For Some Colorado Kids Who Have Lost Caregivers To COVID, It’s Been 'Loss Upon Loss'
More than 1.5 million children around the world have lost a caregiver — either a parent or a close grandparent — to COVID-19, according to a study published in The Lancet last month. While Colorado agencies aren’t tracking these numbers locally, pediatric medical professionals are seeing kids who are grieving those losses while dealing with new home environments and routines.
“Those often manifest as difficulties that (new) caregivers then come in and say, ‘This child is really struggling with sleep. They're refusing to eat. They don't want to go to school. They don't want to sleep without me.’ Those are some of the common things that we’re seeing,” said Dr. Ayelet Talmi, a pediatric psychologist with Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Dr. Maya Bunik, the medical director of the Child Health Clinic, part of the Children’s Hospital system, gives an example of two kids who lost their mother to COVID-19 back in March; their grandmother is now taking care of them.
“I saw them just last week,” Bunik said. “I saw the 5-year-old. And of course, because of age related things, the 5-year-old just keeps asking if mom's going to come back. The 7-year-old understands it.”
The children’s grandmother is trying to maintain their routines, but is also struggling with the loss of her daughter.
“So it's such a mixed group of feelings,” Bunik said. “She's trying to be positive for her grandkids and try to show them that everything's going to be okay. But at the same time, she's really grieving inside.”
Both doctors framed the issue of caregiver deaths as part of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on some groups. Many of their patients come from low-income, Spanish-speaking households that experienced significant economic impacts early on in the pandemic, some struggling at times to afford food and diapers. Throughout the pandemic, Hispanic people in Colorado have been disproportionately infected by COVID-19.
Dr. Bunik said that most of her patients know someone who was hospitalized or died from contracting the virus.
“If you have experienced loss before, it's the sort of loss upon loss, and stress upon stress. And so we definitely are feeling that in our community for sure,” Bunik said.
Many experts say that childhood wellbeing will continue to be a concern for quite some time due to the persistent nature of mental health challenges.
“Death loss, loss of income, loss of lifestyle and quality, loss of relationships and connections really are foundational to child and family wellbeing. And so we are needing to brace ourselves to be in it for the long haul,” Talmi said.
Now, the delta variant is bringing new stressors as is uncertainty about safely returning to school. Over the past few weeks, in Colorado, children are making up a slightly higher percentage of cases, according to new data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, but across the country, hospitalizations and deaths are still rare.
For children who have lost a loved one, Talmi and Bunik give out ‘The Tenth Good Thing About Barney,’ a book that examines grief through the death of a family pet. They also recommend professional mental health help.
Thanks to new legislation, school-aged kids in Colorado will have access to three free mental health sessions during this upcoming school year. The online portal, being coordinated by the Colorado Department of Human Services, should be active in September.