team that found a way to calculate the impact of Covid-19 deaths. “There are large numbers of children who are left behind.”
The Biden government, which launched a program to funeral Covid-19 victims, did not respond to questions about offering targeted services to families with children.
Failure to target the growing cohort of survivors, whether in an individual family or in the U.S. as a whole, could have long-term implications, researchers said. Losing a parent in childhood has been linked to higher risk of substance use, mental health problems, poor academic performance, lower college attendance, lower employment, and premature death.
“Grief is the most common stress and stressful thing people go through in their lives,” said clinical psychologist Christopher Layne of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA / Duke University. “It deserves our care and attention.”
Perhaps 10 to 15 percent of children and others affected by Covid-19 may meet the criteria for a new diagnosis, an ongoing grief disorder that can occur when people have specific, long-lasting reactions to the death of a loved one. That could mean thousands of children with symptoms that require clinical treatment. “This is literally a national, very public health emergency,” Layne said.
Still, Villegas and others say they have been largely left alone to handle a confusing patchwork of community services for their children, even as they struggle with their own grief.
“I called the advisor at the school. She gave me some small resources on books and so on, ”said Villegas. “I called a crisis hotline. I called counseling centers but they couldn’t help because they had waiting lists and needed insurance. My children lost their insurance when their father died. “
The social disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic also overwhelmed the grief counselors. In the United States, nonprofits that specialize in child grief reported making efforts to meet the need, moving from personal to virtual engagement.
“It was a huge challenge; it was very alien to the way we work, ”said Vicki Jay, CEO of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. “Grief work is relational, and it’s very difficult to relate to a machine.”
At Experience Camps, which offer free week-long camps to around 1,000 grieving children across the country each year, the waiting list has increased more than 100 percent since 2020, said Talya Bosch, director of camp supervision. “It’s something we worry about – a lot of kids don’t get the support they need,” she said.
Private consultants have also been inundated with demand. Jill Johnson-Young, co-owner of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, Calif., Said her nearly three dozen therapists had been booked for months. “I don’t know of a therapist in the area who isn’t busy right now,” she said.
Dr. Sandra McGowan-Watts, 47, family doctor in Chicago, lost her husband Steven to Covid-19 in May 2020. The 12-year-old was suddenly so sad in the morning: “My husband woke her up for school. He helped her prepare for school. “
Justise was also able to get a place at an Experience Camps session this summer. “I’m nervous about going to camp, but I look forward to meeting new children who have also lost someone in their lives,” she said.
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Jamie Stacy, 42, of San Jose, Calif., Was connected to an online counselor for their daughter Grace, 8) and twin sons Liam and Colm, 6 after their father Ed Stacy died of Covid-19 in March 2020 Age 52. Only now did she learn that children can grieve differently than adults. They tend to focus on specific issues such as where they will live and whether their favorite toys or pets will be there. They often alternate phases of play with sadness and quickly switch between confrontation and avoiding their feelings of loss.
“The boys will play Lego, have a great time and all of a sudden throw a bomb on you: ‘I know how to see Daddy again. I just have to die and I’ll see Daddy again, ”she said. “And then they play Lego again.”
Stacy said the advice was crucial in helping her family navigate a world where many people mark the end of the pandemic. “We cannot evade the issue of Covid-19 for even a day,” she said. “It is always on our face, wherever we go, a reminder of our painful loss.”
Villegas, Texas has returned to her job in hospice care and is starting to reorganize her life. However, she believes that families like hers, whose lives have been indelibly marked by the deadly virus, should be given formal assistance and grief support.
“Now everyone’s life is returning to normal,” she said. “You can go back to your life. And I think my life will never be normal again. “
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.
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