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For every coronavirus loss, 9 people are left grieving, study estimates

Family members embraced as other mourners look on from the car during the funeral service for a man who passed away from COVID-19 at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For every coronavirus death, there are nine close relatives who are left behind to grieve, according to a recent study that highlights a little-discussed impact of the pandemic.

With more than 141,000 dead from the virus as of Tuesday, that would add up to nearly 1.27 million people who have lost either a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

The deaths will not only leave the relatives “grieving and possibly traumatized, but may come with long-lasting health and economic consequences for themselves and others in their family,” study co-author Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, said in a statement from the university last week.


“In the news cycle, the emphasis is on tracking the total number of lives lost, but what’s missing is how these premature deaths reflect in family systems,” said Smith-Greenaway. “What about the numerous loved ones left behind?”

The study was published earlier this month in the journal PNAS.

“There are substantial concerns about the health impacts of COVID-19 for individuals, but one area that has received less attention is how the deaths caused by this disease will reverberate through families,” Ashton Verdery, associate professor of sociology, demography, and social data analytics at Penn State University, the study’s lead author, said in the statement.

“Our results show that these impacts will be substantial, they’ll affect people at all ages, and they may exacerbate existing inequalities in bereavement and social support,” Verdery said.

The study painted an alarming picture of grief and loss sweeping through America.

“The scale at which COVID-19 mortality will lead to kin loss among surviving Americans suggests that COVID-19 might create a second wave of population health challenges tied to bereavement and the loss of social and economic support,” the study said.

“An extensive literature demonstrates that, after experiencing the death of a close relation, individuals are at elevated risk of a host of negative life-course stressors, poorer health, and relationship strain. 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. The loss of kin ties will also limit important sources of social support, such as when grandparents provide childcare or siblings help one another manage older adult loneliness,” the study said.


The study said the “bereavement multiplier” that researchers had developed would be “ a useful indicator for tracking COVID-19′s multiplicative impact as it reverberates across American families and [it] can be tailored to other causes of death.”

The number affected would be even larger if other relatives were included, not to mention friends, co-workers, and neighbors, the study said.

Verdery said he and the other researchers, who are sociologists and demographers, were able to develop the multiplier after looking at kinship networks in the United States using a type of demographic modeling called “microsimulation.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at