COVID took parents’ lives. Now, where’s help for their young children?

Researchers estimate that more than 46,000 children have lost one or both parents to the coronavirus. Yet survivors say finding help for their bereaved kids has been difficult.

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Valerie Villegas, holding a photograph of her late husband Robert Villegas, with her children Alexis Vaiz, Nicholas, Robert Jr., Ayden and Andrew Vaiz outside their Portland, Texas, home.

Valerie Villegas, holding a photograph of her late husband Robert Villegas, with her children Alexis Vaiz, Nicholas, Robert Jr., Ayden and Andrew Vaiz outside their Portland, Texas, home.

Scott Stephen Ball / KHN

Five months after her husband died of COVID-19, Valerie Villegas can see how grief has wounded her children.

Nicholas, the baby, who was 1 and almost weaned when his father died, now wants to nurse at all hours and calls every tall, dark-haired man “Dada,” the only word he knows.

Robert, 3, regularly collapses into furious tantrums, stopped using the big-boy potty and frets about sick people giving him germs.

Ayden, 5, recently announced it’s his job to “be strong” and protect his mom and brothers.

Her older kids — Kai Flores, 13, Andrew Vaiz, 16, and Alexis Vaiz, 18 — often are quiet and sad or angry and sad, depending on the day. The two eldest, gripped by anxiety that makes it difficult to concentrate or sleep, were prescribed antidepressants soon after losing their stepfather.

“I spend half the nights crying,” said Villegas, 41, a hospice nurse from Portland, Texas, who became a widow on Jan. 25, three weeks after Robert Villegas, 45, a strong, healthy truck driver and jiu-jitsu expert, tested positive for the virus.

“My kids, they’re my primary concern,” she said. “And there’s help that we need.”

But, in a nation in which researchers calculate that more than 46,000 children have lost one or both parents to the coronavirus since February 2020, Villegas and other survivors say finding basic services for their bereaved kids — counseling, peer support groups, financial assistance — has been, if not impossible, difficult.

“They say it’s out there,” Villegas said. “But trying to get it has been a nightmare.”

Interviews with nearly two dozen researchers, therapists, other experts on loss and grief and families whose loved ones died of COVID give a sense of the extent to which access to grief groups and therapists became scarce during the pandemic. Providers scrambled to switch from in-person to virtual visits, and waiting lists swelled, often leaving bereft children and their surviving parents to cope on their own.

“Losing a parent is devastating to a child,” said Alyssa Label, a San Diego therapist and program manager with SmartCare Behavioral Health Consultation Services. “Losing a parent during a pandemic is a special form of torture.”

Children can receive survivor benefits when a parent dies if that parent worked long enough in a job that required payment of Social Security taxes. During the pandemic, the number of minor children of deceased workers who received new benefits has surged, reaching nearly 200,000 in 2020, up from an average of 180,000 the previous three years.

Social Security Administration officials don’t track cause of death, but the latest figures marked the most awards granted since 1994. COVID deaths “undoubtedly” fueled that spike, according to the SSA’s Office of the Chief Actuary.

And the number of children eligible for those benefits surely is higher.

Counselors say many families have no idea that children qualify for benefits when a working parent dies or that they don’t know how to sign up.

Robert Villegas cuddling his sons Robert Jr. (left), Nicholas and Ayden in December 2020, weeks before he fell ill with COVID-19 and died. “You can go explain to my 1-, 3- and 5-year-old that their daddy is not coming home,” his widow Valerie Villegas told doctors.

Robert Villegas cuddling his sons Robert Jr. (left), Nicholas and Ayden in December 2020, weeks before he fell ill with COVID-19 and died. “You can go explain to my 1-, 3- and 5-year-old that their daddy is not coming home,” his widow Valerie Villegas told doctors.

Valerie Villegas

In a country that showered philanthropic and government aid on the 3,000 children who lost parents to the 9/11 terror attacks, there’s been no organized effort to identify, track or support the tens of thousands of kids left bereaved by COVID.

“I’m not aware of any group working on this,” said Joyal Mulheron, founder of Evermore, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on public policy related to bereavement. “Because the scale of the problem is so huge, the scale of the solution needs to match it.”

The pandemic has claimed more than 600,000 lives in the United States.

Researchers writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics calculated that, for every 13 deaths caused by the virus, one child under 18 has lost a parent. As of June 15, that would translate to more than 46,000 kids, researchers estimate. Three-quarters of the children are adolescents, the others under 10 years old. About 20% of the children who’ve lost parents are Black, though they make up 14% of the population.

“There’s this shadow pandemic,” said Rachel Kidman, an associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York, who was part of the team that found a way to calculate the impact of COVID deaths. “There’s a huge amount of children who have been bereaved.”

