A new report finds between 37,300 and 43,000 lost a parent due to COVID-19. These kids may be at risk for traumatic grief, depression, difficulties in school, and unintentional death or suicide for years to come. Researchers say intervention and national help is needed.

By Anna Halkidis
April 16, 2021
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The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, and it's left many of children across the country without a parent.

New research published in Jama Pediatrics in April 2021 shows between 37,300 and 43,000 children under 17 years old in the United States have lost at least one parent due to COVID-19 as of February 2021. That's an up to 20 percent increase of parental loss compared to a typical year.

What's more: Black children, researchers point out, are disproportionately affected as they make up 14 percent of the child population in the U.S., but 20 percent of those who lost a parent because of COVID-19.

An image of a sad boy looking out the window with a mask on.
Credit: Getty Images.

The long-term effects on these children can be just as devastating. The researchers say "parentally bereaved children" are at risk to suffer traumatic grief, depression, difficulties in school, and unintentional death or suicide—all issues that can affect them for many years to come. This is at a time when children and teens have already been negatively impacted by changes the pandemic has brought, including isolation and routine disruptions. A C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health published in March 2021 revealed nearly half of parents noticed a "new or worsening mental health condition" in their teen.

"Considerable research has documented the possible irreversible impact of the pandemic for youth, including the long-term educational, economic, and mental health consequences," the Jama study co-author Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, told USC News. "These consequences may be exaggerated among children who have lost family members and can persist for many years, even into adulthood."

Interventions can help prevent these consequences, but they need to come at a national level, researchers say. "Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational, and economic fallout affecting children. Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation," the report reads.

It continues, "The establishment of a national child bereavement cohort could identify children who have lost parents, monitor them for early identification of emerging challenges, link them to locally delivered care, and form the basis for a longitudinal study of the long-term effects of mass parental bereavement during a uniquely challenging time of social isolation and economic uncertainty."

In the meantime, there are ways parents and loved ones can help their grieving children, even by seeking out virtual help from a professional. Pediatricians and school guidance counselors are also a good place for parents to turn to ask questions and find appropriate help.

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