RICHMOND, Va. -- A VCU Health Psychiatrist has taken the loss she experienced as a child and used it to understand the impact of grief and loss on children, something more than a million children are experiencing after losing a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.
The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association reported at least 113,000 U.S. children were struggling with ‘pandemic grief’ after losing a parent or caregiver to COVID. Another study with researchers from the CDC showed globally, that number was at 1.5 million.
Dr. Bela Sood, Physician and Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at VCU Health, has dedicated much of her life to understanding the mind of a child and the impacts of grief.
"I have to say that having lost my father when I was about five and a half years old, this probably is the reason why this particular topic is so close to my heart," said Dr. Sood. "My father was a Colonel in the army, a very brilliant, bright man who had a lot of, a huge, big future ahead of him."
Dr. Sood said her father died while fighting in the India-China war of 1962.
"He was commanding a battalion and his battalion got ambushed. We had no anticipation of this. He was 36 years old," Dr. Sood said.
Decades later, Dr. Sood said she still remembered the feeling, the abject sense of loss.
"Of a kind which I can't even describe," Dr. Sood said.
A feeling, now experienced by many children across the globe.
"We definitely know that when kids lose parents, the rate of depression is much higher in these kids," said Dr. Sood.
She said kids under the age of 12 were particularly vulnerable, and the grief that came with a COVID-related loss could exacerbate that.
"It's unprecedented, right? That you lose a person, you can't even say goodbye to them. You're doing that over a tablet. I can't even imagine how, how wrong it is," Dr. Sood said.
Dee Jackson had seen the impact firsthand. She worked as an immediate response clinician for the Richmond children’s mental health nonprofit ChildSavers.
"We have a significant amount of our loss being related to the loss of a grandparent," said Jackson. "There's a good portion of our clients who are being raised by older caregivers. So, you can imagine how this greatly impacts their stability, and housing, their mental health."
When traumas like these happen, her team responds immediately to crisis calls for mental health support, driving to the home or hospital, or speaking with the family over the phone.
"We’ll offer to bring what we call a 'feel better bag' full of all of our goodies to help children cope," said Jackson. "We also try to connect them to any mental health services in the area that may be helpful."
Dr. Sood said a good support system could make a huge difference in the child's recovery from that grief. She also stressed the importance of being open with the child and providing a safe place for them to be heard.
For Dr. Sood that support came in the form of her mother.
"By her own ability to talk about her own grief, she shared that with me," said Dr. Sood. She was always there. She would make these three-hour journeys from another town to be with my sister and I. And so that made all the difference."
Dr. Sood said children experiencing grief after a loss was natural, but families should monitor them.
If symptoms of depression like isolation, lack of interest, or even preoccupation with death persist, families should seek help from a professional.
If your child needs immediate mental health support following a crisis, you can reach out to the ChildSavers immediate response line at 804-305-2420.