‘COVID orphans’: Children of those lost to the pandemic face a unique struggle with grief

As the holiday season approaches, many American families are looking forward to gathering and celebrating with their loved ones — possibly for the first time in years, as most COVID-19 restrictions are now lifted. But for the widows and widowers who have been left to care for their children alone as a result of the pandemic, the holidays can be a painful reminder of what their families have lost.

Video Transcript


VICKIE QUARLES: My name is Vickie Quarles, and my husband was the oldest Quarles. We have five beautiful girls. And we lost him due to COVID December the 18th, 2020.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: My son Connor lost his dad to COVID-19 October of 2020.

JERRI VANCE: I'm the wife of James Vance. We tested positive on December the 4th. He was admitted to the hospital on December the 7th. And we lost James to COVID on January the 1st, 2021. I think the holidays will always be marked.

VICKIE QUARLES: We still haven't took the tree down. It's been up all year round since 2020. And everyone goes, oh, so you still have your tree up? I was like, it's sentimental to us because that was the last thing that he helped put up, was the tree.

SUSAN THOMAS: 10 and 1/2 million children worldwide, 250,000 kids in the US have lost a parent or both parents to COVID. If you think about our children, their primary attachments in life are to their mom and to their dad. And when there's a disruption in that attachment and that primary attachment figure is taken away, there's a huge loss.

JERRI VANCE: It was almost just like Daddy left one day and never came home.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: I mean, just drop of the hat, everything stopped.

VICKIE QUARLES: And to try to run around with five girls by yourself, it is hard.

SUSAN THOMAS: We as adults, we have one foot in grief and one foot outside of grief. But kids, they sort of jump into grief, and then they jump out of grief.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: You know, it works for a little bit, and then it doesn't. It just-- things aren't quite clicking.

SUSAN THOMAS: They can't tolerate grief for long periods of time. So they may be fine, doing well, moving along, then all of a sudden, something small happens. And then they have this exaggerated reaction.

VICKIE QUARLES: You know you want the-- to comfort their child, but it's nothing that you can say.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: You know, we try. That's the best that we can do, is just try.

JERRI VANCE: I've always said Jamie was kind of my protector. Like if she says, Mommy upset, she wants to take care of me. It's heartbreaking. It's like you don't have time as a mother to grieve because you're grieving with them. You're trying to go ahead and help them with their healing, so your healing has to go on the back burner sometime.

SUSAN THOMAS: Unfortunately, COVID has had a little bit more stigma. When you say, oh, yeah, he had cancer; oh, when he had COVID and he died, I think there-- for some people, there's this sense that well, there's some responsibility.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: People just assume that they had underlying conditions, or they did this, they did that.

VICKIE QUARLES: Why is it that he passed, but here it is that we all had it but nothing happened with us?

JERRI VANCE: We live in an area that we can't and don't line up with their way of thinking. I'll just say it that way. We know what COVID can do. We believe the science. We're not some of the people who think that it was a hoax or, you know, we know how real it is.

So when you constantly hear people who say COVID's not real, it doesn't matter, it's over, it's gone, or like the jokes about COVID and they're making their comments in the grocery store or wherever, wide open, I mean, it hurts when they hear that stuff and they see that stuff.

SALLIE MCQUERRY LUENSMAN: There is something completely different with a COVID loss. There are support groups for kids who lost parents to cancer. There is nothing for COVID.

VICKIE QUARLES: There's not a lot of resources out here. I haven't seen any resources in the schools. It's like business as usual.

SUSAN THOMAS: Kids who have experienced a death of a parent, prior to the pandemic they would have support. If they lost a parent to COVID, I have to be honest, the services are not there. The kids are on waiting lists for counseling agencies and for therapists. And it's a really tough place for parents who are even seeking help.

VICKIE QUARLES: You can't just put grief on a waiting list, especially not with kids because the more they harbor things, the more they're being affected.