Nearly 40,000 kids in U.S. who lost a parent to COVID-19 need immediate support

Approximately 40,000 children in the United States have lost a parent to COVID-19 since February 2020, according to a statistical model created by a team of researchers, including Western’s Rachel Margolis.

The researchers anticipate that without immediate interventions, the trauma from losing a parent could cast a shadow of mental health and economic problems well into the future for this vulnerable population.

In the model, one in every 13 COVID-related deaths results in a child under 18 years of age losing a parent. Children who lose a parent are at higher risk of a range of problems, including traumatic prolonged grief and depression, lower educational attainment, economic insecurity and accidental death or suicide.

Rachel Margolis

Rachel Margolis

“As the death toll from this pandemic increases, the population of bereaved family and friends continues to grow,” said Margolis. “In our research, we found that each COVID death in the U.S. impacts about nine close family members. The losses felt by kids cannot be ignored. The number of children who have lost parents has already reached 40,000, and two million children have lost a grandparent because of the pandemic.”

A Western demographer and sociologist, Margolis studies how family dynamics shape population change over time. Her research is focused on aging, parenthood and social policy.

“When we think of COVID-19 mortality, much of the conversation focuses on the fact that older adults are at greatest risk. About 81 per cent of deaths have been among those age 65 and older according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said the study’s lead author Ashton Verdery, associate professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State. “However, that leaves 19 per cent of deaths among those under 65. Fifteen per cent of deaths are among those in their 50s and early 60s and three per cent are among those in their 40s. In these younger age groups, substantial numbers of people have children, for whom the loss of a parent is a potentially devastating challenge.”

Three-quarters of the children who lost a parent are adolescents, but one quarter are elementary-aged. Statistics of parental death are grimmer for Black families, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, according to the researchers, who report their findings today in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The team estimated that 20 per cent of the children who lost a parent are Black even though only 14 per cent of children in the U.S. are Black. The model also suggests that parental deaths due to COVID-19 will increase the country’s total cases of parental bereavement by 18 to 20 per cent over what happens in a typical year, further straining an already stretched system that does not connect all children who are eligible to adequate resources.

Historical Comparison

As a historical comparison, the number of children who lost a parent to COVID-19 is about 20 times the approximate 3,000 children who lost a parent in attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After those attacks, the federal government initiated several programs to support the families of the victims.

Parentally bereaved children in the pandemic may face unique challenges. Social isolation, institutional strain and economic struggles caused by the pandemic may strain access to potential sources of support for children. Further, with many children out of school and less connected to other family and community supports, suffering children may be less likely to be recognized.

The Canadian Context

In Canada, there is a much lower death toll due to the pandemic. In addition, the mortality has been more concentrated among older adults as 70 per cent of Canadian deaths due to COVID-19 have been in long-term care and very few have been younger adults, the demographic likely to have young children.

“One worry I have,” said Margolis, “is that the third wave of the pandemic in Canada will hit parents in their 40s and 50s hard and we will begin to face this problem of parentally bereaved children here in Canada.”

Margolis and Verdery collaborated with Rachel Kidman from Stony Brook University and Emily Smith-Greenaway from University of Southern California on the study, which was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the Penn State Population Research Institute, and the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences.

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