A staggering 40,000 American children have lost at least one parent to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recently published report. This loss will likely have a deep and continuing impact on families for decades to come.

The report, recently published by the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, estimated that of the “480,000 deaths as of February this year, .078 children age 0 to 17 were left bereaved of a parent, representing a 17.5% to 20.2% increase in parental loss that would have occurred in the absence of COVID-19.”

That breaks down to roughly 37,000 children, with “approximately 75% of them being adolescents ages 10 to 17.” When it comes to race, black children have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic with 20% or 7,600 losing a parent, an outsized proportion considering black children only comprise 14% of children in the United States.

An estimated 2 million children have also lost a grandparent, who could have been a potential guardian or important support system to a child who lost his or her parent to the pandemic.

In a Washington Post opinion piece, the researchers connected with the project stated, “The sudden death of these relatives could similarly leave youths grieving and at risk, especially for those children who rely on these extended family members as their primary caregivers.”

As the researchers point out, the last time there was such a profound and dynamic loss of parents and caregivers was 9/11, when 3,000 parents unexpectedly and tragically died.

This JAMA report warns about how the loss of parents and grandparents could impact young people for years or decades to come.

“Children who lose a parent are at elevated risk of traumatic grief, depression, poor educational outcomes, and unintentional death or suicide, and these consequences can persist into adulthood. Sudden parental death, such as that occurring owing to COVID-19, can be particularly traumatizing for children and leave families ill prepared to navigate its consequences. Moreover, COVID-19 losses are occurring at a time of social isolation, institutional strain, and economic hardship, potentially leaving bereaved children without the supports they need.”

The article concludes: “Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational, and economic fallout affecting children. Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation. Brief evidence-based interventions may be able to prevent the development of severe psychological problems when delivered widely, although some children will need longer-term support. The establishment of a national child bereavement cohort could identify children who have lost parents, monitor them for early identification of emerging challenges, link them to locally delivered care, and form the basis for a longitudinal study of the long-term effects of mass parental bereavement during a uniquely challenging time of social isolation and economic uncertainty.”

Throughout the pandemic, it’s become evident that children have been severely impacted, though they are relatively unaffected by the disease itself.

School closings have undoubtedly put many children behind when it comes to education, and the lack of social interaction has increased the suicide risk for vulnerable children and teens. Las Vegas’ school district even decided to reopen solely over concerns about kids taking their own lives.

This additional report demonstrates that educational issues are not the only problem impacting growing children and teens.

The loss of a parent isn’t easy, regardless of someone’s age. But for children already struggling with a chaotic and unpredictable world, the loss of a parent could seem overwhelming.

Focus on the Family Counselor Glenn Lutjens, MA, LMFT, shared some insights for parents and family members about how to help a child process the loss of a parent.

“Children need to know their grief is welcomed and valued. Depending on the age of the child, their grief will look a little different, but losing a parent is painful. Encourage the child to talk about their feelings at their pace. If a child feels pressured, it may backfire as the child might emotionally bury their pain.

“Not necessarily all at once, but over time something like this could be said:

‘I want you to know that I am here for you. The death of your mom (or dad) will take time to work through. There’s not one right way of doing it, but how you feel will be an important key. You may feel all kinds of feelings, and those feelings may feel like a tangled-up ball of yarn. I will do my best to hear your feelings, accept them and help you make sense of them to the degree I can. It’s okay if you would like to talk to a counselor—I will do my best to make that happen. You will probably find you need some real-life activities like playing, sports, friendships, etc. to help buffer or temporarily distract you from some of your pain. It’s not uncommon to want to bury what hurts so much, and you will be able to decide if you do that. As someone who loves you though, I would encourage you to be honest with your feelings. In the end it will help a whole lot more.’”

Focus on the Family’s Senior Director of Counseling Services Geremy Keeton, M.MFT, LMFT, said, “In times of shocking loss, the emotional, spiritual and relational resources a family receives through the extended family and the church are vital to their navigation of such painful change.

“We were meant to go through grief as a community, and children can receive a great deal of comfort and support from those close to their family. You can have a memorable and stabilizing impact on a child by being consistently present for them throughout this period of immediate adjustment and hopefully even beyond.”

For those parent(s), grandparents and family members who are struggling, Focus on the Family’s counseling department can help. To request a conversation with one of the counselors, call 1-855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time), or complete our Counseling Consultation Request Form. There’s also the Christian Counseling Network, which can help you find counseling from a Christian perspective in your area.

Additional Resources:

Grief and Loss

Walking Through Grief With Your Child

Parenting During Coronavirus: Help Your Family Stick Together and Work Through Tough Emotions

Living in a Broken World

Parenting a Child Affected By a Traumatic Event 

What To Do When Tragedy Impacts Your Family, Part 2 

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