They call for more attention and support for children who lost their parents to COVID-19

Five months after her husband died of COVID-19, Valerie Villegas can see how the duel has marked her children.

Nicholas, the baby, who was one year old when his father died and was almost weaned, now wants to breastfeed at all hours, and calls each tall man with dark hair “Dada”, the only word he knows.

3-year-old Robert suffers frequent tantrums, She stopped using the grown-up toilet, and she is afraid of catching germs. Ayden, 5, recently announced that her job is to “be strong.” and protect his mother and brothers.

Your older children on antidepressants

Your older children, Kai Flores, 13 years old; Andrew Vaiz, 16, and Alexis Vaiz, 18, are often quiet, sad, or angry. The two oldest were prescribed antidepressants shortly after losing their stepfather because anxiety prevented them from concentrating or sleeping.

“I spend half my nights crying,” said Villegas, 41, a hospice nurse from Portland, Texas. She was widowed on January 25, just three weeks after Robert Villegas, 45, a strong and healthy truck driver, jujitsu expert, tested positive for the virus.

“My children are my main concern. And we need help, ”he said.

More than 46,000 children have lost their parents to COVID-19

But in a nation where researchers calculate that more than 46,000 children have lost one or both parents to COVID-19 Since February 2020, Villegas and other survivors say that finding basic services for their children to cope with grief (counseling, support groups, financial assistance) has been difficult, if not impossible.

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

Grief groups and therapists

Interviews with nearly two dozen researchers, therapists, and other grief and loss experts, as well as families whose loved ones died from COVID-19, reveal the extent to which access to grief groups and therapists became scarce during the pandemic. Providers moved to offering virtual tours and waiting lists increased, often leaving children homeless and their surviving parents alone.

“Losing a parent is devastating for a child”said Alyssa Label, a San Diego therapist and program manager for 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 the father worked long enough in a “blank” job, paying Social Security taxes. During the pandemic, the number of minor children of deceased workers receiving new benefits has risen, reaching nearly 200,000 in 2020, up from an average of 180,000 in the previous three years.

The officials of the Social Security Administration (SSA) do not track cause of death, but the most recent figures marked the highest number of benefits awarded since 1994. Covid deaths “undoubtedly” fueled that increase, according to the SSA’s Office of the Chief Actuary.

And the number of children eligible for those benefits is surely higher. Only about half of the 2 million children in the United States who lost a parent in 2014 received the Social Security benefits to which they were entitled, according to a 2019 analysis by David Weaver of the Congressional Budget Office. .

Counselors said they find that many families have no idea that children qualify for benefits when a working parent dies, or do not know how to enroll.

In a country that offered philanthropic and government aid to the 3,000 children who lost their parents to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been no organized effort to identify, track, or support the tens of thousands of children in mourning. by covid.

“I am not aware of any group that is working on this,” said Joyal Mulheron, founder of Evermore, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on public policy related to mourning. “Because the scale of the problem is so large, the scale of the solution must be at the same height.”

More than 600,000 deaths from coronavirus

COVID-19 it has claimed more than 600,000 lives in the country. In a magazine post JAMA Pediatrics, Researchers calculated that for every 13 deaths caused by the virus, a child under the age of 18 has lost a parent. As of June 15, that would translate to more than 46,000 children. Three-quarters of the children are adolescents; the others are less than 10 years old. Approximately 20% of the children who have lost their parents are African American, although they constitute 14% of the population.

“There is this pandemic in the shadows”, said Rachel Kidman, an associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York, who was part of the team that found a way to estimate the impact of COVID deaths. “There are a lot of children in mourning.”

The mourning of families and government aid

The Biden Administration, which launched a program to help pay funeral costs for Covid victims, did not respond to questions about aid for these children.

Failing to address the growing number of bereaved childrenWhether in a single family or in general, it could have lasting effects, researchers said. The loss of a parent in childhood has been linked to higher risks for addictions, mental health problems, poor school performance, lower college attendance, fewer jobs, and premature death.

“Grief is the most common stress and the most stressful thing that people go through in their lives”, said the clinical psychologist Christopher Layne, from the UCLA / Duke University National Child Traumatic Stress Center. “It deserves our care and concern.”

Prolonged grief disorder

It is possible that between 10% and 15% of children and other people bereaved by covid could meet the criteria for a new diagnosis, prolonged grief disorder, which could mean thousands of children with symptoms that require clinical attention. “This is literally a national public health emergency,” Layne said.

Still, Villegas and others say they have largely been left alone to navigate a confusing mosaic of community services for their children as they grapple with their own pain.

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

The social disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic also overwhelmed bereavement care providers. Across the country, nonprofit agencies that specialize in child grief said they have been quick to meet the need and move from in-person to virtual participation.

“It was a great challenge; it was something very foreign to the way we work, ”said Vicki Jay, executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. “Grief work is based on relationships and it is very difficult to establish a relationship with a single piece of machinery.”.

At Experience Camps, which offers free week-long camps each year to about 1,000 grieving children across the country, the waiting list has grown more than 100% since 2020, said Talya Bosch, an associate at Experience Camps. “It is something that worries us: many children do not receive the support they need”, He said.

Private advisers have also been outmatched. Jill Johnson-Young, co-owner of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, California, said her nearly three dozen therapists have been hired solidly for months. “I don’t know of any therapist in the area who is not full at the moment,” he said.

In the meantime, Villegas, in Texas, has returned to his hospice job and is beginning to rebuild his life. But he believes there should be formal help and support for grieving families, whose lives have been burned by the deadly virus.

“Now everyone is going back to their normal lives. They can go back to their lives. But I believe that my life will never be normal again, “he said.

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