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Data Shows the Death of a Child Changes Parents Forever

Studies have shown that, when a parent’s worst fears are realized, the psychological and physical damage can be more intense than perhaps any other grief response.

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Grief and loss are a normal part of life. But mourning the death of a child is certainly not. Studies have shown that, when a parent’s worst fears are realized, the psychological and physical damage can be more intense than perhaps any other grief response. It makes sense. The loss of a child is the loss of promise, potential. A cruel violation of the natural order.  

One detailed study of how parents cope in the aftermath, published in 2008, surveyed 449 parents who had lost a child to cancer 4 to 9 years earlier. They found that, while both mothers and fathers healed over time, about 20 percent still reported unresolved grief even a decade after the loss. The findings also suggest that mothers and fathers, while both bereft, grieve differently. Mothers were more likely to display low psychological and physical well-being overall. Fathers were more likely to report low quality of life, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares.

Here’s the data behind these conclusions:

How Long Does It Take For Parents To Heal?

For the study, researchers asked each parent one simple question: “Do you think that you have worked through your grief?” Four to nine years after the loss of a child, 26 percent of parents (116 participants) reported that their grief remained “unresolved”, and these parents became the focus of the study. One key finding was that the situation does seem to improve over time, before it levels off. Forty percent of fathers and 35 percent of mothers reported unresolved grief at year six. But by year seven, that figure dropped to 25 percent of fathers and 18 percent of mothers. Unfortunately, at year 8 and 9, there is nothing more than incremental improvement.

The Psychological Trauma

Researchers then asked each of the 116 parents with unresolved grief to respond to a battery of surveys, including the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (which measures anxiety), Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (depression), and a seven-point scale reporting their quality of life. Across the board, about 25 percent of parents with unresolved grief reported very low quality of life, and very high levels of anxiety and depression. There were few differences between the sexes, but fathers were at slightly higher risk of depression and low quality of life, while mothers had higher rates of anxiety and low overall psychological health.

The Physical Health Impacts

Grief does not only affect our mental health—it can impact our physical health, too. Indeed, when the researchers moved into the final phase of their study and the assessed physical well-being of these bereaved parents, they found that 84 percent of mothers reported low or moderate physical well-being (far higher than the 45 percent of fathers who reported this). Mothers were also significantly more likely to be on medication or have taken sick leave for their distress. Interestingly, however, fathers were more likely to report sleep problems and nightmares. One reason for this could be that mothers still spend more time with their children during the way, on average, while fathers work. It is possible that men feel the loss most acutely in the evenings, when work is finished, their minds are clear, and there is no child to play with.