COVID-19 is a sign of sorrow that will be passed on to the next generation. The Imperial College London estimates that 258,800 US children lost their primary or second caregivers to COVID-19. This means that the disease claimed one or both their grandparents or parents who were living with them. The majority of these children come from Black, Latinx, or Native American backgrounds. Partly that’s because people of color tend to die from COVID-19 at younger ages.
COVID-19 has left slightly more orphans worldwide than those who died of COVID-19. It’s a mass orphaning comparable to that produced by the AIDS crisis at its height. And also consider the children who lost their dear ones to other causes during lockdowns, and who weren’t able to call on the normal rituals of grief or places of social support.
While grief is an almost universal human experience, the childhood loss of a loved one is classified as an “adverse childhood experience”, which poses serious health risks. Tallying the impact of the pandemic on children’s psyches must include this kind of loss.
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To try to absorb this devastating reality, I started reaching out to the people who run children’s bereavement centers around the country. Talking to those who face death daily was something I didn’t expect to discover a wellspring of optimism. But that’s exactly what happened.
“For those of us who are in the bereavement field, there is some hope, in that bereavement has come out of the shadows in many ways,” said Micki Burns, the chief clinical officer of Judi’s House in Denver, Colo. “Before, to talk about grief and loss and death, people would sometimes blow it off, you know, and say, ‘Didn’t that happen like a year ago? Aren’t you over that already?’ With the mass amount of death that we’ve seen, it has really created this place of empathy and understanding for families who were grieving before, and even more so for families who have had a loss in the last year or so.”
Javi Alfaro, Crystal Alfaro, and their two children Giselle, and Cristian, currently live in San Antonio Texas in a close-knit and churchgoing Mexican American community. In the years before the pandemic, Crystal’s parents lived with them, and the children shared a bedroom with their papi. The children laughed when he snorted. Papi woke his grandson, who was 11 in early 2020, early on Saturdays for bike rides and attended his talent shows, as well as every one of 14-year-old Giselle’s track meets and volleyball games.
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On the Tuesday before Father’s Day, in June 2020, Papi started feeling sick. The family had to wait a while before they could find an appropriate place for him to be tested. He was finally admitted to the hospital. His family didn’t receive any updates from the nurses.
His birthday was July 14. They were able to FaceTime him but he was unresponsive. He died five days later. He was just 56 years old.
They had to search all around town for a funeral house that could conduct an in-person ceremony. After finding one, it was packed so they had to wait 3 weeks. A few family friends returned for dinner following the rosary. “It’s an older couple, my in-laws’ age,” said Javi. “And he was talking to us about when he lost his dad and he went through bereavement counseling. And he said it’s nothing to be ashamed of–it’s something that helped me.”
Javi stated that their friends were able to help them get over cultural barriers that could have prevented them from seeking out professional assistance. “Being Hispanic, I think there’s that strong, ‘I don’t need to go to the doctor. I don’t need to talk to somebody–and I’ve just got to realize that it’s OK.’” Their family friend told them about the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas.
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A family mourning a mother’s death from COVID-19 at a grave site at Smith Mountain Cemetery in Dinuba, California, on Sunday May 3, 2020.
Melina Mara—The Washington Post/Getty Images
There are only a handful of centers that offer grief counseling services for children and their parents in the United States. They are usually free or funded through donations. Founded in 1997, the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas is one of the largest and oldest. It’s a catchment basin for the rivers of trauma, individual and collective, that well up in this part of the country, often serving migrant children who’ve recently crossed the border at their Rio Grande location. After a shooting at a Texas church, they opened another location. They also recently opened an Uvalde center. “If you were able to be here and see our center, it’s like a big warm home,” Tami Logsdon, their program director, told me. “In ordinary times you would smell dinner cooking with volunteers. We have pet therapy dogs.” Of course for most of 2020 they had to use Zoom.
For children from 3 years old, the center offers individual and group therapy as well for caregivers. They also started COVID-specific online support groups during the pandemic.
The Alfaros cared most about Cristian their younger, artistic and sensitive son at the start. “He was crying, he was sad. He was really hurting and voicing that he was hurting,” said his mom.
“I’m really open about everything, so as soon as my mom told me about the treatment center that we could get help, I was really excited about it,” Cristian said. “I think without it, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now and I wouldn’t be as happy as I am.”
He learned that “crying can let out your emotions because if you bottle them up, then it could maybe cause some mental issues. Crying is OK. It’s not bad.”
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As time went on, Giselle’s parents began to see that Giselle (who was often more reserved) was actually the one who needed to share her feelings. Giselle said she learned that all her emotions were OK, that she wasn’t alone and she wasn’t “weird” for feeling a certain way. And the circles made it safe for her to talk about what the therapist called “her person” and hold on to the good memories.
It was important to the whole family to have other people to talk to who had experienced the losses of COVID-19 directly, because they felt surrounded by people who didn’t take the disease as seriously as they did and didn’t follow the guidance or wear masks.
Slowly, they felt better. Giselle was hampered by the start of the distant school year, but Cristian and Giselle found support and understanding from their teachers, which helped them to improve their grades. Cristian became a member of the drama club and created remote newscasts alongside other students.
Counselors for bereavement said that there has been a spike in interest since the pandemic and that it was accompanied with donations and support. These counselors see the possibility for the post COVID world becoming more gentle.
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Burns, in Colorado, said Judi’s House created a bereavement education program for schools. “We talk about, what is grief, and what is it like to experience grief, what is our reaction, and how can you be a support to a friend who is grieving? How do you know when your friend might need more help than what you can provide and you need to reach out to an adult?”
That way when a second grader, say, loses a parent, they aren’t coming back to school with classmates who ignore what happened or avert their eyes. This training also gives teachers the tools they need to support grieving students, which most say they aren’t prepared to do. “To be like, OK, I can open up these conversations in my classroom and we can support kids who are grieving in the classroom–it doesn’t have to be all on the counselor,” Burns said. “It can be something that we do together as a community. We see it as a universal prevention program.”
One brother and one sister held the ashes of both their parents who died from COVID-19 during Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in New York on July 4, 2019.
Gabriela Bhaskar—The New York Times/Redux
Joseph Kelly, the director of programs at Peter’s Place in Delaware County, Penn., told me something simple that stuck with me: We can’t presume to define the experience of any young person. They can only say what loss means to their lives, and how they feel about any other topic. They will likely feel different in the future and their feelings about it in the present moment.
Kelly told me about an approach he takes to grief counseling from author and educator Alan Wolfelt known as “companioning.” “We are not the experts on your grief. Your grief is yours. We seek to know that by asking questions and listening. The goal of companioning isn’t about finding your way out. It’s about honoring the journey as you walk it.”
It is true of bereavement just as much as mental-health issues and other difficulties young people experienced during the pandemic. Adults may be ashamed of what our children went through. Sometimes, we may feel angry that leaders or institutions have made mistakes. You may feel ashamed or sad. However, we owe it to them the respect that allows them to discover the meaning and value of their experiences. Even if it hurts us to see them hurting, we can’t rush them out of the process of coming to terms with it, let alone moving beyond it.
This article was adapted from The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go NowAnya Kamenetz Copyright © 2022. PublicAffairs, an imprint by Perseus Books, LLC, which is a subsidiary Hachette Book Group, has copies available.
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