Children have had to contend with a lot throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. With schools finally reopening around the country, their lives might be starting to return to normalcy but many have suffered irreparable loss.
According to new modeling from JAMA Pediatrics, the number of children who have lost a parent to the pandemic number in the thousands. 40,000 is the estimated total with black children disproportionately affected, the research shows.
The Pediatricians’ Paper Suggests that a “Staggering” Number of Children Have Experienced Loss of a Parent Due to Covid-19.
“The number of children experiencing a parent dying of Covid-19 is staggering, with an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 already affected,” said the research letter, headed by Rachel Kidman of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University. “Black children are disproportionately affected, comprising only 14% of children in the US but 20% of those losing a parent to Covid-19.”
Kidman and coauthors estimated the expected number of affected children for each death from Covid-19, also known as the parental bereavement multiplier, CNN reports.
The model proposes that each Covid-19 death leaves 0.078 children aged between 0 and 17 parentally bereaved, representing a 17.5% to 20.2% increase in parental bereavement without deaths from the pandemic.
That small number might not seem like much, but when applied to the over 560,000 people who have died from complications of Covid-19, it really adds up to a “staggering” number as the paper described.
“As of February 2021, 37,300 children aged 0 to 17 years had lost at least 1 parent due to Covid-19, three-quarters of whom were adolescents,” the research letter estimated.
When the authors factored in excess deaths, they figure that 43,000 children have lost a parent, and looking at a natural herd immunity strategy which resulted in 1.5 million deaths, “demonstrates the potential effect of inaction: 116,900 parentally bereaved children.”
Kidman and co-authors suggest that “sweeping national reforms” are necessary to address the pandemic fallout that will, unfortunately, affect children. Children who have lost a parent will also need targeted support to help with their grief. Establishing a national child bereavement cohort could also help by identifying children who have lost a parent and monitoring them to distinguish emerging challenges as early on as possible.
This would also make it easier to link these children to the local support systems they need and form the basis of a study on the long-term effects of losing a parent during the pandemic.
A study published in 2018 by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry looked at kids for a seven year period to better understand the way the loss of a parent can create long term damage.
The research found that there was increased incidence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in kids who had lost a parent. Depression occurred primarily in the first two years after a death and in those aged 12 and younger. They also found increased rates of clinically significant suicidal ideation in children who had lost parents.
“What makes deaths from Covid more challenging than, say, if somebody passed away of old age, is that the deaths related to Covid may lead to child traumatic grief, which is different than just grief itself,” said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center.
Gurwitch also said that the sheer numbers of Covid deaths make things more challenging, as does that fact that the pandemic is still going on, CNN reports.
“God forbid, a child’s parents died from a heart attack — it’s not that heart attacks don’t continue to happen but they’re not every day on the news, they’re not every day in the stores, they’re not every day related to making decisions about whether I can see my friends or go back to school or go to a funeral,” Gurwitch explained. “Covid has changed that. The normal activities related to death cannot happen, so a child that’s lost someone right now, no matter what the circumstances, but particularly due to Covid, make it so much more challenging because all the things that I would normally do, I can’t do, the family can’t do.”
The psychologist also said that children need to be able to talk about their loss, find ways to remember the parent who has died and receive the support and encouragement to talk openly about their loss. She said that there are treatments for child traumatic grief available for children who need them. Many experts recommend consistent talk therapy for bereavement. If needed, medication to treat depression or anxiety can also help.
“We have to make sure that there’s certain supports in place for children to do well with loss, with grief, with death,” she said. “We have to be able to talk about it, we have to be able to help them find ways to remember the person that died. And we have to make sure that we keep those lines of communication open.”
Gurwitch named the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as an excellent resource for caretakers to tap for helping a child navigate their grief.
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