Five months after her husband died of COVID-19, Valerie Villegas can see how grief has wounded her children.
Nicholas, the baby, who was 1 and almost weaned when his father died, now wants to nurse at all hours and calls every tall, dark-haired man “Dada,” the only word he knows. Robert, 3, regularly collapses into furious tantrums, stopped using the big-boy potty and frets about sick people giving him germs. Ayden, 5, recently announced it’s his job to “be strong” and protect his mom and brothers.
Her older kids—Kai Flores, 13, Andrew Vaiz, 16, and Alexis Vaiz, 18—are often quiet and sad or angry and sad, depending on the day. The two eldest, gripped by anxiety that makes it difficult to concentrate or sleep, were prescribed antidepressants soon after losing their stepfather.
“I spend half the nights crying,” said Villegas, 41, a hospice nurse from Portland, Texas. She became a widow on Jan. 25, just three weeks after Robert Villegas, 45, a strong, healthy truck driver and jiujitsu expert, tested positive for the virus.
“My kids, they’re my primary concern,” she said. “And there’s help that we need.”
But in a nation where researchers calculate that more than 46,000 children have lost one or both parents to COVID-19 since February 2020, Villegas and other survivors say finding basic services for their bereaved kids—counseling, peer support groups, financial assistance—has been difficult, if not impossible.
“They say it’s out there,” Villegas said. “But trying to get it has been a nightmare.”
Interviews with nearly two dozen researchers, therapists and other experts on loss and grief, as well as families whose loved ones died of COVID-19, reveal the extent to which access to grief groups and therapists grew scarce during the pandemic. Providers scrambled to switch from in-person to virtual visits and waiting lists swelled, often leaving bereft children and their surviving parents to cope on their own.
“Losing a parent is devastating to a child,” said Alyssa Label, a San Diego therapist and program manager with SmartCare Behavioral Health Consultation Services. “Losing a parent during a pandemic is a special form of torture.”
Children can receive survivor benefits when a parent dies if that parent worked long enough in a job that required payment of Social Security taxes. During the pandemic, the number of minor children of deceased workers who received new benefits has surged, reaching nearly 200,000 in 2020, up from an average of 180,000 in the previous three years. Social Security Administration officials don’t track cause of death, but the latest figures marked the most awards granted since 1994. COVID-19 deaths “undoubtedly” fueled that spike, according to the SSA’s Office of the Chief Actuary.
And the number of children eligible for those benefits is surely higher. Only about half of the 2 million children in the U.S. who have lost a parent as of 2014 received the Social Security benefits to which they were entitled, according to a 2019 analysis by David Weaver of the Congressional Budget Office.
Counselors said they find many families have no idea that children qualify for benefits when a working parent dies or don’t know how to sign up.
In a country that showered philanthropic and government aid on the 3,000 children who lost parents to the 9/11 terror attacks, there has been no organized effort to identify, track or support the tens of thousands of kids left bereaved by COVID-19.
“I’m not aware of any group working on this,” said Joyal Mulheron, the founder of Evermore, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on public policy related to bereavement. “Because the scale of the problem is so huge, the scale of the solution needs to match it.”
COVID-19 has claimed more than 600,000 lives in the U.S., and researchers writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics calculated that for every 13 deaths caused by the virus, one child under 18 has lost a parent. As of June 15, that would translate into more than 46,000 kids, researchers estimated. Three-quarters of the children are adolescents; the others are under age 10. About 20% of the children who’ve lost parents are Black, though they make up 14% of the population.
“There’s this shadow pandemic,” said Rachel Kidman, an associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York, who was part of the team that found a way to calculate the impact of COVID-19 deaths. “There’s a huge amount of children who have been bereaved.”
The Biden administration, which launched a program to help pay funeral costs for COVID-19 victims, did not respond to questions about offering targeted services for families with children.
Failing to address the growing cohort of bereaved children, whether in a single family or in the U.S. at large, could have long-lasting effects, researchers said. The loss of a parent in childhood has been linked to higher risks of substance use, mental health problems, poor performance in school, lower college attendance, lower employment and early death.
“Bereavement is the most common stress and the most stressful thing people go through in their lives,” said clinical psychologist Christopher Layne of the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. “It merits our care and concern.”
Perhaps 10% to 15% of children and others bereaved by COVID-19 might meet the criteria of a new diagnosis, prolonged grief disorder, which can occur when people have specific, long-lasting responses to the death of a loved one. That could mean thousands of children with symptoms that warrant clinical care. “This is literally a national, very public health emergency,” Layne said.
Still, Villegas and others say they have been left largely on their own to navigate a confusing patchwork of community services for their children even as they struggle with their own grief.
“I called the counselor at school. She gave me a few little resources on books and stuff,” Villegas said. “I called some crisis hotline. I called counseling places, but they couldn’t help because they had waiting lists and needed insurance. My kids lost their insurance when their dad died.”
