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Sons’ Mental and Physical Health Deteriorate When Fathers Die

Men and women respond to the deaths of their mothers and fathers differently. Here's a breakdown of the data that predicts how each gender handles grief.

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The death of a parent is a near-universal experience. But knowing that doesn’t make it easier when it happens and, like most tragic life events, it leaves a lasting mark on your mental and physical well-being. There’s evidence that men and women respond the deaths of mothers and fathers differently; that, in the aftermath of a loss, a man’s physical health declines more than a woman’s, and that men who lose a father figure respond to the trauma differently than women who lose a mother figure.

Here’s the data behind these conclusions:

What Happens To Your Mental Health

Needless to say, the death of a parent (or any close relative or friend) is not great for your mental health. Perhaps the most robust study of this phenomenon was published in 2007 and involved a longitudinal analysis of 8,865 adults in the United States between 1987 and 1993. Researchers found that the death of both parents within a short time frame was particularly damaging, but that women were far more vulnerable to this than men. Men, on the other hand, suffered the most serious mental health impacts from losing their fathers, alone.

What Happens To Your Physical Health

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Although men fared better than women, psychologically, when both parents died within a short window of time, researchers found that men’s self-reported physical health declined substantially after the death of both parents. Women, on the other hand, experienced relatively modest declines in physical health, regardless of which parent they lost. Interestingly, across the board, the death of a father resulted in fewer physical declines than the death of a mother.

When Women Lose Their Moms, And Men Lose Their Dads

Studies have shown that the grieving process is more intense when a child mourns a same-gender parent, so the researchers also examined how sons were getting along in the aftermath of losing their fathers, and daughters after losing their mothers. While both genders followed similar patterns of grieving, as indicated by the chart below, they expressed their grief in different ways. Men who lost their dads saw the greatest impacts in depressive symptoms, personal mastery (purpose, vision), and self-esteem. Women who lost their mothers experienced the greatest impacts in binge drinking and overall happiness.