The World Health Organization has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic is transitioning out of being a global emergency – and for the most part, the world is starting to move on. Schools are back in session, most countries have eased travel restrictions and many health care providers have dropped mask requirements.
As positive as these developments are, the nightmare is in its early days for the estimated 300,000 children in the United States whose parent or primary caregiver died of COVID-19.
Regardless of the cause, the death of a parent in childhood increases risk for depression, anxiety, academic failure and substance misuse into adolescence and adulthood – among other negative outcomes – which are amplified when their grief is unaddressed or unattended to. That said, navigating the loss of a parent to COVID-19 can be especially challenging due to social norms, pandemic-related restrictions and political polarization.
We know that COVID-19 dramatically altered the academic, social and mental health lives of all youth. In fact, in 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 42-page advisory, "Protecting Youth Mental Health," calling attention to the urgent public health challenges our youth now face as a result of the global pandemic.
More than a million people have died of the pandemic in the United States, and deaths from COVID-19 still approach 1,600 a week. We know that COVID-19 deaths disproportionately affect communities of color, as well as those in rural and lower-income communities.
In addition to coping with a parent’s death, many families were unable to comfort their dying family member or hold a memorial service to honor their loved ones. For families already struggling with financial issues, food or housing insecurity, or preexisting emotional health difficulties, the devastation of a parent’s death became even more immediate and far-reaching.
Children and families who had a parent die of COVID-19 often experience social stigma driven by political polarization about pandemic causes and restrictions, and they have had to field intrusive questions or statements: Were they vaccinated? Did she have preexisting conditions? You know COVID-19 wasn’t real, right?
Even as the world has largely moved on from the pandemic, social isolation is still felt by children whose grief has been marginalized in this way.
The question now becomes, who is helping these children? To date, there are no federal policies in place – and this must change.
In the meantime, Dougy Center, members of the National Alliance for Children’s Grief and other nonprofits are providing specialized services that include peer grief support groups, counseling and camps to children orphaned by COVID-19 – as well as those who’ve had parents die from accidents, illnesses, suicide and homicide.
Services include the “After a Death from COVID-19” online toolkit, which features 40 free resources available in English and Spanish. The toolkit was made possible through a generous grant from the Brave of Heart Fund, which provides charitable grants and emotional support services to families of front-line health care workers, volunteers and support staff whose lives were lost in the fight against COVID-19.
Dougy Center was founded in 1982 and became the first peer support grief program for children and their families. In addition to its in-person and online resources, Dougy Center’s model has been replicated more than 500 times in organizations around the world.
Resources to support children, teens and their families who have lost a parent or family member to COVID-19 are available – yet more help will be needed as these youths attempt to adapt to the changes their parent’s death has imposed.
We must continue to support them: Their future – and ours – depends on it.
Donna L. Schuurman is the senior director of advocacy and education at Dougy Center, and served as the executive director of the Dougy Center from 1991-2015. She's the author of "Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent."