TALLAHASSEE — When state Rep. Anna Eskamani was 13, she held the hand of her mother, Nasrin, while she died of cancer.
A decade and a half later, Eskamani knows that an untold number of Florida children never got to do the same as their parent died of the coronavirus.
“So many of these cases were sudden, unexpected,” said Eskamani, D-Orlando. “There’s not even an opportunity to say goodbye.”
A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics attempts to estimate how many children across the country lost a parent to the coronavirus. Researchers approximated that as of February, between 37,300 and 43,000 kids suffered such a loss. About three-quarters of those kids were adolescents. (By way of comparison, the study notes that about 3,000 children lost a parent to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.)
If the researchers’ methods are roughly applied to Florida, it would mean at least about 2,600 Florida children lost a parent to the pandemic.
That figure has profound societal implications for the state, said Rachel Kidman, one of the paper’s authors. For more than a decade, the Stony Brook University professor has studied the effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis on kids in sub-Saharan Africa. Part of her work focuses on what happens to a society when millions of kids lose a parent.
Generally, parental loss is correlated with a host of negative social consequences for kids: economic instability, food insecurity and mental health issues, experts say. But the coronavirus pandemic poses unique challenges to policymakers hoping to ease the burden of grief.
“Families are largely grieving alone,” Kidman said. “We don’t have the social support and the day-to-day routines that we used to have.”
That’s why it’s so important to strengthen support systems of grieving kids, experts say. In part, that means allowing kids to be as social as is safely possible.
Tampa’s Ivan Cardenas, 15, has been more reserved since he lost his father to the virus in June, Ivan’s sister, Jhoana says. Alfonso Cardenas, their father, was just 55 years old when he passed.
But the fact that Ivan can go to school in person — a policy championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis during the pandemic — has helped him work through their family’s profound loss.
“If he were learning online, he would be constantly at home not having much to do,” said Jhoana Cardenas, 21. “Whereas at school, he can see other people and interact with other people.”
It’s also important to make sure grieving kids are provided for, Kidman said. She lauded Congressional lawmakers for including a sweeping child tax credit in the recent Democrat-backed coronavirus stimulus bill. Under that policy, which President Joe Biden signed into law March 11, all parents with kids younger than 18 will get at least a $3,000-per-child tax credit.
That policy is particularly important, Kidman noted, because of the way economically disadvantaged communities of color have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic. Nationally, children of color were more likely to have lost a parent to the virus, Kidman’s study found. (It’s unclear if this has been true in Florida.)
But it won’t just be up to the government to care for Florida’s grieving children. Kristopher Kaliebe, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida, said we all have a role to play. As the state reopens, asking a neighbor how they’re doing could go a long way, he said.
After she lost her mother, Eskamani remembers relying on support systems in and out of the home. But she said it’s still up to lawmakers to start the dialogue about helping Florida deal with its staggering loss.
“You’re not going to bring that person back but we are going to be able to play an intentional role,” Eskamani said. “There hasn’t been enough conversation about the emotional toll of losing a loved one.”
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