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As loved ones deal with loss, grandparents step up for kids

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Denise Lanzisera, left, with her granddaughter, Anita Lanza, 6, and daughter, Nicole Lanza, at home in New York. Nicole Lanza’s husband died of COVID-19 in October 2020. Nearly 200,000 children in the United States have lost one or both parents due to the pandemic.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Denise Lanzisera, left, with her granddaughter, Anita Lanza, 6, and daughter, Nicole Lanza, at home in New York. Nicole Lanza’s husband died of COVID-19 in October 2020. Nearly 200,000 children in the United States have lost one or both parents due to the pandemic.

This is not what Ida Adams thought life would be like at 62.

She had planned to continue working as a housekeeper at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore until she turned 65. After retiring, she and her husband, Andre, also 62, thought they might travel a little — “get up and go whenever we felt like it.”

She didn’t expect to be hustling a seventh grader off to school each weekday. But in January 2021, Adams’ daughter, Kimya Lomax, died of COVID-19 at 43 after three weeks alone in a hospital with no visitors permitted. She left behind a young daughter.

Suddenly the girl, Kimiya, now 13, was accompanying her grandmother to a funeral home to help select a white coffin. “I wanted her to have a say in her mother’s homegoing,” Adams said.

In December, a coalition called the COVID Collaborative estimated that about 167,000 American children like Kimiya had lost a parent or primary caregiver to the pandemic, with much higher rates among communities of color. More recently, researchers at Imperial College London put the number of children who have lost one or both parents at nearly 200,000.

Grandparents have always been the first line of defense in the wake of such tragedies. The nonprofit Generations United reports that prepandemic, 2.6 million American children already lived in “grandfamilies,” raised by relatives for reasons ranging from military deployment and incarceration to deaths from substance abuse, other illnesses or accidents. Many more grandparents provide other kinds of support — child care, transportation, financial help — when a parent dies.

In 2017, Lomax and her daughter had moved into the Adamses’ home in Baltimore during a period of unemployment and health challenges. She soon got her diabetes under control and oversaw her daughter’s daily routine. But now she was gone.

Kimiya asked to continue living with her Nana and Papa; her father, who lives nearby, agreed that it would be the least disruptive arrangement. Adams received temporary legal custody.

Such an abrupt change in roles can stress both generations. The children are destabilized by loss, and “the grandparents’ lives are suddenly not what they expected when they retired,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “Their dreams go into the closet.”

Adams retired early, finding that her work schedule too often left Kimiya alone at home. “The dynamics have changed,” Adams said. “I was Nana. I was the lenient one. Now, I have to be the disciplinarian, the one to say: ‘Kimiya, do your homework. Kimiya, turn off the TV.’ Now, I’m the custodian. I’m everything.”

Instead of traveling, she’s raising a teenager in a world that feels very different from her previous experience as a parent. “When I raised my daughter, there was no internet, no social media, no cellphones,” she said.

“People say it’s a blessing” to care for her granddaughter, she said. “Yes, it is. But it’s also work, a responsibility I have to take on that I wasn’t ready for.”

They are managing, with the help of family members, a school counselor Kimiya sees weekly and a bereavement support group at Roberta’s House, a local family grief center.

“She’s the light in my darkness,” Adams said of her granddaughter. “We need each other now.”

Lack of ritual

The children who get counseling at Roberta’s House have lost family members to accidents, illnesses and other causes. Now COVID-19 loss is also affecting a generation of young people.

“Their parents went away to the hospital and that was the last time they saw them,” said Lane Pease Hendricks, program director at Kate’s Club in Atlanta, a children’s bereavement organization. “Some families had to delay funerals until very recently, and that lack of ritual leaves families floundering.”

The National Alliance for Children’s Grief maintains a list of national nonprofit organizations for bereaved children that can help kids, surviving parents and involved grandparents feel less alone in their grief. It offers support groups, counseling, summer camps and family activities.

And kinship navigator programs, funded by states and the federal government, help connect grandfamilies to important services: housing, food benefits, legal guidance. “When grandparents have no idea where to turn for help, for accurate information, the navigators make a tremendous difference,” said Butts of Generations United.

