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Tens of thousands of children cope with "pandemic grief" after losing parent or caregiver

Study: Over 100,000 U.S. kids lost parent in pandemic
Study finds over 100,000 U.S. children lost a parent during pandemic 02:24

Memphis, Tennessee — Life expectancy in the U.S. has seen the steepest drop since World War II. Largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic, life expectancy has dropped by a year and a half to the lowest level since 2003. For Hispanic and Black populations, it's down by as much as three years. Meanwhile, a staggering number of children have lost a parent or caregiver.

Alyssa Quarles is overwhelmed by guilt that she couldn't save her 48-year-old father, Theodis, after he got COVID.

"As the days passed, he started to say, like, 'Help me. Please don't let me die,'" she told CBS News, crying. "Like I don't know what to say to him. Like I don't think he's gonna die, but he keeps saying it. It was hard."

He died just before Christmas. The tree still stands — a sign the family can't let go.

The Quarles girls are among at least 113,000 American children struggling with "pandemic grief" after losing a parent, or caregiver, to the virus, according to Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association. A quarter of them are younger than age 10, while 20% are Black. Minorities are disproportionately affected. 

"In my head, I feel like it was my fault," she said. "That he passed. That's why I don't go see a counselor or anything because I feel like I don't really deserve to talk to anybody."

Every day is a challenge for mom, Vickie, and her five daughters, each of whom is grieving in their own way, including 14-year-old Anaya. "I just shut down sometimes," she said. "I just stay in my room and don't want to talk to anybody."

Today, the younger Quarles girls are in therapy. Asia turned 11 without her dad. "When you look at my kids you can tell something is missing," Vickie said.

Researchers see an increase in depression and PTSD in children who lose a parent. It can leave them traumatized, confused and angry. Asia is getting therapy from Lauren Strini, who teaches children how to express their emotions in healthy ways at Baptist Centers for Good Grief. 

"Grief is just one of the thoughts or feelings that we have," Strini said. "I think it's important for grieving people — for grieving children, especially — to know that anger is okay."

In a virtual therapy session, Asia told Strini that playing the guitar and listening to music helps overcome these hard feelings.

"They're things that I used to do when he was here," she said.

Alyssa said, "I think we could find a new norm for us without him being here, but we could still keep his memory alive at the same time."

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