The social disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic overwhelmed grief care providers, too. Across the U.S., nonprofit agencies that specialize in childhood grief said they have scrambled to meet the need and to switch from in-person to virtual engagement.
“It was a huge challenge; it was very foreign to the way we work,” said Vicki Jay, CEO of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. “Grief work is based on relationships, and it’s very hard to get a relationship with a piece of machinery.”
At Experience Camps, which each year offers free weeklong camps to about 1,000 bereaved kids across the country, the waiting list has grown more than 100% since 2020, said Talya Bosch, an Experience Camps associate. “It is something that we are concerned about—a lot of kids are not getting the support they need,” she said.
Private counselors, too, have been swamped. Jill Johnson-Young, co-owner of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, California, said her nearly three dozen therapists have been booked solid for months. “I don’t know a therapist in the area who isn’t full right now,” she said.
Dr. Sandra McGowan-Watts, 47, a family practice doctor in Chicago, lost her husband, Steven, to COVID-19 in May 2020. She feels fortunate to have found an online therapist for her daughter, Justise, who helped explain why the 12-year-old was suddenly so sad in the mornings: “My husband was the one who woke her up for school. He helped her get ready for school.”
Justise was also able to get a spot at an Experience Camps session this summer. “I am nervous about going to camp, but I am excited about meeting new kids who have also lost someone close in their life,” she said.
Jamie Stacy, 42, of San Jose, California, was connected with an online counselor for her daughter, Grace, 8, and twin sons, Liam and Colm, 6, after their father, Ed Stacy, died of COVID-19 in March 2020 at age 52. Only then did she learn that children can grieve differently than adults. They tend to focus on concrete concerns, such as where they’ll live and whether their favorite toys or pets will be there. They often alternate periods of play with sadness, cycling rapidly between confronting and avoiding their feelings of loss.
“The boys will be playing Legos, having a great time, and all of a sudden drop a bomb on you: ‘I know how I can see Daddy again. I just have to die, and I’ll see Daddy again,’” she said. “And then they’re back to playing Legos.”
Stacy said counseling has been crucial in helping her family navigate a world where many people are marking the end of the pandemic. “We can’t escape the topic of COVID-19 even for one day,” she said. “It’s always in our face, wherever we go, a reminder of our painful loss.”
Villegas, in Texas, has returned to her work in hospice care and is starting to reassemble her life. But she thinks there should be formal aid and grief support for families like hers whose lives have been indelibly scarred by the deadly virus.
“Now everybody’s lives are going back to normal,” she said. “They can get back to their lives. And I’m thinking my life will never be normal again.”
Michael “Mike” Allen
Angelo Giuseppe Anastasi
Barbara Ann Bobzien
Rosemary (Varso) Kordoske
Dorothy M. (Wagner) McVeigh
Mary Jane (Egerstaffer) Miller
Jean M. (Seefeldt) Paul
Thomas H. Peck (Pechousek)
Merrill J. Perius
Laura Jean Petitt
Penny L. Pozulp
John Thomas Walker
Holiday traffic backed up on the Interstate and was diverted onto surface roads on Janesville’s northeast side after three semitrailer trucks crashed on I-90/39 on Monday morning.
A Wisconsin State Patrol official said the crash happened around 9:30 a.m. Monday near Milton- Harmony Townline Road north of Janesville. Three semis apparently crashed in the northbound lanes. The official said at least one of the semis crashed through a concrete median in the middle of the Interstate, resulting in a complicated crash scene requiring an extensive cleanup effort.
The state patrol in a news release said the crash caused one semi to erupt in flames. One person had “minor injuries” in the crash. The vehicles involved apparently took out “several hundred” feet of barriers in the middle of the Interstate.
The major tie-up resulted from crews having to remove and reset barriers damaged in the crash.
Both northbound and southbound lanes of the Interstate were shut down from the Highway 11 interchange on Janesville’s south side to just north of Edgerton. Janesville police wrestled with thousands of cars that were being detoured along the city’s surface streets, including through the heavily traveled and construction-laden intersection of highways 14 and 26.
Images from a state Department of Transportation camera at I-90/39 near the Racine Street interchange showed traffic backed up for miles to the south. The state patrol said backups were happening both south of Janesville and north of Edgerton.
Detour routes around the crash were fueling a steady queue of cars along Highway 14/Humes Road on Janesville’s north side through the morning and afternoon. The influx was leading to unusual backups of local traffic along some neighborhood side streets, including parts of residential Lexington and Pontiac drives.
“It’s backing up. It’s clogging up the intersections here,” one Janesville police officer dispatched on the radio at about 2:48 p.m.
The officer was talking about traffic along Highway 26 on Janesville’s north side, one of the stretches where thousands of vehicles were still being diverted around the crash area several hours after the crash was reported.
All lanes of the Interstate between Janesville and Edgerton were reopened shortly before 7 p.m. Monday after being closed for most of the day, according to a traffic alert from the state Department of Transportation.
