Charlee Roos had two screens propped up on her desk: an iPad and a laptop. On one, the 15-year-old was attending her remote high school classes. On the other, Charlee was glancing at a livestream of her dad set up by doctors in the Minnesota hospital where he was being treated for complications of COVID-19.
“I was kind of keeping my eye on both, and sometimes I would have to tune out school to hear what doctors were saying,” said Charlee, whose family lives in the St. Paul suburb of Little Canada. “I would say, ‘Hey, what’s his hemoglobin? What’s his blood pressure look like?’”
They were questions Charlee knew her father, Kyle Roos, a pharmacist, would be asking if he were not on a ventilator. Asking them for him, she hoped, would help him focus on getting better.
But on Dec. 23, doctors called Charlee’s mother, Jaclyn Roos, to tell her Kyle had just hours to live. Jaclyn, Charlee and Charlee’s 10-year-old sister, Layla, were permitted to come to Kyle’s bedside to say goodbye.
Holding her father’s frail hand, Charlee made a promise.
“Dad,” she said through tears, “I’m going to try my best to do everything I can to make you proud.”
As the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic increases, it is leaving a growing path of children who have lost parents in its wake. They are children for whom COVID-19 has stolen not just their mom or dad, but future memories, too: a father walking them down the aisle at their wedding, or a mother beaming at their graduation.
Some of these children say they wish they were in heaven with their parents. Some struggle to eat or concentrate in school. Some have started therapy at only 2 years old.
“She just felt like if she went to sleep, there was a chance that she would wake up, and Mommy wouldn’t be there or Mommy could die.”
In Waldwick, New Jersey, 5-year-old Mia Ordonez’s father, Juan Ordonez, went to the hospital on the night of March 21 while Mia was sleeping due to his worsening COVID-19 symptoms. He died April 11, five days before her birthday.
Afterward, Mia was terrified to go to sleep, said her mother, Diana Ordonez.
“She went to sleep one day, and Dad never came home,” she said. “She just felt like if she went to sleep, there was a chance that she would wake up, and Mommy wouldn’t be there or Mommy could die.”
A generation thrust into grief
There is limited data on how many children across the United States have had a parent die of COVID-19. But grief during childhood is not rare: Even prior to the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 14 children in the U.S. had experienced the death of a parent or sibling by age 18, according to Judi’s House/JAG Institute, a research-based nonprofit child and family bereavement center.
Experts say losing a loved one to COVID-19 brings a unique grief that can be particularly confusing for children.
Families may not be able to hold a funeral, potentially hindering the process of accepting the reality of the death. A child may be isolated due to schools not being open, meaning support systems are not physically present in their lives. A child may fear that other adults are going to die of COVID-19, too, a worry that can be difficult to assuage when there is no clear end to the pandemic.
And among some circles, children may encounter stigma or even denial about the seriousness of the virus.
“Nobody says cancer isn’t real,” said Jessica Moujouros, program director for Children’s Grief Connection, a nonprofit that provides camps and programs for bereaved children and families. “The complications on top of complications on top of complications are just tearing my heart.”
Children who have lost a parent to the pandemic may face extra difficulties not just with how they mourn, but with what are known as secondary losses, too.
“When someone close to you dies, you lose the person — that’s the primary loss — but you also lose everything that person did, could have done and might have done for you in the future,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who is the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “During the pandemic, those secondary losses have become more pressing.”
They include things like loss of income, which could result in food insecurity, or having to move and start at a new school.
But secondary losses are not always financial, Schonfeld said. Maybe that parent was the one who made sure a child got their homework done or monitored that they took their asthma medication.
In Detroit, Jeremiah Hill, 7, lost two people close to him in less than two months to COVID-19: his father and a cousin who used to babysit him, said his mother, Loretta Sailes. After his dad, Eugene Hill, died April 5, Jeremiah showed little emotion; in the months since, he has started bringing up the activities that he misses doing with him. Sailes is never sure how to respond.
“It’s really hard,” Sailes said. “I just am like, ‘Yes, Jeremiah, you’re correct,’ but there’s really nothing you can say.”
