Two years on, COVID widows say they need help as their children struggle with grief and anxiety

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.

For children in particular, it’s an exciting time of year. But for Vickie Quarles, a health care consultant from Memphis who lost her husband, Theodis Quarles, to COVID-19 almost two years ago, and for her five daughters, Christmas has become a painful reminder of their loss.

The Quarles family contracted COVID in December 2020. They all recuperated, with the exception of Theodis, who was rushed to the hospital and a day later lost his battle against the virus. Like many victims at that stage of the pandemic, he died suddenly and alone in a hospital room.

The Christmas tree that Theodis and his daughters put together that year has stood in the family’s living room since he died. Vickie Quarles told Yahoo News her family is not ready to take it down anytime soon.

“It's sentimental to us," she said, "because that was the last thing that he helped put up.”

Vickie Quarles with her husband, Theodis, and their five daughters.
Vickie Quarles says her husband was an "exceptional father."

Losing Theodis, whom Vickie described as an “exceptional father,” under such painful circumstances has been devastating for her daughters, she said. Since then, the girls — who range in age from 3 to 20 — have had a hard time coping with their loss. Some have struggled in school, and Quarles said they have all been suffering from anxiety. One particular fear they share since their dad died is losing their only living parent.

“It's just like a fit every morning, where they do not want to go to school, and they text and call me throughout the day,” Quarles said. “If I go anywhere, it's like, ‘I need you to tell me your location, drop your location. How long are you gonna be out?’ They're like, ‘When we woke up, Daddy wasn't here.’ So it's like the roles are reversed. They're wanting me to report more to them now, because they're like, ‘You're the only parent.’ I end up doing it because it eases their anxiety. Because they have a lot of anxiety now.”

Theodis Quarles and Vickie Quarles with four of their daughters, in a selfie taken by one of their daughters on their porch.
Theodis and Vickie Quarles with four of their daughters.

The Quarles children are not alone in their grief and struggle. A recent international study published in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that from January 2020 to May 2022, 10.5 million children across the globe age 18 and under lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. The researchers, who examined the World Health Organization's data on excess mortality, found that the majority of those children, 7.5 million, were orphaned, meaning they lost one or both parents to the virus.

The study found that in the U.S., more than 250,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to deaths linked to COVID-19.

After losing a parent or caregiver, children can suffer lifelong consequences if they don’t receive the appropriate support. Orphanhood, defined by UNICEF as when a child loses one or both parents, is among the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) linked to mental health problems, chronic illness, lower self-esteem, increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence and sexual abuse. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities and earning potential in those who are affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Susan Thomas, director of the Center for HOPE, which offers bereavement counseling as part of the Northwell Health network, New York's largest health care provider, said her team is now helping bereaved children affected by the pandemic.

The groups meet twice a month at the center, which was founded to help kids after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thomas said that “families stay for about two years from the time they start, and so the families form bonds and friendships and connections."

“It's a place of validation and a place of support, where they feel connected with one another, where they don't feel alone,” she added.

Thomas explained that in some children the pandemic has caused an uptick in anxiety, depression, trauma- and stress-related disorders, and that in order to help them cope with the loss of a loved one, it is important for families or anyone supporting them to know that kids don't grieve in the way adults do.

“They sort of jump into grief, and then they jump out of grief. They can't tolerate grief for long periods of time,” she said. “They may be fine, doing well, moving along, and all of a sudden something small happens, and then they have this exaggerated reaction. They also struggle with lots of different feelings. There's definitely sadness. Sometimes there's anger, sometimes there's worries that somebody else will die.”

The early days of the pandemic created many challenges that interfered with and prolonged the grieving process for both children and adults, Thomas explained. There was no chance to say last goodbyes; traditional mourning rituals, like funerals and burials, couldn't be conducted; family and friends were often not available during lockdown to physically comfort children. Under COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic, many people, children included, could not attend in-person grief counseling.

“COVID is unique in the way that it has impacted loss,” Thomas said. “When we think about the death losses, these kids have experienced the loss to death, but they've also experienced nondeath losses as well. You know, if we think about what happened with COVID, that sense of isolation, that sense of not being able to go out, you know. Kids thrive with structure, with routine, and all of that was taken away suddenly.”

Finding help has been a challenge for many of the widows and widowers who have been left to care for their children alone.

