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When Children Suffer COVID-19 Losses, Grandparents Fill the Gap

​More than 167,000 U.S. children have lost a parent or caregiver in the pandemic​

spinner image pamela addison at top with her grandchildren and their mother joanne swan and her other daughter kimberly khilnani addison is helping raise the children after the death of her son in law from covid nineteen
Joanne Swan (at top) with her grandchildren and their mother Pamela Addison (with child on her lap) and her other daughter Kimberly Khilnani.
Courtesy Pamela Addison

After Joanne Swan’s son-in-law died from COVID-19 near the start of the pandemic, the 70-year-old essentially moved in with her daughter and two grandchildren in Waldwick, New Jersey. She cooked, read bedtime stories and cried as the whole family grieved Martin Addison’s death.

Swan, of Ossining, New York, has returned home for less than eight weeks total since Addison succumbed to COVID in April 2020.  

“What was I going to do? Go back to my place and just worry about myself?” Swan says. “As long as I have that energy and the drive and the ability and the health to be here, that’s where I’m going to be.”

An estimated 167,000 children have lost parents or in-home caregivers to COVID-19 in the United States, according to “Hidden Pain”, a report released Dec. 9 by the COVID Collaborative, a bipartisan group advocating for resources. Seventy percent of children impacted are 13 or younger, the report found. And it’s often grandparents or older relatives who step in when children are orphaned or suffer such losses.

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The issue is even more pronounced for children of color, who lost parents or caregivers at a higher rate than white children. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 65 percent of children in the U.S. who lost a primary caregiver to COVID before July 2021 were non-white.

“It’s disturbing to think about how for every four COVID deaths, one child is left behind,” Susan Hillis, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher and lead author of the Pediatrics study, said in a statement. “This is a crisis.”

Weighed down by grief 

Find Support if You Are Caring for a Grandchild

Even before the pandemic, many grandparents and other older relatives were raising grandchildren. According to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an estimated 3 million older adults are raising their grandchildren.

Lisa Grodsky, a program operations manager with the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (OLHSA), a community action agency located in Pontiac, Michigan, runs the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program and says it’s important that grandparents get support. Grodsky recommends getting in touch with local kinship navigator programs, which offer resources to those who take on primary care of a child.

According to Grodsky “many of those that are raising their grandchildren feel an enormous sense of isolation,” but she wants people to know they are not alone.

These organizations and resources can provide support and information:

While these losses are devastating for children, they also create hardships for the grandparents caring for them full time or part time. And those grandparents are often also grieving the loss of their own child or a family member.

The pandemic has presented unique hurdles on top of an already unprecedented situation, says Jaia Peterson Lent, who oversees the National Center on Grandfamilies and is deputy executive director of Generations United, which released a report in December on the state of “grandfamilies.” Remote schooling, supply chain shortages and general fear of contracting COVID are just some of the challenges for grandparents or older relatives who step in as primary caregivers for children.

“Often these relatives are the last stop for these children, so they were fearful if they became sick or died, then the children would end up in foster care, and that was really a huge stressor,” Peterson Lent says.

Swan’s grandchildren are ages 3 and 1 and her daughter Pamela Addison is a reading teacher. Swan, who is retired, is now a constant in the kids’ daily life, changing diapers, giving baths and goodnight kisses. The mother-daughter team is aiming to provide the children with as normal a childhood as they can without their father.

Swan initially worried that caring for her grandchildren might prove overwhelming, but Pamela’s sister, mother-in-law and other family members all have rallied to support them.

“My sisters were worried that this would be my undoing — it would be too much stress [and] too much pressure,” Swan says. “At the beginning, I was feeling that I was sinking in quicksand, but I wasn’t sharing that. It was just like I was weighed in with grief and the reality, but I rose above it and just decided, Hey, this is what life is right now.”

Grandparents take on more

Since the pandemic began, grandparents and other older family members have played critical roles in helping families weather everything from pandemic lockdowns to remote work and schooling. They’ve provided childcare for parents working from home with kids nearby. Grandparents have become tutors for children learning on screens through remote education. And when parents get sick with COVID-19 and have to quarantine, many grandparents temporarily take in grandchildren.

And they’re now stepping in as caregivers for children who have lost a parent to COVID-19. Nationwide 2.6 million children are growing up in “grandfamilies” — being raised by grandparents or relatives and family friends — according to the new report from Generations United. Taking on that responsibility can feel overwhelming, Peterson Lent says.

