On a sunny afternoon, I sat with four siblings and their mom in their living room in Newtown Square, beneath a large family photo hanging on the wall. In the image, taken five years ago at SeaWorld, they’re grinning ear to ear — especially the kids’ dad, Jason, whose face lights up the lower right-hand corner. But he wasn’t in the room with us.
Jason died of COVID-19 in August. He was 48 and vaccinated. The kids think they brought the virus home from summer camp.
They told me they don’t like to think about their dad. “We talk about him sometimes,” said mom Melissa (who asked that we not use the family’s last name, to protect the kids’ privacy). “But I think we’re still in that phase of grief where it’s not a comfort yet to think about the memories.”
She started to cry. “It’s just hard.” Teagan, 10, handed his mother a tissue.
Makenzie, 8, said she wishes that her friends asked about her dad more. Teagan is not sure his friends even know if his dad died.
Caden, 15, turned to his little brother: “Teagan, they definitely know,” he said, softly.
Since Jason’s death, the family tries to stay busy to take their minds off of grief. Jason used to spearhead the fall yard cleanup, so this year Caden learned how to use the leaf blower. The family tried to decorate the house for Christmas, but no one could find the outdoor projection light Jason used to put up every year.
Caden, Teagan, Makenzie, and their brother Paxton, 13, have experienced one of the hardest things any child can face: the death of a parent. So have thousands of other kids in our region.
According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Nemours Children’s Health, roughly one in 450 U.S. children has lost at least one parent or other home caregiver to COVID-19. More than 70,000 are now missing a parent, and more than 13,000 lost their only home caregiver. The burden of grief is particularly heavy for kids of color; Black children, for instance, lost caregivers at nearly 2.5 times the rate of white children.
In a state-by-state breakdown, the researchers found that more than 4,200 kids in Pennsylvania have lost a caregiver or parent to the pandemic.
When I called local experts who run programs to help kids with grief, I expected to hear that they were experiencing a surge of interest and need for their services.
But it was the opposite.
Every person told me that, despite the excess amount of grief kids are dealing with right now, they and their families are often not reaching out. Mary FitzGerald, the CEO of Eluna, which provides support for kids and families affected by grief or addiction, said that her organization hasn’t been flooded with requests for help — families are dealing with the day to day of pandemic life, getting through school and work disruptions, and don’t have the bandwidth for anything else.
She said she is “absolutely” worried about these kids. “It worries all of us.”
I’m worried, too. Without the proper support, childhood grief can have long-term consequences. Research shows that kids who lose a caregiver are more likely to experience problems that affect their entire lives, including addiction, depression, struggling in school, and dropping out.
In other words: You grieve now, or you grieve later, perhaps in less healthy ways.
Pennsylvania is facing a grief crisis among kids, and we’re not doing nearly enough to address it.
A different animal
When I was about 9 years old, one of my caregivers died. She was the sister of my grandmother, and took care of me most days after school. She built me a dollhouse, which remains one of my most cherished possessions. Once a week, she took me to a store that sold dollhouse furniture and I could pick one thing; eventually, all the rooms were furnished.
When she got cancer, my world split apart. Whenever I had time alone, I would plead with the universe to keep her alive. But my grief wasn’t obvious to the adults around me: I didn’t visit her in the hospital or cry at her funeral because I was so afraid to let myself feel, afraid I might break down in front of everybody.
I never got to say goodbye to her, or tell her how much she meant to me — which remains one of the biggest regrets of my life.
“My grief wasn’t obvious to the adults around me.”
Years later, after my parents died, I cried and cried. I went to therapy and found a community of other people who had lost parents so that I could feel less alone. I processed my grief, so it doesn’t burn in the same way it did before. But I couldn’t do that as a kid. Now, almost 40 years later, my heart still hurts when I think about my grandmother’s sister.
Grief in a child is a totally different animal.
If we see children who’ve lost a caregiver doing what they used to do — talking to friends and playing video games — it’s tempting to think they’re fine, said Rita Milburn-Dobson, CEO of Precious Gems in Glenside, which provides grief support to underserved populations, including kids. “Children are the forgotten mourners,” she told me. “We don’t think about children grieving and mourning, because we always say ‘children are resilient.’”
But there are limits to that resilience, especially when kids lose a caregiver, who is part of their safety net. It splits their world apart.
We need to do more
There are resources available locally for grieving kids whose families have the energy and ability to take advantage of them. Eluna, for instance, offers free weekend camps; Peter’s Place in Radnor, a grief support agency for families, has meetings for kids and caregivers, which are also free, and offers an eight-week program at schools.
But of course, we need to do more. Adults need to talk more about grief with children, find ways to identify the kids who need help, expand services offered at schools, and provide more financial support for the families left behind.
In many families, surviving parents can’t give kids the extra time and attention they need because they’re grieving themselves and worried about the loss of income from the person who died. To save those families from “secondary losses” — such as having to move because they can’t afford their home — we could create a COVID survivors’ fund that helps alleviate financial stress. This fund for COVID survivors could model itself after the Victim Compensation Fund, created after 9/11.
“We owe it to them, we absolutely do,” FitzGerald told me.
Another option would be to open Medicaid, SNAP, and other existing financial programs to kids who’ve lost someone to COVID. In the meantime, permanently expanding the child tax credit, which would lift millions of children out of poverty, is the least we can do.
The worlds of Caden, Paxton, Teagan, Makenzie, and thousands of other Pennsylvania kids have been split apart through no fault of their own. Now, they have to figure out how to live the rest of their lives.
Caden, for instance, wants to go to West Point and join the Army. I don’t want unaddressed grief to change their future forever. As a society, we need to help kids process what they’ve experienced, and give them their best shot at a good life. After all they’ve lost, we owe it to them. We absolutely do.
Alison McCook is a writer living in Wyncote. @alisonmccook