We are a nation in mourning – and the children bear the brunt of it. Just last week, 19 children and two teachers were massacred by a gun-toting teenager at an elementary school in Texas. Like thousands of parents across the country, I had to sit down with my own children for breakfast the next day and tell them about this latest horrific event in a country brimming with tragedy.
For more than two years, we have struggled with how to protect our children from the incomprehensible tragedy of Covid-19. The pandemic has claimed more than one million lives in the United States, including parents and caregivers of more than 200,000 children, 65% of whom are children of color.
The truth is that we can never completely protect our children. But we can help them get through the worst the world has in store for them together. To do this effectively, much greater attention must be paid to the specific issue of child bereavement.
Childhood bereavement is a critical part of the growing mental health crisis facing young people, yet it is chronically neglected by philanthropy – even by donors who invest in childhood development, mental health , racial equity and related issues. Many philanthropists give generously to a range of mental health issues, led most recently by Ballmer Group Philanthropy’s $425 million gift to fund research into children’s behavior and mental health at the University of Oregon. . But this donation, like many others, provides no explicit funding to address childhood bereavement.
This oversight ignores the data and the obvious need. More than 5.6 million children in the United States, or nearly 8%, will experience the death of a sibling or parent before they turn 18. One in five will be faced with the death of someone who played an important role in their life. And children of color are much more likely to face these challenges: 1 in 10 black children will experience the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18. Compared to their white peers, this rate is twice as high for the death of a father and three times higher for the death of a mother.
Public health issue
Childhood grief is not just a personal tragedy. It’s an urgent public health concern – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and an outbreak of gun violence.
Research shows that bereaved children are at much higher risk for mental health issues, academic decline, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and suicide. They are 50% more likely to die in early adulthood. A profound loss in childhood can undermine a child’s future or, with support, can lead to remarkable resilience.
But this support is often lacking. Federal and state policies for children and families do not take into account the effects of bereavement. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act covers leave for births and adoptions, but not for the newly bereaved. Canada, China and other countries require bereavement leave by law. The UK requires two weeks paid leave for parents mourning the death of a child and helping siblings cope.
At the state level, those with the highest percentage of bereaved children, including West Virginia, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Mississippi, are often the least likely to have adequate services to meet their needs. This support can include housing and food assistance to compensate for loss of income upon the death of a parent, mental health support and childcare options to help households headed by a single parent or a grandparent. While many bereaved children are entitled to social insurance, less than half receive it.
Often, parents don’t even recognize childhood grief as a significant problem. Nearly half of parents of children under 18 mistakenly believe that children are less affected than adults by the death of a loved one, leaving children to grieve alone without the support they need during the most difficult time of their young lives.
Build in Mental Health Grants
Philanthropy can help raise awareness of the issue by explicitly incorporating bereavement into their broader mental health-focused strategies.
The Ballmer donation, for example, includes funding for a behavioral health certificate program at the University of Oregon for mid-career professionals working in schools and other organizations who are often ill-equipped to overcome emotional barriers to learning. A program like this offers a tremendous untapped opportunity. Even before the pandemic, a New York Life Foundation study found that nearly 70% of teachers had at least one grieving student in their class, but only 7% had received grief training. And grief and loss is not a required subject in most social work or counseling programs.
Addressing bereavement by supporting the expansion of bereavement education programs would be a powerful way to advance philanthropic investments in mental health. Major donors in this area should consider adding it to their grants. This includes Morgan Stanley, which gave $20 million to create the Children’s Mental Health Alliance, and philanthropists like Audrey Steele Burnand, who gave $55 million for depression research at the University of California to Irvine.
We know what works
The good news is that we know what works for most kids, most of the time. Long-standing research shows the link between negative childhood experiences and adult risk of depression and other problems. But new evidence shows that positive childhood experiences can be a particularly effective antidote to challenges such as the death of a family member.
Learning to manage grief can also affect other aspects of a child’s life. I’ve seen this in the national non-profit I run – Experience Camps – which provides support to bereaved children through free camps and year-round programs. For example, 83% of those who have participated in our programs say they have used their grief skills to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. These skills include learning to recognize, label, and discuss feelings, and managing them through activities such as music, writing, and play. Ultimately, these children develop a sense of power knowing they are not alone in their grief and connecting with others who understand their experiences.
But those of us working in this field could do much more if funders understood the need for our services and invested in them. The pandemic has left more and more parents and caregivers desperate for support and guidance for their grieving children. In response, Experience Camps has increased the number of openings in our programs by more than 40% this year. But our waiting list has grown more than 500% over the past five years, and funding hasn’t kept pace. After an initial wave of support at the start of the pandemic, donations are now on the decline.
Part of the problem is that philanthropy doesn’t have clear ways to categorize and elevate childhood grief. Does the issue fall under youth development and programming? Mental Health? Covid-19 response? Racial justice? Education? Childhood grief is of course part of all of these issues – and many more.
Donors also need to recognize that it is not just about funding a program once. Children often experience grief again in early adulthood and need the continuity of a supportive community through key developmental milestones. Peer support programs can be especially important for children and caregivers who feel lonely and adrift after a loss. Groups such as the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, and A Caring Hand in New York offer these types of services, but they too have been inundated with children and families seeking bereavement support during the pandemic.
Those of us who have dedicated our lives to this work know firsthand that if more children could receive help, they could heal from trauma and even gain new strength. Many, for example, become particularly empathetic leaders.
It is becoming clearer every day that our nation can no longer ignore the burden of grief that weighs on all of us, but especially on children. Funders and philanthropists who support children in multiple ways can ensure that bereavement comes out of the shadows and receives the attention it deserves.