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When a Parent Loses a Child

How do people deal with the emotional blow associated with child loss?

One of the greatest traumas imaginable is when parents have to deal with the death of a child. Producing greater stress than dealing with the death of a parent or spouse, a child’s death is especially traumatic because it is often unexpected; it is also in violation of the "usual" order of things, in which the child is expected to bury the parent.

The emotional blow associated with child loss can trigger a wide range of psychological and physiological problems including depression, anxiety, cognitive and physical symptoms linked to stress, marital problems, increased risk for suicide, physical pain, and guilt. All of these issues can persist long after the child’s death and may potentially lead to diagnosable psychiatric conditions such as complicated grief disorder (currently listed as a condition for further study in the DSM-5), which can include many symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

But can losing a child reduce a parent’s lifespan? Although the emotional trauma associated with child loss can be devastating at any age, the impact seems to be far greater for elderly parents who often have related health problems that can be adversely affected by stress and grief. Though research literature looking at child loss and reduced lifespan has tended to be inconclusive—at least for younger parents, who are often more resilient—a new research study published in a recent issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy provides a systematic look at how child loss can affect older adults.

Conducted by a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University, the study looked at a national sample of 1,239 older Israelis ranging in age from 75 to 94 who were followed over a 20-year period. Only 4.76 percent of the original sample was still alive after 20 years; information about cause of death and medical history was also collected. Of the study participants who had children, 29.2 percent had lost at least one child, whether due to war or disease.

Overall, bereaved parents were more likely than non-bereaved parents to be significantly depressed and have poorer overall physical functioning. They were also significantly lonelier, with lower cognitive functioning—though bereaved parents were also more likely to have more children and have more frequent contact with their surviving children and grandchildren.

Over the 20-year follow-up period, parents who had lost a child had shorter lifespans than non-bereaved parents; this relationship stayed strong even after controlling for age, gender, and widowhood status. This was especially true for bereaved mothers, who were far more likely to die earlier than non-bereaved mothers. Conversely, while widowhood was more likely to be correlated with premature death in men, women who lost a spouse appeared better able to cope.

So why does losing a child appear to be associated with earlier death in parents? The researchers raise several possibilities—including unresolved grief, long-term PTSD symptoms, loss of meaning in one’s life, and the biological impact of severe prolonged stress. They do, however, also warn that these results may not be the same in other countries where cultural influences are different.

Still, the trauma associated with losing a child, whether to violence or disease, can certainly lead to devastating physical and mental health issues. As people grow older, the possibility of outliving their children is slowly becoming a grim reality for many people. In dealing with this loss, it is increasingly important to recognize the impact it can have on health and overall quality of life. Family members helping older people deal with child loss also need to recognize the role they need to play in helping their loved ones through the grieving process and to ensure that health needs are not neglected as a result.