This story was updated at 7 p.m. to say Interstate 90/39 is now fully open after a crash earlier Monday.
TOWN OF BELOIT
Jeff Winiarski and his wife, Jenna, recently moved into their second home with their three sons, ages 8, 9 and 12.
The new house is somewhat larger than their last place, making it a nice change of setting.
What’s more, the Turner School District’s brand new Garden Prairie Intermediate School is only a stone’s throw from their front yard. For two of their boys, it will be a fast walk to school every day.
“We’re really excited for them to be able to do that,” Winiarski said.
As new homes have been going up seemingly overnight in recent years, homeowners, developers and town officials say they are excited for continued growth in the future.
Community Development Director Tim Kienbaum said he is confident that the township will see steady growth for years to come.
“It’s certainly been increasing. We’re seeing more permits and more houses than we ever have over the last several years,” Kienbaum said. “There doesn’t seem to be any signs that it’s going to slow down in the near future.”
According to town records, there were 17 single-family houses and three duplex condos built in 2018. After that, 19 single-family houses and four duplexes went up in 2019.
In 2020, a total of 25 single-family homes and 10 condos were constructed. So far this year, Kienbaum said 10 single-family homes and one duplex have been built with more expected to be finished by the end of 2021.
Drawing in residentsOne reason for the housing boom could be attributed to a recent reevaluation and higher average assessed values on homes in the town as a whole, Kienbaum said.
There is also a limited amount of property for homes available overall, meaning as new properties open up, prospective homeowners are eager to settle in.
Additionally, the town had purchased large areas of land in the past and began downsizing around 2008, selling off town property to developers, Kienbaum said.
Town Board Chairwoman Diane Greenlee said housing development really picked up in the past three to five years.
Greenlee said after the town board opened up empty lots in Heron Bay, Blackhawk Run and other subdivisions, those decisions paved the way for a rush of construction.
“It’s unprecedented to have so much happening all at once. It’s been really encouraging. We’re all about more rooftops. We’re really appreciative of the young families moving in,” Greenlee said. “I think one development spurs another.”
With more residents moving in and joining the tax rolls, Greenlee said that growth will help expand the annual budget to fund future road repairs and infrastructure improvements.
‘A nice landing spot’Grant Abel, co-owner of Look-Abel Construction, is among the local developers with a significant stake in the town’s housing boom.
On average, the company is building 10 new units per year with a mix of single-family housing and duplexes.
The Blackhawk Run subdivision, by far, has seen the most rapid growth, Abel said.
During the pandemic, a challenge to overcome has been rising lumber costs caused by high demand, limited domestic supply, shipping delays and tariffs on Canadian lumber.
“We’re seeing these lumber prices get so out of hand,” Abel said. “It’s trickling into all aspects of the bill. I just hope that we can get these materials settled down and get these timelines back on track and keep up with demand.”
Abel and his best friend, Brian Looker, who both own the company, had once worked for Looker’s father in the contracting business growing up. Abel is from Rockton, Illinois, and Looker grew up in Beloit. For them, the local housing growth is rewarding to be a part of.
LookAbel Construction is building new houses valued between $325,000 and $400,000 on average, with about 1,700 to 3,000 square feet of space per unit. Most houses they build have building footprints of around 1,800 square feet.
“Beloit is a nice little landing spot. We hope to see that continue to grow and keep up with it,” Abel said.
Home, sweet homeBeloit native Karla Clark and her daughter moved out of a smaller upstairs unit and into their new condo May 7. This is Clark’s fourth time owning a home.
In her new home, Clark was able to pick everything from floors to countertops. She is curious to see what traffic will be like this fall when the new school opens down the road, but overall she says she is excited.
“It’s a showstopper; it’s beautiful,” Clark said of her new home.
Clark, who is a real estate agent in the area, said the local housing market is steadily growing. While prices on homes have been increasing, she anticipates prices will even out by this fall.
“Growth is exciting. I think we need more new construction. That would definitely help the housing industry,” Clark said.
Beloit native Jessica Christofferson and her husband, Sean, purchased their home last year. They moved in July 2020 and plan to stay indefinitely. It is their third home.
“We got to make it our own. We got to enjoy seeing all of the hard work and all of the designs we made put together and really soak it in,” Christofferson said. “We had the ability to really see it from the ground up.”
Living in a home in the Blackhawk Run subdivision, Christofferson said the whole family is happy to see lots of other young families moving in. They have two children, ages 2 and 5.
“We really like that it’s expanding to younger families with younger children,” Christofferson said. “We’re really enjoying seeing the growth.”
Winiarski recalled how other new homeowners in the neighborhood opened up their houses to visitors, which helped them make a final decision.
With other young families moving in all the time, Winiarski said he is happy to see his boys outside all day with other kids their own age.
“It’s nice to see other families. We trust everybody that’s around us,” Winiarski said.