How unresolved grief could haunt children who lost a parent or caregiver to COVID

The number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 has surpassed 775,000. But left behind are tens of thousands of children — some orphaned entirely — after their parents or a grandparent who cared for them died. In this report co-produced with the NewsHour, Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney looks at the risks these grieving children face to their well-being, both in the short and long term.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than 775,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, a staggering figure. Left behind are tens of thousands of children, some orphaned entirely after the parent or grandparent who cared for them died.

    In this report co-produced with the "NewsHour," Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney looks at the risks these grieving children face to their well-being, both in the short and long term.

  • Betty Hamilton, Grandmother:

    I think the little boys don't really have a concept of what's really happening… what really happened. Because I think they keep looking for him.

    Hey, boys.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Betty Hamilton says her five grandchildren still haven't accepted that their dad died suddenly of COVID in August. The boys, ages four to 10, came to live with her in Eastman, Georgia, because their mom is gone too. She died in a car crash years earlier, and they needed a home.

    Now Betty's day is filled with helping her grandsons with homework. And she spends endless hours in the kitchen, trying to feed the growing boys.

    The boys are among at least 140,000 children in the United States who have lost a parent or grandparent who cared for them to COVID, and these grieving kids face grave risks.

    It was Betty who told the boys about their dad.

  • Betty Hamilton:

    They looked at me like I was crazy.

    I'm hoping, with me and my daughter, that we could give them something to look forward, even though they don't have a mother and a father in their life. But you got a grandparent, granddad, grandmom. You got an aunt. You got an uncle. 24/7, anything you need.

  • Sarah Varney:

    If only it were that simple. She gets no financial help for the boys from the government, except food stamps and Medicaid.

  • Carla Hamilton, Aunt:

    So, that was the main struggle, just getting them clothing and getting them fed.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Their aunt, Carla Hamilton, tried to move the boys into her home in Gwinnett County, but her landlord said they weren't on her lease.

    Now she frequently makes the trip, three hours each way, to help her mom figure out the basics, setting up a GoFundMe page and finding a bigger house. And caring for the boys' mental health.

  • Carla Hamilton:

    How are they feeling, talking to them. I didn't want — death is sad regardless. And then just losing their mom, I didn't want them real depressed or anything.

    So, we tried to talk positive, tell them positive things about how everything that was going around, keep them happy and hopeful, and not looking at it like, 'Oh, this is another bad thing that's happened to us, our mom and now our dad.'

  • Sarah Varney:

    Kass is four and sometimes acts out at preschool.

    Will you show me how you build a giraffe?

  • Kobe Hamilton:

    OK. Now you do the yellow block.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Kobe is five and in kindergarten. It's difficult for the younger boys to comprehend that their dad is really gone.

    Where do you think your dad is now?

  • Kobe Hamilton:

    He's at his house.

  • Sarah Varney:

    The older boys are dealing with complex emotions.

    And what about you, Kristian? What were some of your favorite things to do with your dad?

  • Kristian Williams:

    Play a game with him.

  • Sarah Varney:

    It's hard to talk about, yeah.

  • Kingston Williams:

    It's OK, Kristian.

  • Kristian Williams:

    Draw with him.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Even though there are so many families and kids left to grieve on their own, there is no concerted government effort to help them or even identify them.

    There are organizations across the country that help grieving children, but they are few and far between, and often not well-known.

  • Kate’s Club Moderator:

    So, introduce yourself, introduce your family, and introduce who died in your life.

  • Sarah Varney:

    At Kate's Club in Atlanta, surviving parents, caregivers and kids come together to grieve and to learn healthy ways to cope.

  • Kate’s Club Moderator:

    So this icebreaker is just going to kind of get us thinking about our grief.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Kids who've lost a parent or caregiver to COVID come from all backgrounds, but there are stark differences. One out of 753 white children have lost a caregiver, compared to one out of 412 Hispanic children, one out of 310 Black children, and one out of 168 American Indian/Alaska Native children.

