For every 13 covid-19 deaths, one child under the age of 18 loses a parent. In research published by JAMA Pediatrics, we estimate that about 40,000 children in the United States have lost a parent to covid-19 since February 2020. Three-quarters of those children were adolescents, and one quarter were children younger than 10.
This toll may be surprising, in part, because 81 percent of covid-19 deaths are among people over the age of 65. Yet younger adults — many of whom are parents — are also dying at unprecedented rates.
This horrific surge in parental death is disproportionately impacting Black families. We estimate that 20 percent of the children who have lost a parent are Black, even though they make up only about 14 percent of the population, mirroring the stark racial disparities of the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of youth coping with family deaths is even greater when we recognize the many other relatives, such as grandparents, also lost to the pandemic. Based on models published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we estimate that 2 million children have lost at least one grandparent to covid-19. 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 pandemic claims more and more family members, the shadow population of bereaved youths continues to grow. From past research, we know that bereaved children face profound challenges. This is especially true in the case of sudden parental death. Parentally bereaved children are at higher risk of traumatic prolonged grief and depression, weaker school performance, and economic insecurity.
There is reason to assume that the sudden loss of a parent during the covid-19 pandemic is compounding these challenges. Because of the ongoing health crisis, children often cannot gather with family and friends who would typically provide comfort and support. When so many children are out of school, they are also without the social support of friends, teachers and counselors to help navigate their acute grief.
These children need our help. Universal policies to support vulnerable families are a good start. Many of President Biden’s policy proposals address the collateral damage parental death can cause, such as food insecurity and an absence of high-quality, affordable child care. High on our priority list would be providing the resources to open schools safely. Schools are a critical safety net: Teachers are often the first to recognize social and emotional needs, and counselors are at hand to provide age-appropriate support for grieving children. Other policies, such as ensuring equitable vaccine expansion, will help prevent additional deaths among working-age parents in underserved communities.
In addition, children who have lost a parent to covid-19 will need support for years to come. Some of this support is already available; families just need help accessing it. For instance, we could envision a proactive effort to help parentally bereaved children access the Social Security and other benefits to which they are already entitled. Other support programs may need to be redeveloped as we learn more about the specific hardship associated with losing a parent during the pandemic.
Of course, to help these children, we need to know who they are. After 9/11, the federal government orchestrated a large effort to support the families who lost loved ones. We don’t yet have an institution whose job it is to collect the names of children who have lost a parent or primary caregiver and to connect them to services. The federal government could task the Department of Health and Human Services with such an effort; the department routinely works across multiple levels of government and institutions to support families. The Senate has already added advancing bereavement care as a priority for HHS and its constituent departments in the most recent appropriation bill. Moving forward, a focused federal advocate specifically for bereaved children would be able to lobby for policies and resources to address these children’s needs.
Thankfully, children are less likely to die from covid-19. But they are in no way left unscathed by the tremendous loss of life. The tens of thousands of children who are grieving the death of a parent from this pandemic need our support.