Earlier this week, a headline in the New York Times stopped me in my tracks. It is about a topic that I intuitively understood was likely, that I have even referred to as part of a list of the pain caused by this pandemic, but which I have not tried to confront head on. It is about the thousands of children who lost parents and caregivers to COVID.
The entire article is worth reading. It tells individual stories of children and suffering. And it reports on efforts to help, most centrally a group called the COVID Coalition made up of bipartisan political leaders, and a wide range of experts in health, education, and the economy.
On the COVID Coalition’s website the statistics they cite are chilling. And you realize that with each passing day, and with COVID still raging (and growing), these numbers will get worse. Among their findings:
167,082 children under 18—more than one out of every 450—lost a parent or other in-home caregiver to COVID-19.
More than 72,000 children lost a parent to COVID-19 and over 67,000 lost a grandparent caregiver in the home, while more than 13,000 children lost their only in-home caregiver.
Seventy percent of caregiver loss (117,948) affected those aged 13 and younger.
Non-White children lost caregiving adults at higher rates than their White peers.
Please stop for a moment and let these numbers sink in. Remember each one of them, each data point, is a story of devastating loss. Perhaps some of your own families, or families you know, fall into this category. And if that is the case, I send my sincere condolences.
The COVID Coalition calls for a host of economic, educational, health, and social interventions and initiatives. Perhaps they can build a movement and pressuring leaders who are in a position to help. Americans can be, at our best, deeply empathetic people. When challenged, I have seen time and again how we rally to help those in need. And already some of the COVID relief money is going to this issue.
But at the same time, as I thought about this effort, I thought about how much the pain for children around this pandemic has radiated outward from even those who suffered from the traumatic loss of a caregiver.
I thought of those children whose parents and caregivers were severely ill and may still suffer from long COVID.
I thought of children who lost loved ones beyond their own households.
I thought of children, especially at the margins, who lost a year or more of school and are struggling to catch up, or have simply dropped out.
I thought of the children who missed out on the activities that fill young lives with joy, like sports, the arts, or just gathering with friends.
I thought of missed birthday parties or visits with grandparents or gatherings at the holidays.
I thought of the loss of innocence, the anxieties and fears that are now inescapable for children who are forced to confront death, suffering, and the capriciousness of life.
But my mind did not stop there. I thought if this is happening in the United States, imagine how big the problem is when amplified around the globe. How much loss to a generation of children.
This article also struck me because of news beyond the pandemic, and all the other ways our children are being put at risk.
I thought of the most recent school shooting in Michigan, and all the other school shootings. I thought of the families, friends, and school communities who will never be the same. I thought of the millions of children who go to school fearing they could be next.
I thought of our inability to adequately tackle climate change, and what that will mean for the habitability of the world today’s children will inherit.
I thought of the abortion arguments in the Supreme Court and how little the seeming majority of justices who will strike down Roe recognize all the needs of children after birth.
I thought about the fights over what we teach in our schools and how many are trying to deny children a full and adequate story of American history. And I thought of what that means, especially for Black students, and students of color more generally, but really for all students.
I thought about the enduring legacy of racism and other hatreds of the “other,” and how that impacts the lives of so many of our youth including LGBTQ children.
I thought of the high costs of college, and the strains that it puts on children and families.
And I could go on, and on.
The truth is children are our most valuable resource. They have the power to fix what we have left broken, to mend what we have torn, to reap what we failed to sow. I hope we can channel the collective grief around COVID to address the immediate crises facing our youth. But I hope we can act even more broadly, creatively, and ambitiously.
Children are amazingly resilient. There is no shortage of stories of children who faced severe traumas in childhood and went on to fulfilling lives. I have found that in my journeys, including from Holocaust survivors, and those who emerged from civil wars, Jim Crow, natural disasters, abject poverty, exploitation, and other childhoods of great hardship. But we also know that no one emerges unscathed, and many don’t emerge at all.
We are living in times where the list of challenges in urgent need of redress is very long. But in children, these challenges - of our politics, our environment, our health, our culture, and so many others - come together. We cannot afford to forget or turn our backs on the “forgotten grievers.” Perhaps they can be a rallying cry for all of us to try to work together to do better.
There has never been a time in my life, no matter the age, when I haven’t felt far more hope than despair when I think about what the children could accomplish, if we adults have the care and foresight to give them a chance.