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Children Orphaned During COVID-19 Have a Long Road of Healing Ahead

Sad boy embracing his teddy bear in home isolation.

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Key Takeaways

  • Over 1.1 million children have been orphaned by COVID-19.
  • Losing a primary caregiver increases a child's risk of mental health concerns, abuse, and neglect.
  • Helping children through grief is vital for their long-term wellbeing.

A recent study estimates over 1 million children around the world have been left without one or more of their primary caregivers. The long-term outcome of this may be devastating to the well-being of these children. Children left orphaned by COVID-19 are described as the "hidden pandemic." Those who experience the death of a parent or primary caregiver are more likely to suffer mental health concerns, poverty, neglect, and abuse.

Recognizing and acknowledging a child’s grief, providing assistance to ongoing caregivers, and keeping children with safe family members offer the best outcomes for orphans of the pandemic.

Susan Hillis, PhD

We know that the death of a parent or caregiver increases the likelihood of orphaned children experiencing violence, abuse, and neglect.

— Susan Hillis, PhD

About The Study

The study published in The Lancet reviewed data from the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. It estimates that at least 1.1 million children have lost a parent or custodial grandparent to the virus. Over 1.5 million children have lost either a primary or secondary caregiver such as a grandparent who helps provide childcare.

Because of the deadly nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, children were rapidly orphaned, leaving little time for families to prepare. This trauma can leave children at increased risk of mental health concerns, poverty, and abuse.

In the U.S., over 113,000 children lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19. These numbers were counted prior to the current outbreak of the Delta variant, meaning they are expected to increase.

What It All Means

Primary Caregiver: A parent or custodial grandparent who has the greatest responsibility for a child.

Secondary Caregiver: A parent, grandparent, or relative that is involved in childcare, especially those that live in multigenerational households.

Custodial Grandparent: A grandparent that is the primary caregiver and has legal custody of a child.

Single Orphan: A child, under the age of 18, that has lost one primary caregiver.

Double Orphan: A child, under the age of 18, that has lost both primary caregivers.

What Happens to Orphans In the U.S.?

In the U.S., many orphaned children will live with relatives. But even children who have one living parent often end up in foster care for various reasons. Although orphanages don’t formally exist in the U.S., some children are still cared for in group homes or institutions.

The financial, social, and emotional responsibility of caring for an orphaned child is high. Researchers suggest securing support for families who take over the care of orphaned children. Aiding family members with financial support, positive parenting strategies, and educational opportunities can offer a better outcome for the children who have lost a parent.

“Evidence from other epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, shows that these programs must strengthen the capacity of families to care for children and to prevent child separation, avoid the institutionalization of children, and provide psychosocial supports," says Susan Hillis, MS, PhD, the study's author.

How Losing a Caregiver Impacts Children

Children who have lost parents and caregivers will experience grief. They may also feel guilt, confusion, and a fear of losing other people they love. The intensity of emotion combined with changes to living arrangements, social structures, and routines can be overwhelming.

Changes like these that are outside of a child's control can have a significant impact on their wellbeing. “We know that the death of a parent or caregiver increases the likelihood of orphaned children experiencing violence, abuse, and neglect,” explains Dr. Hillis. This can lead to mental health struggles, physical illness, and suicide, especially when the grief is unmanaged and a child is unsupported.

How to Help COVID-19 Orphans

Government Strategies

Global government programs such as PEPFAR DREAMS and INSPIRE are in place to prevent violence and abuse against orphaned youth. The programs offer parenting and community support strategies, education, and life skills training to help keep kids safe.

Keep Kids With Their Families

If a safe family member is able and willing to care for an orphaned child, child welfare agencies prioritize placing a child there. Even if that relative is somewhat distant from the child, it is considered better to keep kids connected to their family structure.

However, Jennifer Weber, PsyD, director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics, says that sending orphaned children to live with extended family has its pros and cons. “The pros of kinship placements include the potential for family bonds and traditions to live on,” she says. “It is more likely that certain cultural, religious, and family system values would be similar in these situations.”

On the other hand, if older relatives such as grandparents are left to care for children, they may be challenged by the energy required to care for children, social nuances, technology, and their own medical concerns. “What is best for children is a case-by-case examination of potential caregivers, of both kinship and non-kinship placement options,” Dr. Weber says.

Jennifer Weber, PsyD

The single most protective factor for a child to grow to be resilient is the presence of even one supportive, caring relationship with an adult.

— Jennifer Weber, PsyD

Recognize and Accept Their Grief

It is important to acknowledge and accept a child’s grief. Allow them to express big emotions and don’t be afraid to talk about them, even if it is hard for you. Making space for children to discuss and release emotions honestly can help them process and move through their grief.

Remember that grief may not always be obvious. Although some kids may cry or want to talk openly, others will be silent, angry, or withdrawn. Others may express feelings of loss in creative ways such as drawing, writing, or through play. Allow and encourage this expression.

Older children may limit how much emotion they express for fear of overloading the grown-ups in their life, who may also be grieving. “[Teenagers] are also more acutely aware of family dynamics and individual differences in grief responses,” explains Dr. Weber. “This can create different pressures for them to navigate whom to approach and whom to avoid with their own emotional 'stuff.'"

Ask For Help

If a child doesn’t want to talk to you, that is OK. Involve school counselors, teachers, friends, or other family members that the child may feel more comfortable talking with. It is important that they have someone they trust to share their feelings with.

“The single most protective factor for a child to grow to be resilient is the presence of even one supportive, caring relationship with an adult,” explains Dr. Weber. “Ask openly if the child is OK and present yourself as someone who can be relied upon to show up for the child. Then be there to help build new memories alongside them. Their loss cannot be fixed, no matter how much you would like to be able to do that.”

A Word From Verywell

With or without the loss of a caregiver, COVID-19 presented many challenges for both children and adults. Losing a parent presents lifelong problems for children. Community members, healthcare professionals, and caregivers must help orphans cope with grief in order to mitigate the risk of mental health concerns, abuse, and neglect.

What This Means For You

The COVID-19 pandemic has longstanding effects on the entire world, but especially children who lost their caregivers. If you or someone you know has become a primary caregiver for a single or double orphan, be sure to lean on community resources, create space for the child to grieve, and ask others for help.

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Article Sources
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  1. Hillis SD, Unwin HJT, Chen Y, et al. Global minimum estimates of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers: a modelling study. Lancet. 2021;398(10298):391-402. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01253-8

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Placement of Children With Relatives. Updated January 2018.

  3. Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. U.S. Adoption and Foster Care Statistics Fact Sheet. 2021.

  4. Schonfeld DJ, Demaria T. Supporting the grieving child and familyPediatrics. 2016;138(3):e20162147. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2147

  5. Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Sustainable support for grieving students. 2021.