MARSHALL, Minn. — Six-year-old Jase Nelson and his mom, Michelle, sat down together to look at a class picture from kindergarten last year. Jase wanted to remember one classmate in particular.
“I played with her last year,” the now-first grader at Marshall’s Park Side Elementary School said. “At recess, she will want to play tag or she would want to play with me. She was a little shy. She would like to take pictures.”
It was a bittersweet memory that left Jase crying, and Michelle trying to help comfort her child through her own grief.
“She had lots of friends,” Jase said. “She would be nice.”
Last month, Jase’s kindergarten classmate — a little girl, 6 years old like him — died from complications of COVID-19.
“It made my heart broke,” he said.
She was the third Minnesota child to die of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who leads the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said that severe cases of COVID-19 in children are still rare. According to state Health Department data, kids younger than 15 make up about 9% of all of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases.
“I don’t want to diminish the fact that we are not seeing widespread serious illness in young kids,” Osterholm said. “We surely have a number of them that are seriously ill. But they probably typify the very worst in this pandemic in that regard.”
When Michelle Nelson got the heartbreaking news from the Jase’s school district that his classmate had died, she sat her son down to talk about it. He immediately knew something was wrong when he saw the tears in her eyes. Their family had talked about COVID-19 before, but losing a friend to the disease was hard for him to grasp.
“As a mom, it was heartbreaking,” Nelson said.
Jase was shocked. He started asking a lot of questions. Michelle said she did her best to answer what she could. But some of his questions just didn’t have any good answers.
“Once it sunk in a little bit more, he would ask more questions,” she said. “Like, ‘I thought kids couldn’t get sick from COVID?’ and ‘Why did it happen to her?’”
Another Park Side parent, Anne Veldhuisen, walked through many of those same questions with her own 6-year-old, Martin. Veldhuisen is a minister, and has spent time counseling people working through grief.
“Your heart immediately breaks for that child, for that child’s parents, for the classmates, and for the teachers,” Veldhuisen said. “You don’t expect to be having this conversation with your 6- or 7-year-old about a friend that they’ve lost.”
But Veldhuisen sat down with Martin in their living room, and as gently and honestly as she could, she talked to him about the classmate he had lost.
“We’ve been very honest with our kids about what COVID is and what that means for families and in school and out in the world,” she said.
Martin, too, had a lot of questions.
“He asked a little bit about her,” his mom said. “He wanted to know if she was scared or if it hurt when she died — questions that you can’t answer. So we were just trying to be honest and said, ‘We don’t know what she was feeling, but we do know that she was very sick.’”
Talking about death with her son wasn’t new. But nearly every time they had talked about death before, it had been in the context of someone older — as old as his grandparents or great-grandparents. But this time, the conversation hit differently.
“This one was tricky, because it’s almost easy, as a parent, to find comfort in someone’s long life,” she said. “You can pass that comfort along to your child. [But] there’s no comfort in this particular loss.”
Marshall Public Schools announced that crisis counselors would be available to students and teachers this week, and Veldhuisen said that even though she knows the district, and her family, are following strict COVID-19 precautions, the news of a child getting sick and dying of COVID-19 was unsettling. She couldn’t help but feel a little anxious about sending her son back to school the next day.
“COVID already brings all kinds of worries and anxiety into life,” she said. “But we've always approached it as if we make smart choices, then hopefully, we will be safe, and the people around us will be safe. But there was a part of me that didn't really want him to go to school.”
The pandemic has added yet another layer of challenge for the families and classmates experiencing this loss. Michelle Nelson says as she helps her son navigate the loss of his classmate, she’s also helping him grapple with the sometimes frightening effects of an evolving pandemic.
“I think it’s traumatizing that it’s put into perspective for them, that they’re at risk, too,” Nelson said. “They had a classmate and friend and somebody that they knew that was here last week, and she’s not there anymore.”
MPR News reporter Catharine Richert contributed to this story.