(Kaiser Health News)Every day, the nation is reminded of Covid-19's ongoing impact as new death counts are published. What is not well documented is the toll on family members.
Grief from Covid-19 death: Toll on bereaved family members runs deep, study says
New research suggests the damage is enormous. For every person who dies of Covid-19, nine close family members are affected, researchers estimate based on complex demographic calculations and data about the coronavirus.
Many survivors will be shaken by the circumstances under which loved ones pass away — rapid declines, sudden deaths and an inability to be there at the end — and worrisome ripple effects may linger for years, researchers warn.
If 190,000 Americans die from Covid complications by the end of August, as some models suggest, 1.7 million Americans will be grieving close family members, according to the study. Most likely to perish are grandparents, followed by parents, siblings, spouses and children.
"There's a narrative out there that Covid-19 affects mostly older adults," said Ashton Verdery, a co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. "Our results highlight that these are not completely socially isolated people that no one cares about. They are integrally connected with their families, and their deaths will have a broad reach."
Because of family structures, Black families will lose slightly more close family members than white families, aggravating the pandemic's disproportionate impact on African American communities. (Verdery's previous research modeled kinship structures for the US population, dating to 1880 and extending to 2060.)
The potential consequences of these losses are deeply concerning, with many families losing important sources of financial, social and caregiving support. "The vast scale of Covid-19 bereavement has the potential to lower educational achievement among youth, disrupt marriages, and lead to poorer physical and mental health across all age groups," Verdery and his co-authors observe in their paper.
Holly Prigerson, co-director of the Center for Research on End-of-Life Care at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, sounded a similar alarm, especially about the psychological impact of the pandemic, in a new paper on bereavement.
"Bereaved individuals have become the secondary victims of Covid-19, reporting severe symptoms of traumatic stress, including helplessness, horror, anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, and regret, all of which magnify their grief," she and co-authors from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York noted.
In a phone conversation, Prigerson predicted that people experiencing bereavement will suffer worse outcomes because of lockdowns and social isolation during the pandemic. She warned that older adults are especially vulnerable.
"Not being there in a loved one's time of need, not being able to communicate with family members in a natural way, not being able to say goodbye, not participating in normal rituals — all this makes bereavement more difficult and prolonged grief disorder and post-traumatic stress more likely," she noted.
Organizations that offer bereavement care are seeing this unfold as they expand services to meet escalating needs.
Typically, 5% to 10% of bereaved family members have a "trauma response," but that has "increased exponentially — approaching the 40% range — because we're living in a crisis," said Yelena Zatulovsky, vice president of patient experience at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, the nation's fifth-largest hospice provider.