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“With little or no time to plan, [grandparents] are looking for how to meet the child’s basic needs,” Peterson Lent says.

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges, says Lisa Grodsky, program operations manager with the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (OLHSA), a community action agency in Pontiac, Michigan, who also runs the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program. “It’s complicated and heartbreaking,” she says.  

While many grandparents are willing to provide family support, the responsibilities pose additional challenges. Caring full-time for grandchildren can lead to negative physical and emotional health for grandparents due to significant changes in routine, Grodsky says. Some grandparents move, endure strained relationships with other family members, struggle with new financial burdens associated with childcare, and end up sacrificing their own future plans and self-care needs to put those of the child first.

That can be particularly detrimental, Grodsky says. Older adults caring for children orphaned by COVID-19 may not get enough rest, proper nutrition and medical care, and can suffer from mental health issues, including depression, she says.

“The isolation from peers and extended family, and exhaustion could aggravate preexisting conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure,” Grodsky says.

In Philadelphia, Octavia Tokley, 41, was in shock after her husband Erin Tokley, 47, died of COVID-19 on March 3. He was a police officer, minister and mentor in the community and his death left a massive hole in the fabric of their family life. It meant Tokley became a single mother to their 5-year-old daughter, Amethyst.

spinner image ikelyn tokley and deanna crawford are supporting octavia tokley as she raises her daughter amethyst following the death of her father from covid nineteen
Ikelyn Tokley (left) and Deanna Crawford (middle) are supporting Octavia Tokley (right) as she raises her daughter Amethyst following the death of her father from COVID-19.
Photo courtesy Octavia Tokley

Since her husband’s death, Tokley has leaned heavily on her mother-in-law, Ikelyn Tokley, 70, and sister Deanna Crawford, 55, for help caring for Amethyst. But both women are grieving, too.  

Erin Tokley “was a sergeant,” Ikelyn says. “He was always protecting us and telling us what to do.”

The family never imagined the pandemic would take his life. “For somebody to lose someone to COVID, I think that’s just a wake-up call,” Crawford says.

Crawford and Ikelyn Tokley have played a role in Amethyst’s life since birth, but this has tested them. “All of us have taken on more,” says Ikelyn, who moved in with Octavia and Amethyst after her lease was up.

For many grandparents, caring for children who have lost a parent is not only about practical help — organizing meals, cleaning and transportation to various activities — but also emotional support as children navigate a painful, life-altering situation. Although she gets sad, Amethyst has handled the changes as best she can, Crawford says.

“We let her know that you can talk to your dad. He’s not here physically to respond to you where you can see him, but he can hear you,” Crawford says. “She’s a strong little girl.”

Racial disparities in COVID losses

While many children have suffered during the pandemic, COVID-19 losses have affected children of color disproportionately. American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander children lost caregivers at nearly four times the rate of white children, according to the “Hidden Pain report. For Black and Hispanic children that rate is nearly 2.5 times more and for Asian children, 1.6 times more.

The pandemic highlighted the disparities faced by people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status, says Hillis. Various factors, including lack of access to health care, unstable living environments, and work as essential employees, have led to increased exposure to COVID-19 for racial and ethnic minorities, she says.

Those disparities are playing out in real time. Seventy-two-year-old Shirley King believed deeply in keeping families together. The Fraser, Michigan, resident was the guardian of five children of family members who were unable to care for the children themselves.

spinner image portrait of sherri livingston
Shirley King
Courtesy Sherri Livingston

She made sure they didn’t go hungry, felt safe and were loved. But in April, King got COVID-19. She died about a week later in a Michigan hospital.  

Now, two of King’s adult children, Sherri and Katrena Livingston, have stepped in to care for the children. The Livingston sisters are now caring for 10 children, including their own, who range in age from 3 to 17.

“We had a hard time when my mom passed,” says Sherri, 54. “We’re dealing with 10 different personalities, and 10 different stages of life.”

It’s a day-by-day process as they address the kids’ basic needs, homeschool them and help them work through the grief of losing King. “It takes a lot of patience,” says Katrena, 49.

But they know the children need them. “My mom taught us that God gave you all the love there is in your heart and you spread it around,” Sherri says. “So, we’re continuing on with her legacy.”

Carlett Spike is a contributing writer who covers race issues, health and food. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Shondaland and Columbia Journalism Review.

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