The Biden administration, which launched a program to help pay funeral costs for coronavirus victims, did not respond to questions about offering targeted services for families with children.

Failing to address the growing cohort of bereaved children, whether in a single family or in the United States at large, could have long-lasting effects, according to researchers. The loss of a parent in childhood has been linked to higher risks of substance use, mental health problems, poor performance in school, lower college attendance, lower employment and early death.

“Bereavement is the most common stress and the most stressful thing people go through in their lives,” said clinical psychologist Christopher Layne of the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Perhaps 10% to 15% of children and others bereaved by COVID might meet the criteria of a new diagnosis, prolonged grief disorder, which can occur when people have specific, long-lasting responses to the death of a loved one. That could mean thousands of children with symptoms that warrant clinical care.

“This is literally a national, very public health emergency,” Layne said.

Valerie Villegas plays with her three youngest sons — Robert Jr., Ayden and Nicholas — at their Portland, Texas, home. Her husband Robert Villegas built the tire swing for the boys last year. In late December, the 45-year-old contracted COVID-19. He died in January.

Valerie Villegas plays with her three youngest sons — Robert Jr., Ayden and Nicholas — at their Portland, Texas, home. Her husband Robert Villegas built the tire swing for the boys last year. In late December, the 45-year-old contracted COVID-19. He died in January.

Scott Stephen Ball / KHN

Still, Villegas and others say they have been left largely on their own to navigate a confusing patchwork of community services for their children even as they struggle with their own grief.

“I called the counselor at schoo,” Villegas said. “She gave me a few little resources on books and stuff. I called some crisis hotline. I called counseling places, but they couldn’t help because they had waiting lists and needed insurance. My kids lost their insurance when their dad died.”

Valerie Villegas and her husband, Robert Villegas, celebrated his 45th birthday on Nov. 10, 2020, weeks before he died of covid-19. “He was a fighter, not only physically but mentally,” she says. “He was a very strong man.”

Valerie Villegas and her husband, Robert Villegas, celebrated his 45th birthday on Nov. 10, 2020, weeks before he died of covid-19. “He was a fighter, not only physically but mentally,” she says. “He was a very strong man.”

Provided

The social disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic overwhelmed grief care providers, too. Nonprofit agencies that specialize in childhood grief said they have scrambled to meet the need and to switch from in-person to virtual engagement.

“It was a huge challenge,” said Vicki Jay, chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. “It was very foreign to the way we work. Grief work is based on relationships, and it’s very hard to get a relationship with a piece of machinery.”

At Experience Camps, which offers free weeklong camps to about 1,000 bereaved kids across the country, the waiting list has grown more than 100% since last year, said Talya Bosch, an Experience Camps associate.

“It is something that we are concerned about — a lot of kids are not getting the support they need,” she said.

Private counselors also have been swamped. Jill Johnson-Young, co-owner of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, California, said her nearly three dozen therapists have been booked solid for months.

“I don’t know a therapist in the area who isn’t full right now,” she said.

Dr. Sandra McGowan-Watts.

Dr. Sandra McGowan-Watts.

LinkedIn

Dr. Sandra McGowan-Watts, 47, a family practice doctor in Chicago, lost her husband Steven to COVID in May 2020. She feels fortunate to have found an online therapist for her daughter Justise who helped explain why the 12-year-old was suddenly so sad in the mornings.

“My husband was the one who woke her up for school,” McGowan-Watts said. “He helped her get ready for school.”

Justise was able to get a spot at an Experience Camps session this summer.

“I am nervous about going to camp, but I am excited about meeting new kids who have also lost someone close in their life,” she said.

Jamie Stacy, 42, of San Jose, California, was connected with an online counselor for her daughter Grace, 8, and twin sons Liam and Colm, 6, after their father Ed Stacy died of covid in March 2020 at 52. That’s when she learned that children can grieve differently than adults. They tend to focus on concrete concerns, such as where they’ll live and whether their favorite toys or pets will be there. They often alternate periods of play with sadness, cycling between confronting and avoiding feelings of loss.

“The boys will be playing Legos, having a great time, and all of a sudden drop a bomb on you: ‘I know how I can see Daddy again. I just have to die, and I’ll see Daddy again,’ ” she said. “And then they’re back to playing Legos.”

Stacy said counseling has been crucial in helping her family navigate a world in which many people are marking the end of the pandemic.

“We can’t escape the topic of COVID-19 even for one day,” she said. “It’s always in our face, wherever we go, a reminder of our painful loss.”

Villegas has returned to her work in hospice care and is starting to reassemble her life. But she thinks there should be formal aid and grief support for families like hers whose lives have been indelibly scarred by the deadly virus.

“Now, everybody’s lives are going back to normal,” she said. “They can get back to their lives. And I’m thinking my life will never be normal again.”

KHN(Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues

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