How worried should we be about children in 2021? Considerably, if some of the evidence is to be believed. Episodes 118 and 119 of Into the Fold is a two-part exploration of how children are faring during the pandemic from the point of view of two Hogg Foundation grantees: Children’s Grief Center of El Paso and First3Years.
Grief and Loss During COVID
A recent Lancet study estimates that up to 1.5 million children worldwide have lost at least one primary or secondary caregiver as a result of the pandemic. Indeed, orphanhood and grief are an essential part of the story of this pandemic, one whose impact is just beginning to be understood. Laura Olague, director of Children’s Grief Center of El Paso (CGC), says that the first thing to understand is that children’s grief isn’t legible in the same way as adult grief.
“Children grieve developmentally,” says Laura. “Say a child experiences a loss when they’re six years old. They really don’t comprehend the permanence of that. Their little brain isn’t quite developed enough to understand that person isn’t coming back.” For our hypothetical six-year-old the full intensity of the loss is only felt later, in the form of personal milestones—e.g. the first day of school, making a sports team, the high school prom—where the deceased parent’s absence is most palpable.
“They re-experience that loss at each developmental place in their life, so it seems like this wave of sadness hits them all over again,” says Laura.
“Part of what we do here is to, as William Shakespeare put it, ‘to give their sorrow words’—to teach them the words to describe what that feeling is like,” Laura adds.
Laura, a family therapist with a certification in death and bereavement, co-founded the Children’s Grief Center in 1995. The Center works with children and families who have experienced every type of loss, from natural causes to accidents to suicide. Laura has tracked an increase in demand for CGC’s services since the pandemic began.
“When kids experience COVID deaths, it is much more difficult than other situations because, one, they didn’t get to say good-bye to their loved one,” says Laura. “Dad contracted COVID, but nobody really knew how bad it was, and the person went to the hospital and never returned.” Prohibitions on indoor gatherings during the lockdown meant the end of funeral services, and social distancing hindered the ability of the bereaved to receive the support from friends and family they would normally expect.
“It has been a challenge all the way around,” Laura says. “These kids feel different, they feel like they don’t have the support from the community. Going online, who do they think they can talk to about what happened to them?”
The First Three Years
The impact of COVID doesn’t stop at school-age children. For babies who are just beginning to experience the world amid the upheaval of the pandemic, the success that First3Years has had in pivoting its operations is a game-changer. The Dallas-based organization works to support the social and emotional development of infants and toddlers through a combination of training, services, advocacy and collaboration.
“We had a really great remote working model as an organization, so we were really able to respond quickly to COVID,” says Christy Serrano, Houston regional director for First3Years. “We have been very fortunate that because we were positioned to go big virtually early on, we were able to impact a larger number of professionals than we initially believed we would, and so going virtual in a sense actually helped us increase our reach by quite a bit, and we also created more opportunities for partnerships in parts of the state where we don’t necessarily have staff present.”
First3Years was one of eleven organizations to receive a Communities of Care (COC) grant from the Hogg Foundation in 2019. A condition of the grant is for recipients to create or build on an existing community collaborative. The collaboratives consist of key stakeholders from across sectors who are working together to plan and implement activities that address a wide range of community needs. First3Years used its $800,000 in grant funds to create the Babies in Baytown collaborative.
“That collaborative began its work thinking about navigating systems, so helping develop solutions to help families navigate the services and resources within the community that a young child needs,” Christy says. “We’ve expanded that work to more comprehensively think about the mental health of young children and their families in partnership with organizations and parents.”
Christy credits Babies in Baytown with a high level of engagement among its partners, and a growing consensus from parents about the resources needed in their communities.
“We learned that many families confirmed the suspicions we had related to what families see as gaps in assets in their community, one of them being access to early care and education,” says Christy.
Christy just recently became a new mom herself. Parenting a nine-month-old has literally brought home for her the enormity of our collective responsibility to developing young minds– and the gap that First3Years seeks to fill.
“Being someone who has resources and support, I am grateful every day for what I’m able to provide in the space and time I’m able to dedicate to being a parent,” Christy says, “but that’s not the reality for hundreds of thousands of parents in this country.”