In July, four members of Jocelyn Rivers’ family contracted COVID-19 and sought help at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta — first, Rivers’ daughter, Valencia, who complained that she couldn’t breathe, then Rivers and another daughter and son-in-law.

Three members of the family recovered. But Valencia, a previously healthy 35-year-old, called her mother to say “I love you” before entering the intensive care unit. She died after a two-week hospitalization, leaving two young children.

Rivers didn’t hesitate to take on their care, even though she herself needed supplemental oxygen for weeks after her release from the hospital. Valencia, a single parent, had moved into her mother’s townhome when she was pregnant with her first child, so the three generations had always lived together.

“I’ve been with them all their lives. She trusted me with them,” Rivers said of the children. “My granddaughter called me ‘Mommy’ until she was 3.”

Rivers is 60, with knees that sometimes ache from arthritis. She now drives JaCorey, 6, and JaKyrea, 8, to and from school each day. She ferries them to Little League practices and dance classes, keeps house and supervises their schoolwork.

“They keep me going,” she said. “It would be harder if I didn’t have them with me and I was thinking about my child all the time.”

A most difficult loss

For children, a parent’s death is one of the most difficult losses to recover from, said Deborah Jacobvitz, a child psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who researches adults who experienced family loss during childhood. Afterward, “the yearning and searching is normal, but if it’s prolonged for years, it can compromise their mental health and their own relationships,” she added.

But with support from surviving family members like grandparents, buttressed as needed by grief counseling or support groups, “most kids will come through OK,” she said. “They can become healthy adults and thrive.”

Carol and Angelo Conti, both 74, were veteran grandparents. Carol had retired early to become “a professional grandma,” caring for each of her four grandchildren at their home on Staten Island until they reached school age.

In 2020, the couple were still providing child care for the youngest, Mia, whose mother, Angela, commuted daily from Jersey City, dropping Mia off with her parents on the way to work. The arrangement worked well, but “we were looking forward to peace and quiet and a house not full of toys,” Carol recalled. The couple had been thinking about road trips to Florida, California, even Alaska.

But the Contis’ lives were upended when Angela’s husband, Jason Scala, 47, died of COVID-19 in April 2020 after a six-week hospitalization. Everyone agreed the households needed to merge. In August, the Contis welcomed Angela; Sofia, now 8; Mia, now 6; and their dog.

These days, Angelo gets up at 6:30 a.m. to make breakfast for the girls. He and Carol shuttle them to doctors and dentists, Girl Scouts meetings, soccer and softball games. “My food bills are enormous,” Carol said.

The older Contis value their family’s closeness, but they’re also conscious of time passing. Road trip plans have been set aside, perhaps for good.

“I’m eternally grateful to my parents and super aware that they’re sacrificing whatever they wanted to be doing to the kids’ needs,” said Angela Conti, 45, a lawyer who plans to eventually move her family back into a home of their own. “They don’t complain, but it is a lot of work.”

At least weekly, Willie and Denise Lanzisera drove half an hour to spend an evening with their daughter’s family; both families live on Staten Island.

The Lanziseras had been hands-on child care providers prepandemic, but once their grandchildren entered preschool, it was enough to have dinner together, host sleepovers, gather on holidays and enjoy family vacations at the Jersey Shore.

Now, their daughter, Nicole Lanza, is raising Thomas, 8, and Anita, 6, on her own. In October 2020, her husband, Thomas Lanza, 41, a high school special education teacher, died of COVID-19 with shocking swiftness; he didn’t survive the ambulance ride to the hospital.

At first, the Lanziseras virtually moved in. “We couldn’t leave her,” Denise said.

Denise, 62, still spends one night a week at the Lanzas’ apartment, helping with the kids and housework. Lanza, the kids and the dog also travel to her parents’ home for long weekends. “She walks in, makes herself a cup of tea, and she can relax for a day or two,” said Willie, 64.

“My parents are the ultimate safety net,” Lanza, 37, said. “They catch me before I realize I’m falling.”

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