  • Kate’s Club Staffer:

    It was pretty amazing…

  • Sarah Varney:

    Compared to kids who have never lost a parent, bereaved children are at significantly increased risk for lower self-esteem and poor academic performance. They're at greater risk for death due to illness, suicide, drug abuse, and violent crime.

    Ten-year-old London McBurnie and her mom, Lauri Clay, started coming to Kate's Club after London's dad, Joel McBurnie, died of COVID in August at age 46. Processing grief in the time of COVID is complicated. Some children feel guilty for infecting a parent. Others, like London, are angry that their parent didn't get vaccinated or wear a mask.

    And do you find, when people don't wear their masks, does that make you mad?

    London McBurnie, Daughter of COVID Victim: Yes, because it reminds me of not — of daddy not wearing the — his mask at the soccer — the last soccer game. And I told him to put it on, but he said he would put it on, but he never did. So — and I — that's when I got mad.

  • Sarah Varney:

    The pandemic is far from over. And with every surge of COVID-related deaths, there are more and more children left behind to grieve and deal with the consequences.

    Charles Nelson, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital: In the United States, the original figure, we thought, was about 120,000. We think that is now closer to around 175,000.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Charles Nelson co-authored a study in the journal "Pediatrics" that estimated the number of children who've lost a parent or caregiver to COVID. He says, without interventions, these kids face serious risks.

  • Charles Nelson:

    There's the issue of unresolved grief. That is, the depression isn't treated, and it becomes a persistent form of depression.

  • Sarah Varney:

    So, this could affect them for the rest of their lives?

  • Charles Nelson:

    These stressful events can be biologically embedded. So, their physical health could also suffer long-term.

  • Sarah Varney:

    But Nelson says there's more to it. A child's entire life can unravel.

  • Charles Nelson:

    Our instinct is to say, how horrible. A child has lost mom or dad.

    What we're not really thinking about is, so what will that lead to? It could lead to the loss of income. It could lead to food scarcity. Children could lose their home. They could wind up living with a relative they don't know. They could wind up in foster care. There could be impacts at school. Kids could make fun of them.

    And so, eventually, all of those things could pull the rug out from underneath a child and make the loss of a parent that much worse.

    Mallory Dunlap, Daughter of COVID Victim: How are you liking the bigger ball?

  • Sarah Varney:

    Camille and Mallory Dunlap of Elyria, Ohio, have felt those ripple effects. Their father, Galen Lewis Dunlap III, died of COVID a year ago.

    Mallory decided to quit college softball after a teammate called COVID a hoax. Camille faced a bully at school, too, who said her dad abandoned them and didn't really die.

    Camille Dunlap, Daughter of COVID Victim: He came up to me and told me my father went to go get milk and never came back. It drived me insane. And I told the principal. He got suspended.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Both girls were home when their dad died in their parents' bedroom.

  • Julie Wallace, Mother:

    He didn't — he was here…

  • Sarah Varney:

    Their mother, Julie Wallace, tried to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And Mallory called 911. Nearly a year later, Mallory is struggling to stay on course.

  • Mallory Dunlap:

    There's definitely days where it's better. I can focus really well, I can get good grades, and there's always that sense of like, 'Yes, good job.' And I can study. I'm good.

    But then there's also the other days where, like, nothing seems like it's going to go right. It feels there's a big cloud over my head and it's raining, and it's not going to work.

  • Sarah Varney:

    So, this is where — this is where they would bring in the big trucks?

  • Julie Wallace:

    Mm-hmm. Yes.

  • Sarah Varney:

    With the sudden loss of Lewis' income — he had helped run a truck repair shop considered an essential business at the height of the pandemic — Julie now has to pay the monthly bills, find health insurance and therapists and put her girls through college.

    She is entirely on her own.

  • Julie Wallace:

    We demanded these essential workers go to work. And they did. And they died. It's just like, 'OK, sorry. We're moving on.'

    And, meanwhile, all of the families are drowning.

  • Mallory Dunlap:

    OK, this is when we need Dad…

  • Sarah Varney:

    Experts say that if these kids and their families continue to be left on their own, the deaths of their parents will be felt for generations to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Kaiser Health News, I'm Sarah Varney in Elyria, Ohio.

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