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How Losing a Parent Affects Young Children

Some carry the parent inside them, and benefit from it.

Key points

  • Early parental loss is relatively common, affecting about 1 in 20 children.
  • Adults recalling parental loss during childhood report having significant unmet emotional and psychological needs at the time.
  • Research on early loss is important both for helping affected children and for enriching general understanding of needs.

What do we know about the impact of early parental loss? About five percent of young people lose a parent before reaching adulthood. Early parental loss is associated with negative outcomes including anxiety; depression; prolonged grief reactions; negative effects on sense of self; increased risk for suicide, substance abuse, and eating problems; difficulty with executive function; reduced quality of life; and changes to how survivors approach adult relationships.1

Hard-won, resilience and wisdom may take root in the fertile soil of misfortune. Having lived through the world-shattering, apocalyptic experience of losing a parent when I was young, I regard research in this area of personal interest as well as important, instructive about how to grieve and go on living after loss and how to advocate for children who are coping with parental loss but may not have needed resources to get through it and live healthy, full lives.

Survivor Stories

Recent work published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2022) took a qualitative approach to draw out important lessons we can learn from people who experienced the death of a parent before reaching adulthood. Researchers conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with eight women and six men, now adults, who’d lost a parent at least five years before. The average age at the time of the interview was about 31, and the average age at parental death was a little over 16 years old. Sample questions included: “How did losing your [Mum/Dad] affect you?” “What support did you receive after the loss of your [Mum/Dad]?” and “How did you come about receiving that support?”

Results were analyzed according to a standard procedure. While quantitative research is helpful in understanding statistical outcomes, using set questionnaires doesn’t get to the heart of subjective individual experiences or shared experiences not captured in surveys. Qualitative analysis can distill overarching themes and sub-themes from in-depth interviews. Seven emerged:

1. Distance and isolation.

People don’t always know what to do when a friend is dealing with loss. This is true in adulthood and even more so for kids. Participants reported that their friends didn’t know how to react and sometimes said hurtful things without intending to out of uncertainty and inexperience: “They have this look, where they feel sorry for you, and that pisses me off. Because they don’t get it,” and “They [people who have not been bereaved] say 'I’m sure in a couple of days you’ll feel better.'”

Participants noted they would often pull away from friends, self-isolating both out of grief and also because of feeling so different—misunderstood, to boot. They tried to block out awareness of what had happened, suppressing emotions and distracting themselves by focusing on other things. While their action could be enriching life experiences (e.g. traveling) or academic success (e.g. focusing on school), it also hindered fully grieving, presumably further altering psychological development.

2. Emotional journey.

While each participant reported a unique process stemming from loss, common themes included “denial and disbelief, anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, and devastation.” Such experiences were typical and reflective not just of Kubler-Ross's classic stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—but also of the unique quality of the "world-ending" feeling accompanying early parental loss.

Psychoanalytically, children may feel guilt, and even that they are to blame, for the death of a parent—this may lead to feelings of terrible omnipotence, especially if the child were angry at the parent around the time they became sick or died. Such children may carry a heavy burden, feeling both capable of profound harm to others and responsible for trying to do penance for a crime they did not commit.

While each person's emotional journey is individualized, requiring significant personal development work, people who have lost parents as youngsters share common characteristics that are important to recognize.

3. Physical impact.

The typically chaotic experience following early parental loss led to problematic behaviors, including unhealthy eating, difficulty taking care of basic needs like bathing and other areas of self-care, and increased alcohol and drug use (“self-medication” to deal with or escape unrelenting psychic pain). People reported that the impact on the body was considerable, with panic attacks (which can be reflecting the body-mind connection2).

4. Post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Given that interviews took place an average of 12 years after the loss, participants had some time to adapt and recover. They noted many ways of becoming more resilient in the face of adversity, able to handle challenges others found overwhelming. In keeping with the concept of PTG, participants reported seeing life in a new light, focusing on living fully given their awareness of the fragility of life, reporting positive impacts on identity. To a significant extent, participants reported stronger family bonds, though in some cases the loss also caused families to fall apart, a critical factor related to resilience.

5. Life will never be the same.

No amount of denial can mask the reality of death when it is up close and personal. Participants reported that their lives had been permanently altered, changing them on a fundamental level. Common themes included growing up fast, perhaps too fast; taking on significant responsibility at a young age, including looking after younger siblings and supporting the family; and greater feelings of responsibility and obligation. Such "parentification" is associated with silencing of one's own needs ("self-silencing") and feelings of inauthenticity.

While things would never be the same, participants reported carrying the departed parent with them, holding them in mind, imagining their guidance and life choices in making decisions, and generally internalizing the parent in often-useful ways.

6. Support and understanding.

People needed support after loss, from family and friends, counselors, teachers, and religious leaders. Sadly, despite the need for support, most participants said that the support they received was insufficient and not sustained as they continued to need support into the future.

While family support could be solid, family members—themselves affected by grief—might not be available. Friends were supportive at first, but then might move on, leaving one feeling abandoned and alone. Professional help was either unavailable, or professionals were not equipped to address particular therapeutic needs. Some participants reported that they avoided seeking help or that they needed help when it wasn’t available (e.g. in the wee hours of the morning). Some reported that religion helped, while others noted they stopped believing.

7. Re-grief.

Grief is an ongoing process. Participants reported going through periods of time years after the loss when grief re-emerged, with heightened feelings of sadness, anxiety, and longing. The need to share life’s stressful and joyful moments with departed loved ones comes up around significant life events, including graduation, marriage, and other milestones, and when times are difficult, creating yearning for the dead parent.

Living, Learning, and Grieving

The research rings true, poignant, and meaningful. People are resilient, and also suffer. What works at one time to get through grim realities may constrain us later when we need to be more open and available. There is no guarantee that loss will be handled well by those around us, especially in cultures with less community and ritual, and greater denial of death. Many of us are ill-prepared to handle serious loss at any age.

Public education can help destigmatize loss and educate people on grieving. Schools can provide more support for children when tragedy strikes, including helping other families and peers understand what is happening. Individuals in an affected family can consciously strive to grieve together and support one another, in light of the risk of family dissolution. While people who survive early adversity often come away with strength and resilience, it’s crucial to remember that vulnerability is often hidden.

Therapists can play an important role both in helping families and helping children with loss, armed with a better understanding of what they may be going through. Although support is greatest at first and then fades away, long-term needs require attention; checking for ongoing negative health impacts without becoming overly vigilant is also critical.

Learning more about bereavement, something everyone will face, is important because how we deal with dying, how we deal with the uncertainty of life, has a strong impact on how well we live.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

References

1. Parental attachment affects adult relationships. Early parental loss is associated with longer adult relationships – staying with relationships may be a good thing, from valuing connections more deeply, but it may also reflect insecure attachment and poor sense of self. Awareness of how fast things can change, how fleeting life can be, changes how we experience relationships. Serious loss and the ensuing grief may also undermine social relationships, as the stigma and awkwardness surrounding bereavement may distance others.

2. While not reported in the paper, the manner of the parent’s death plays an important role in the survivors’ relationship with their own bodies – when parents die of painful cancers, for example, the child’s trust in their own body falters, and minor symptoms may get amplified as signs of serious illness. Confusion about what bodily signals mean can be a source of persistent distress and uncertainty, leading to cycles of avoidance of medical care and excessive concern.

Chater AM, Howlett N, Shorter GW, Zakrzewski-Fruer JK, Williams J. Reflections on Experiencing Parental Bereavement as a Young Person: A Retrospective Qualitative Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022; 19(4):2083. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19042083

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