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PODCAST | Covid-19's cruellest grief is reserved for children

Sindiswa Lugulwana comforts two of her grandchildren, aged 13, whose mother, Phumeza, died of Covid in January. Phumeza and her twin Phumla, 45, died within hours of each other. They are shown in a portrait held by Phumla's eldest son, Sande, 20.
Sindiswa Lugulwana comforts two of her grandchildren, aged 13, whose mother, Phumeza, died of Covid in January. Phumeza and her twin Phumla, 45, died within hours of each other. They are shown in a portrait held by Phumla's eldest son, Sande, 20.
Image: Esa Alexander

Listen to their stories here:

Grace Rohan cannot understand why at seven years old she no longer has a daddy while her mother, who is in her 40s, still has hers.

The grade 2 pupil from Durban and her 18-year-old brother, Daniel, are mourning their father, José, who died of Covid-19 in February, a month after he turned 51.

About 1,600km away in Langa, Cape Town, Sindiswa Lugulwana, 70, asks God to grant her a long life. She cares for three orphaned grandchildren whose single-parent mothers - twin sisters Phumla and Phumeza - both died of Covid-19 in January at the age of 45.

And in Boksburg, Ekurhuleni, Dewald Badenhorst, 14, is mourning the death of his father and his stepmother, who died days apart in January. He is being cared for by his brother, Billy, 24.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a staggering number of children in the US have lost one or both parents to Covid-19.

In SA, no-one has tallied the number of children who have lost a parent. But data shows there have been more than 42,000 "excess deaths" during the pandemic among people aged between 30 and 54, the age group in which many parents fall.

The US researchers, from the universities of Stony Brook and Southern California, said children bereaved of parents were at higher risk of traumatic grief, depression, poor school performance and even suicide.

"Moreover, Covid-19 losses are occurring at a time of social isolation, institutional strain and economic hardship, potentially leaving bereaved children without the supports they need," they wrote.

Lugulwana, who suffers from diabetes and also cares for her 94-year-old mother, is terrified of dying because that would leave her grandchildren without support. Her daughters, who died within hours of each other, had two children each. One grandson lives with his father in Johannesburg.

She said she was concerned about the children's emotional wellbeing.

"They've become very withdrawn and show no interest in the things they used to do," she said.

"The little boy, who is 13, used to practise skating and play with his friends, but he runs away from them now when they come to fetch him. It's like he doesn't want to be surrounded by anyone from outside.

"His twin sister also worries me a lot. She is always sleeping if she is not at school, and when I ask her about her feelings she doesn't open up. She says she is fine, but she doesn't look fine," Lugulwana said.

"All of them have lost appetite, which I think is a sign of distress for losing their mothers."

The oldest boy, Sande, 20, said the sudden loss of his mother, taking over parental responsibilities and having to "be strong" for his younger siblings had not been easy.

"It's more challenging to be the eldest child because the younger ones look up to me," he said. "I don't pretend to be strong, even when I feel weak. I do cry a lot as that is like therapy to me. We are a praying family and praying together has been very therapeutic."

Two years ago, Dan Badenhorst, 49, asked his elder son, Billy, to look after Dewald if anything were to happen to him. Billy found himself performing that duty sooner than expected when his father and his wife, Maliska, died days apart in January.

"My parents had been struggling, my father could not get work for years and finally three months before he died he started working. Things were going so well," Billy said.

"We all had Covid but we didn't expect anyone to die. Then suddenly I was in the deep end. I wasn't planning on becoming a father but now I have that responsibility and it's really hard.

"But that's what my father wanted - he even wrote in his will that I must look after my Dewald. But he's my brother and I love him, so it's not a problem."

Dewald is seeing a school therapist but Billy is struggling to talk about what happened. "I thought it would be easier to lose a parent if you were older - but it's harder because I know how much they did for me."

Grace and Daniel Rohan's mother, Bianca, said the memory of her children's grief when they learnt of their father's death will always haunt her.

"We were in the lounge when the hospital called to say my husband had passed away. My son asked me what happened. I just said, 'Daddy is gone to be with Jesus,' and he just wailed the most painful cry of pain.

"My little girl just started screaming, 'I want my daddy!' This is something that you won't forget," she said.

"My son says he knows his father loved him therefore he has no unfinished business, but as a young man who has just finished matric, he really wishes that his father could have been here for longer to guide and advise him," Bianca said.

"My daughter is taking it very badly. She does not understand why at seven years old she does not have a daddy, and I have a daddy in my 40s. She says things like, 'I was not ready for my daddy to go. I miss my daddy so much, what am I going to do without my daddy?'

"It is the most heartbreaking thing to watch her grieve, to see the sense of how robbed she feels. When she hears her little friends talking about their dads, she gets quite emotional."

Johannesburg psychologist Sue Levy said adolescents who lost a parent suddenly were particularly vulnerable.

"They are at the age where they are separating and moving towards independence and yet they still are children at the same time. Unlike younger children, they are far less able to adjust to new carers."

Clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou said allowing children to grieve properly was crucial to avoid behavioural problems later in life.

"Grieving children often blame themselves for what has happened. Because of their egocentric nature they often act out as they can't handle the intensity of grief," she said.

Durban clinical psychologist Nazia Osman said the death of a parent was one of the most stressful events a child can experience, potentially leading to self-isolation, social withdrawal, anxiety and low self-esteem.

"Children can be quite resilient and it's not so much the losses but the support thereafter that can affect prognosis. Getting them the assistance timeously can make the world of difference, literally."

Bianca Rohan said Grace and Daniel still cry for their father. "On Thursday, we opened the wardrobe and saw his overalls that he used to wear around the house. My son started crying and I started crying. And sometimes my daughter just cries because she misses him so much," she said.


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