They number in the millions — an estimated 5.2 million children in the United States who experience the death of a parent before their 18th birthday. In a flash, their whole sky has fallen.
Remarkably, even though this loss affects 1 in 14 children, they have largely remained nameless, with no mechanisms in schools, pediatrician offices or youth-serving organizations to identify these children and families.
The cost of inaction is staggering. In addition to the loss of the love of a father, mother, grandparent or other caregiver, children are at higher risk of financial instability, housing insecurity, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, high school dropout and unemployment. Grief also leaves a hole where hope should be and an absence of childhood joy.
Ironically, there are a wealth of financial and other supports already available to these children and families — such as Social Security Survivors Benefits, funeral reimbursements for death from COVID-19, peer support groups, grief camps, and more — if we could just identify who these children and families are and make it easier for them to access such help. A recent study showed that only 26% of Black children and 46% of other children who have lost a parent are receiving the survivor benefits to which they are entitled.
What’s more, years of evidence show that interventions for grief are highly effective.
Group peer support and bereavement centers, such as The Sharing Place in Salt Lake City, help normalize feelings of loss and provide emotional support to both adults and children. Quality mentoring programs, provided by groups like Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters, demonstrate positive impacts on mental health, educational attainment, civic engagement and healthy relationships with peers and adults. And those children and families needing deeper supports can access them, including cognitive behavioral therapy and suicide prevention programs.
A new partnership has emerged in Utah to address the challenge of this hidden epidemic. Granite School District, with its more than 60,000 students, will include on its back-to-school form a checkbox for families to indicate that a student has suffered the death of a parent or caregiver. Death certificates will include a checkbox to indicate there are surviving children under 18. Families will provide this information voluntarily, which will trigger case managers who will work with them to identify the variety of supports they and their children may need. Teachers and counselors will be trained in how to handle a child experiencing bereavement. A clearinghouse and the United Way 211 phone system will make it simple to access available benefits and other supports. The New York Life Foundation is supporting this system to transform the bereavement journey for children and families.
The COVID pandemic awakened the nation in a short period of time to the plight of children who lost a parent or caregiver. As of December 2022, more than 340,000 children nationwide experienced this loss from parents or caregivers who died from COVID, as the pandemic took more than 1.1 million American lives in three years. This loss disproportionately affected children in elementary and middle schools and from birth to four years of age — the population with the least capacity to understand and cope with it. By creating a system that helps children who lost a parent to COVID, that same system will help any child who experiences the death of a parent or caregiver for any reason.
There are more than 52,000 children in Utah — 1 in 15 — who will lose a parent before they turn 18. While grief is a normal process following loss, the consequences of losing a parent or other caregiver can be serious, they can persist throughout a child’s lifetime, and they can be addressed.
As we build this system in Utah to enable families to self-identify the loss of a parent or caregiver, we will be helping tens of thousands of children cope with their grief. In the process, we will learn important lessons along the way about how to improve systems to identify and support them in their journey.
Times of challenge have always summoned the goodness of our people, and the state of Utah has repeatedly had the highest volunteering rates in the country, as neighbor helps neighbor. As we build systems in Utah that can help families experiencing this unimaginable loss, we can share our learnings and expand pilot demonstrations to other states across the country. In doing so, we can help the millions of children who experience the death of a parent or caregiver, ensure no child grieves alone, and stand by their side every step of the way.
Spencer Cox is the 18th governor of Utah and incoming chair of the National Governors Association.
John Bridgeland is former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for President George W. Bush & CEO of the COVID Collaborative. Both he and Gov. Cox helped launch the Children’s Collaborative for Healing and Support in Utah.