Therapy has helped Jeremiah start to process his feelings, Sailes said. Once the pandemic ends, Sailes plans to start taking him to church — something Jeremiah misses doing most with his father.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, when Mayra Millan Angulo, a single mother, died Dec. 14, she left behind six children, ages 6 to 25. Her oldest, Vanessa Pérez, is now the caregiver for her younger siblings, helping with their remote school and figuring out how she will stay on top of the family’s expenses. At the same time, she is trying to soothe the grief of her sister and four brothers while also dealing with her own.
Her youngest sibling, Melanie, brings their mother up frequently, Pérez said.
“If we pass by somewhere, she’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy used to take me there.’ I put on a black sweater the other day and she said, ‘Oh, that’s like Mommy’s.’ She mentions her all the time. She says she misses her,” Pérez said.
“I try to be as cheerful as possible and say, ‘Hey, yeah, you’re right,’ or ‘Yeah, you and Mommy had lunch dates there,’” she said. “But it breaks my heart on the inside.”
How to help a child grieve, even at a distance
Even as the pandemic upends daily life, there are ways that parents, educators and other adults can help a child cope with loss. There are national and local bereavement groups, many of which are doing virtual support groups. And many schools have counselors, social workers or psychologists who can work with children or recommend outside resources.
“Saying nothing is the worst thing to do in a crisis, because it suggests to kids that the adults are unaware or unwilling to help.”
Dr. David Schonfeld
Simply acknowledging the loss is an important first step — something that some educators or other adults may not do out of fear that they will say something that makes the child feel worse, Schonfeld, the pediatrician, said.
“Saying nothing is the worst thing to do in a crisis, because it suggests to kids that the adults are unaware or unwilling to help,” he said.
Generally, reaching out to a child and their family, telling them you are sorry for their loss and offering to be there for them is well received.
Approaches that should be avoided, Schonfeld said, would be trying to cheer the child up; telling them they have to be strong; and anything that starts with “at least,” such as “At least he’s not in pain,” or “At least you got to spend the holidays together.”
The widows who spoke to NBC News for this story said practicing self-care was critical to helping themselves and their children, especially after suddenly becoming single parents.
For Ordonez, joining a Facebook group for young widows and widowers who lost their spouses to COVID-19 has helped. She has become friendly with the creator of the group, Pamela Addison, who happens to live in her New Jersey town.
Martin Addison, seen here with his children and his wife, Pamela, died of the coronavirus on April 29, 2020.Courtesy of Pamela Addison
Addison’s husband, Martin Addison, died of the coronavirus April 29, leaving Addison with their two young children, Elsie, 2, and Graeme, 14 months. After his death, Elsie wouldn’t really eat; sometimes, she would just sit and stare, Addison said.
Addison put Elsie in therapy and entered therapy herself as well, in part to learn how to help her children with their emotions. When Elsie gets agitated, Addison said she “validates it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be upset, it’s OK to feel this way.”
In Minnesota, 15-year-old Charlee Roos’ mother, Jaclyn Roos, has simple rules for herself and her two girls to help them from spiraling into depression.
Every day, everyone must shower; leave the house, even if it’s just to walk the dog; spend 10 minutes cleaning; and talk to someone outside their household. For the most part, they have been holding each other accountable.
The family is slowly adjusting to life without Kyle. They used to eat dinner around 9:15 p.m. when he got home from his shift at the pharmacy. Now, Roos said, they eat dinner at 6:30 or 7 p.m. — normal dinner time for other families, but a foreign time to theirs that makes their father’s absence more pronounced each evening.
“He was such an amazing person that I am so glad that I got to spend even 15 years of my life with."
Charlee has channeled her grief into her studies. She is determined to get into a good college so she can get a job that would have made her dad proud.
Her biggest hope is that no other families go through what she is experiencing: the loss of a parent who can never be replaced.
“My dad was such a wonderful person and wonderful example of giving an abundance of love to everyone,” Charlee said.
“He was such an amazing person that I am so glad that I got to spend even 15 years of my life with,” she added. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”