‘Their Whole Sky Has Fallen’: 1 in 450 Youth Have Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID

More than 167,000 U.S. children are believed to have lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19 during the pandemic. (John Moore/Getty Images)

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Melanie Keaton, 9, used to spend hours playing with her grandfather. Having tea time together from her miniature toy set. Taking trips to the zoo. Zig-zagging their characters across the board of Candy Land.

When he fell ill from the coronavirus in April 2020 and went to the hospital during New York City’s deadly first wave, the young girl, then just 7, turned to her mother.

“He’ll be OK, right?” she asked. 

Her mother, Melissa Keaton, days later had to tell her daughter that their beloved “Papa,” who was 61, wasn’t coming back to the Flatbush apartment he had shared with them and where he helped care for his granddaughter.

“My father was in the hospital,” Keaton told The 74. “We never heard from him. We were never able to see him or speak to him. Once he passed, [Melanie] didn’t get to see that visual, final goodbye.”

The young Brooklynite is one of more than 167,000 children who are believed to have lost parents or caregivers to COVID during the pandemic — roughly 1 in every 450 young people in the U.S. under age 18.

The count updates the already-staggering October estimate that 140,000 minors had lost caregiving adults to the virus, and is four times more than a springtime tally that found nearly 40,000 children had experienced such loss. In a Dec. 9 report titled “Hidden Pain,” researchers from the COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics published the new total, which they derived through combining coronavirus death numbers with household-level data from the 2019 American Community Survey. 

The death toll further underscores the daunting task facing schools as they seek to help students recover not just academically, but also emotionally, from a pandemic that has already stretched 22 months and claimed more than 800,000 American lives. It’s an issue of such elevated concern that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, on Dec. 7, used a rare public address to warn Americans of the pandemic’s “devastating” effects on youth mental health. An accompanying 53-page report calls out the particular difficulties experienced by young people who have lost parents or caregivers to the virus.

“As the nation looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need to address the crisis of children left behind,” said COVID Collaborative CEO John Bridgeland in a news release addressing his organization’s co-published research.

Bereaved children have higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than those who have not lost parents, according to a 2018 study that followed grieving children for multiple years. They are more than twice as likely to show impairments in functioning at school and at home, even seven years later, meaning these children need both immediate and long-term counseling and support to deal with such a traumatic loss.

“For these children, their whole sky has fallen, and supporting them through this trauma must be a top priority.”

Melanie Keaton and her grandfather peer through shoeboxes at a 2017 solar eclipse. (Melissa Keaton)

The sky had indeed fallen for the Keaton family. 

After having suffered a single seizure three years prior, Melissa Keaton said she developed full-blown epilepsy after losing her father, experiencing multiple uncontrolled fits. Melanie witnessed her mother in spasms on the floor on at least one occasion.

The elementary schooler’s virtual classroom was unequipped to help the young child process her multiple traumas, her mother said, and the school mental health services did not reach out to the family. Meanwhile, COVID-related lessons — for example, on the vaccine — triggered painful pandemic memories for Melanie, making online class occasionally upsetting, with her school missing signs she was struggling emotionally. 

Of all children who have lost caregivers to the virus since COVID-19 struck, a disproportionate share are Black. Those losses among African-American youth like Melanie have come at more than twice the rate of white young people, according to data in the new report. Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian youth have also suffered outsized losses, the numbers show.

“The children most likely to lose a caregiver to COVID-19 are also most likely to have faced previous adversities,” said Dan Treglia, co-author of the report and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. That ups the stakes, he added, on providing support to help those young people heal.

Also particularly vulnerable are the 70 percent of all COVID-bereaved children who are 13 years old or younger. More than 13,000 children of all ages lost their only in-home caregiver.

Despite dire need, however, professional help often remains inaccessible. In Melanie’s case, Melissa Keaton said she turned over every possible stone seeking mental health support for her daughter, but was unable to secure counseling. Well before the pandemic drove greater demand, only 38 percent of U.S. schools reported offering mental health services to students and 52 percent said that inadequate funding was “a major limitation” in their ability to provide those services, according to 2017-18 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Trying to find a therapist or someone for her to talk to, it was impossible,” she explained. “Calling, you know, office after office and everyone is at capacity, there’s nothing available.”

The COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics report recommends that policymakers devote resources to grief camps, group counseling and therapy to support children like Melanie as they move forward and recover. They recommend the creation of a bereavement fund for affected families, similar to that which was created for relatives of Sept. 11 victims. Schools, the researchers say, can play a critical role in ramping up mental health services and mentoring for students.

The American Rescue Plan, which will send a total of $122 billion to U.S. schools, includes funding that some campuses are using to bolster their programs responding to students’ mental health needs, especially when it comes to pandemic-related traumas. So far, over 20 percent of school systems have invested some of their relief money in social-emotional learning materials, according to a Dec. 13 tabulation from the data service Burbio, which has tracked how districts are using the influx of federal dollars.

But with or without support, the Keaton family will continue to feel a gaping hole in their household. The holidays, Melissa Keaton said, are especially hard. They always used to spend Thanksgiving watching football with her father. His Dec. 23 birthday was a regular part of their Christmas routine.

“We have these people who have lost family members, and they’re kind of forgotten, the unknowns. We don’t talk about it because everyone wants to get past it and get back to normal,” she said. 

“But for people who have lost someone, certain things will just never be normal.”

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