News Release

Bereavement Activists Push for Support of Covid-19 Orphans

Media outlets are increasingly focusing on the plight of children across the U.S. who have been orphaned by the Covid-19 pandemic. But advocates for the bereaved and pediatricians say that too little has been done to materially and emotionally support this growing group of young people, who still have “no return to normal.” An updated modeling study in The Lancet showed that the number of children globally affected by Covid-19-associated orphanhood and caregiver death increased from 2.7 million in April 2021 to “a devastating 5.2 million in October 2021,” just six months later.

In the United States, as of April, no law or executive order has provided any resources specifically for pandemic orphans. The Atlantic noted at that time that a memorandum from the Biden administration had not outlined a plan or commitment. Various opinion pieces in major outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have called for changes––but so far, the public has seen little policy movement.

CHARLES NELSON, MD, charles_nelson@harvard.edu
    Nelson is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.  

BRENNAN WOOD, brennan@dougy.org
    Wood is the executive director of Dougy Center, a nonprofit that supports children and families who are grieving before and after a death. 

Nelson told the Institute for Public Accuracy that “within the U.S., the disparities we see with morbidity/mortality in Covid-19 generalizes to what we see with Covid orphans: Orphanhood has disproportionately impacted children of color, and, regionally, children in the South and Southwest of the U.S.”

The loss of a parent can have myriad effects on a child. As the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora D. Volkow, put it in July 2021 in a press release on Covid-19-related parent loss, “the death of a parental figure is an enormous loss that can reshape a child’s life. We must work to ensure that all children have access to evidence-based prevention interventions that can help them navigate this trauma, to support their future mental health and wellbeing.” 

When asked what the safety net should look like for bereaved children, Nelson noted that he would push for a “surveillance system [enacted] that would allow us to identify children who have lost a parent/caregiver; a rapid response team that can provide mental health services to such children; and a long-term monitoring system that allows us to follow these children over time.”

Meanwhile, Wood told the Institute for Public Accuracy today: “According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (Judi’s House), 1 in 13 children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. This number will likely increase as the statistics of the over 200,000 children in the U.S. who have had a parent die of Covid-19 become a part of the model. Childhood bereavement is a critical issue and should be an increasingly important public health priority that is addressed through local, state, and national policies and funding.

“The statistics are tragic: over 200,000 children in the U.S. have had a parent die of Covid-19, and while the headlines and commentaries call out for assistance for these youth, so far, no federal funds have been allocated. Local and federal policies should address this as a public health crisis for these children and their families, and a network of existing support organizations across the country is already helping––over 500 member agencies of the National Alliance for Children’s Grief.

“Never in our lifetimes has grief been so public in the media, yet so privately complex. A common misconception about grief is that it’s an individual emotional experience with predictable states and a defined timeline. It is time that we as a nation take a stand and acknowledge grief for what it truly is: a natural and normal response to loss that is interwoven into a sociocultural context. Grief is not an experience that needs to be ‘silenced,’ ‘treated,’ or ‘pathologized.’ Grief, and all the many complications it imposes on the griever, is an experience that needs and deserves understanding, support, and community.”

Joyal Mulheron, the founder of Evermore, notes that that while Covid orphans must be supported, leaders must not create “new systems of discrimination” against children who lose a parent to other kinds of death. Evermore is an emerging movement of concerned citizens who believe bereavement care in the U.S. is broken and that U.S. public leaders must take urgent action to address and support bereaved families. Mulheron told IPA: “With concurrent mortality epidemics from COVID-19, suicide, overdose, homicide and maternal mortality touching most families in America, it’s imperative that our nation supports a healthy and prosperous future for all bereaved and orphaned children. If we go about creating a singular national response for children who lost a parent to Covid-19 alone, we are creating new systems of inequity for the children whose parents have died from homicide or overdose, for example.”