Grief: Loss of Children and Parents

Loss of a Child: According to Parkes and Prigerson (2010), the loss of a child at any age is considered “the most distressing and long-lasting of all griefs” (p. 142). Bereaved parents suffer an increased risk to both physical and mental health and exhibit an increased mortality rate. Additionally, they earn higher scores on inventories of grief compared to other types of bereavement. Of those recently diagnosed with depression, a high percentage had experienced the death of child within the preceding six months, and 8 percent of women whose child had died attempted or committed suicide. Archer (1999) found that the intensity of grief increased with the child’s age until the age of 17, when it declined. Archer explained that women have a greater chance of having another child when younger, and thus with added age comes greater grief as fertility declines. Certainly, the older the child the more the mother has bonded with the child and will experience greater grief.

Even when children are adults, parents may experience intense grief, especially when the death is sudden. Adult children dying in traffic accidents was associated with parents experiencing more intense grief and depression, greater symptoms on a health check list, and more guilt than those parents whose adult children died from cancer (Parkes & Prigerson, 2010). Additionally, the deaths of unmarried adult children still residing at home and those who experienced alcohol and relationship problems were especially difficult for parents. Overall, in societies in which childhood deaths are statistically infrequent, parents are often unprepared for the loss of their daughter or son and suffer high levels of grief.

Loss of Parents in Adulthood: In contrast to the loss of a child, the loss of parents in adult life is much more common and results in less suffering. In their literature review, Moss and Moss (1995) found that the loss of a parent in adult life is “rarely pathological.” Those adult children who appear to have the most difficulty dealing with the loss of a parent are adult men who remain unmarried and continue to live with their mothers. In contrast, those who are in satisfying marriages are less likely to require grief assistance (Parkes & Prigerson, 2010). To determine the effects of gender on parental death, Marks, Jun and Song (2007) analyzed longitudinal data from the National Survey of Families and Households that assessed multiple dimensions of psychological well-being in adulthood including depression, happiness, self-esteem, mastery, psychological wellness, alcohol abuse, and physical health. Findings indicated that a father’s death led to more negative effects for sons than daughters, and a mother’s death lead to more negative effects for daughters.

Loss of Parents in Childhood: Parental deaths in childhood have been associated with adjustment problems that may last into adulthood. Ellis, Dowrick and Lloyd-Williams (2013) identified several negative outcomes associated with childhood grief including increased chance of substance abuse, greater susceptibility to depression, higher chance of criminal behavior, school underachievement, and lower employment rates. Typically, professional help is not required in helping children and teens who are dealing with the death of a loved one. However, Worden (2002) identified ten “red flags” displayed by grieving children that may indicate the need for professional assistance:

  • Persistent difficulty in talking about the dead person
  • Persistent or destructive aggressive behavior
  • Persisting anxiety, clinging, or fears
  • Somatic complaints (stomachaches, headaches)
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Eating disturbance
  • Marked social withdrawal
  • School difficulties or serious academic reversal
  • Persistent self-blame or guilt
  • Self-destructive behavior

As parents may also be dealing with funeral arrangements and other end of life matters, they may not always have the time to address questions and concerns that children may have. When explaining death to children it is important to use real words, such as died and death (Dresser & Wasserman, 2010). Children do not understand the meanings of such phrases as “passed away”, “left us”, or “lost”, and they can become confused as to what happened. Saying a loved one died of a disease called cancer, is preferable to saying he was “very sick”. The child may become worried when others become sick that they too will die. Consequently, it is important that children have someone who will listen to, and accurately address their concerns.