Sallie Luensman, who lost her ex-husband, James Luensman, 43, to the virus in October 2020, told Yahoo News that for her son, Connor, “it’s been awful.” He lost his dad two weeks before his 16th birthday, and since that day, Luensman said, her son has not been the same. He has lost interest in activities, like wrestling, that he used to enjoy; he has struggled in school and has become socially withdrawn.

James Luensman, in baseball cap, puts a protective arm around his son, Connor.
Connor Luensman with his father, James. (Courtesy of Luensman family)

“It's hard. We've tried counseling. It just seems like no one's clicking,” Luensman said. “He still feels like, ‘Well, they don't get it. They don't understand it.’ Yes, they talk about loss, but there's something completely different with a COVID loss.”

Luensman, who lives in Atkins, Iowa, has tried without success to find her son COVID support groups.

“My sister passed from cancer four months after James died, and you know, there's support groups for kids [who] lost parents to cancer, but there's nothing for COVID,” she said. “Still, two years later, we sit and there still isn't anything.”

At a global COVID-⁠19 summit in May, President Biden acknowledged the millions of children orphaned by the pandemic and said more steps needed to be taken to prevent more deaths from the virus. His administration has directed pandemic relief aid to student mental health programs, but there have been no federal efforts focused solely on the children who have lost caregivers to COVID-19.

“I have to be honest, the services are not there,” Thomas said. “The kids are on waiting lists for counseling agencies and for therapists, and it's a really tough place for parents who are seeking help for their kids.”

Jerri Vance, who lost her husband, James D. Vance, 52, to COVID-19 on New Year’s Day 2021, told Yahoo News she has found little help for widows like her. Her husband worked multiple jobs and was the breadwinner of the family. Since he died, she and her two daughters have had a “huge income loss,” she said.

“I don't ever try to talk about money in front of my kids or anything,” Vance said. “I don't want them to have adult worries while they're kids. But there's been times when my girls would get birthday money or Christmas money or just have money of their own, and one of them would say, ‘You can have my money to pay one of the bills if you need to.’” Vance said she would like to see financial support to help her children afford college one day.

James Vance, in uniform, poses by a police vehicle with Jerri and their daughters.
Jerri and James Vance with their daughters, Jamie and Julia. (Courtesy the Vance family)

“I would love to see some type of scholarship or program for those kids for college, because like right now, honestly, it's crazy. I think, ‘How am I gonna get bills paid?’ I can't even think about having extra money for college.”

Vance, who lives in West Virginia, noted that California has passed legislation to help widows like her. In June, California officials announced they would use some of the state's record-setting budget surplus to set up trust funds for children who lost a parent or caregiver to the pandemic. Vance said she hoped more states would establish similar efforts.

Her girls, however, have been fortunate to find emotional support with the help of Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit organization that offers bereavement camps for children who have experienced the death of a loved one. Its founder and CEO, Lynne Hughes, told Yahoo News that her organization decided to hold camps specifically for children who have suffered loss as a result of COVID-19, because it was important that they connect with others going through the same experience.

“It's set in a kid-friendly environment. It's not sterile, it's fun, it's set at camp, it's beautiful,” Hughes said. “They're meeting other kids who are like them. It means so much for another, for peer to peer, when somebody says, ‘You know, I felt lonely,’ and another child says, ‘I did too. Hang in there, it gets better.’”

Six children of mainly middle school age, wearing lanyards that show their names and wearing T-shirts printed with CZC, Comfort Zone Camp, pose with a woman in a large, wood-paneled community hall.
Children at the Comfort Zone Camp in Hardwick, N.J., with a counselor on Sept. 11. (Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Comfort Zone Camp)

So far, Comfort Zone camps, which are free of charge, have helped nearly 60 bereaved children in areas hard hit by COVID-19, including New York, New Jersey and Virginia. Hughes said the organization is holding a camp in Florida next year. Children can participate as many times as they want, she noted.

“I really believe when my kids age out that I will still volunteer with them. Like it's been that much of a support for us,” Vance said of the camp.

Hughes said her organization will continue to offer “COVID-19 loss camps'' and hopes to “touch as many of these children as possible.” She emphasized that children who are not able to address their grief can suffer the consequences later in life, and need access to mental health programs to help them heal.

“The loss isn't going anywhere, it will kind of just ride with them as an unwanted companion and leak out in different ways of their life. And so addressing it just ensures the likelihood of them still being able to lead a healthy life and a happy life … that they can survive this and they can even thrive, and find some meaning in the loss.”