Emotional ripple effect: About 9 family members mentally impacted by each COVID-19 death

  • New research shows how deaths from coronavirus lead to mental distress for relatives.
  • Report also shows more American children losing parents as COVID-19 claims lives of younger and middle-aged adults.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the United States, the death toll from COVID-19 stands at more than 138,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the families of those victims, the pain of the loss can stay with them indefinitely. A new study says the coronavirus ripple effect could have a devastating impact on millions of people, affecting the mental health of about nine relatives for each death.

Researchers from the U.S. and Canada say their findings reveal the widespread impact of coronavirus on America’s hardest hit communities. They estimate that if the death toll rises to 190,000, more than 1.7 million people will suffer to loss of a close relative.

“It’s very helpful to have a sense of the potential impacts that the pandemic could have,” says Penn State’s Ashton Verdery in a university release.

Bringing grief into the workplace

For Americans returning to work, the study suggests more people may be suffering with family trauma than employers realize.

“For employers, it calls attention to policies around family leave and paid leave. At the federal level, it might inform officials about possible extensions for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act),” Verdery explains.

“There could also be some implications for caretaking. For example, a lot of children grow up in grandparent-led houses and they would be impacted.”

Kinship and the widespread effects of pandemic

The study authors say kinship networks include a person’s grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Their research focuses on COVID-19 deaths and their impacts of Black and White American families.

Verdery says White families average just under nine relatives in their kinship networks. Black families average just over this number. Researchers caution these numbers will likely vary based on location, but add the study gives officials new insight when dealing with severe outbreaks.

“Our statistics are based on national averages,” says the associate professor of sociology. “There are regional differences in some of these kinship statistics that would make it less than perfect, but it would be a reasonable first approximation.”

COVID-19 causing many to face death at younger ages

One distressing finding in the report is Americans are seeing their loved ones die at younger ages during the pandemic.

The study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals more American children are losing parents at earlier ages. The pandemic is also having a devastating effect on spouses who are still years away from the average retirement age.

“There are a substantial number of people who may be losing parents that we would consider younger adults and a substantial number of people may be losing spouses who are in their 50s or 60s,” Verdery details.

The researchers now plan to study how this ripple effect compares to other widespread events, like the opioid epidemic. They hope to reveal how communities can respond to these tragic spikes in the national death rate.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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