With more 550,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, countless families have been affected by the loss of a loved one since the pandemic began more than a year ago. While 80 percent of deaths were among the elderly, that still leaves more than 100,000 younger victims, some of whom were parents of kids age 17 and younger. Now, a new study estimates the staggering number of U.S. kids who lost at least one parent to this worldwide health crisis: at least 43,000 children.
While no official counting of the number of U.S. parents who died from the virus is available, the study, published April 5 in JAMA Pediatrics, used computer modeling to extrapolate the data and reach this staggering conclusion.
“We’re opening up the newspaper everyday and looking at the growing number of people who have died,” says Rachel Kidman, lead author of the paper and an associate professor in public health at Stony Brook University. “But we’re not thinking about the number of people left behind and that’s a staggering amount.”
Dubbed the “parental bereavement multiplier,” the computer model used underlying census data to estimate the number of orphaned or partially orphaned minors. The researchers developed simulations of kin networks that allowed them to model how many relatives — cousins, aunts, uncles, children, parents, and siblings — that the average person of a given age and ethnic or racial group has during their life, and thus would leave behind in death.
Overall, the data modeling calculated that for every life COVID-19 claims, that costs an average of 0.078 children a parent, or one child for every 13 pandemic deaths. That factors out to more than 43,000 children so far, which is 20 percent more than would have been expected to lose a parent during an average non-pandemic year.
Racial disparity in the number of children who lost a parent to COVID-19 was also revealed — unsurprisingly, as communities of color are historically underserved by health care and have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Though Black Americans represent 13.4 percent of the overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they represent 20 percent of the parentally bereaved kids in the study.
“We know that the burden of mortality is not shared equally and that there are strong racial and ethnic disparities,” says Kidman. “So it’s not surprising that we found that orphanhood is disproportionately experienced by children of color.”
Additionally, while the Census Bureau reports that 23 percent of American kids live in single-parent households, in the Black community the statistic is 62 percent, leaving Black children at an increased risk of being left completely parentless if they lose their sole caregiver. Plus, about 8 percent of Black children are being raised by a grandparent (double the percentage of white children), according to the Pew Research Center, and COVID-19’s high death rate among the elderly means grandparent-dependent children are at even greater risk of being left entirely alone.
When a child loses one or both parents before reaching adulthood, not only do they have to deal with the inevitable grief and loss, they are can be vulnerable to long-term emotional problems due to their failure to resolve their sense of loss, according to Psychology Today. This can include being prone to symptoms of depression, being more anxious and withdrawn, showing more problems in school, and demonstrating poorer academic performance than non-bereaved children. For many of these children, they can also have later difficulty in the developmental experiences necessary for successful intimate relationships.
Whether or not children develop later problems often depends on the surviving parent and how well they can help their children overcome grief and learn to move on with their lives. With time and emotional support from the surviving parent, children are often able to adapt to the loss of a parent and develop new attachments to other people in their lives.
We may have an urge to shield children from sadness after the loss of a parent, but experts say we should be open and honest about death and help kids navigate their feelings surrounding it. “We can’t protect our children from experiencing grief,” Jeff Nalin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, previously told SheKnows, “but we can equip them with coping tools and strategies to help them handle loss, now and well into the future.”