KEY FACTS

Research continues to show that the death of one’s child is the most severe and prolonged trauma anyone can experience.

Each year an estimated 400,000 American families face long-term psychological, spiritual, social, and often physical and occupational hardships following the loss of a child (data taken from stillbirth to age 54). 

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child, according to the University of Texas at Austin. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

According to the University of Texas at Austin, 29 percent of black families report the death of a child, 20 percent of Hispanic families report the death of a child, 17 percent of white families report the death of a child. 

 

Parents

According to the Institute of Medicine, the death of a child is one of the greatest and most enduring stresses a person can experience. 

Parents are likely to suffer from health, social, and economic challenges for, on average, 18 years following the death of a child (funding for this study ended at year 18). 

Scientific evidence indicates that bereaved parents are more likely to suffer more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, less purpose in life, more health complications, marital disruption, psychiatric hospitalization, and even premature death for both mothers and fathers as early as age 40. 

Most bereaved parents experience long-term mental health related issues following the death of a child and are at particularly high risk for depression and anxiety.

Increased risk for a strain on marriage after experiencing the death of a child. 

 

Siblings

Parents are not alone; sibling loss, at any age, is poorly understood. 

Sibling death in childhood is associated with a 71 percent increased all-cause mortality risk among bereaved persons.

Experience the death of a loved one during childhood or adolescents has long term effects on biopsychosocial pathways affecting health. 

Distress can make it harder for children who have experienced the death of a loved one to focus in class.

Researchers hypothesize that experiencing the death of a sibling at a young age affects the surviving siblings’ psychological development. Observed behavioral changes among surviving siblings include social withdrawal and aggression. 

Despite the evidence, sibling death is not considered a risk factor in the Adverse Child Experiences risk assessment. 

 

Racial Disparities

By age 30, black parents are twice as likely as white parents to have lost a child and three and a half times more likely to have a child die by age 70.

Black Americans are at higher risk for experiencing the death of a sibling or child compared to white Americans.

Blacks were 20 percent more likely than whites to have lost a sibling by age 10.

Blacks were 50 percent more likely than whites to have lost a sibling by age 60.

Blacks were 2.5 times more likely than whites to have lost a child by the age of 20.

Blacks aged 50-60 were nearly two times as likely as whites to lose a child.

Blacks aged 50-70 were more than three times as likely as whites to lose a child.

Overall, blacks are at greater risk for losing a sibling compared to whites through their 80s.

Prevalence of complicated grief among African American homicide survivors has been measured at 55 percent and survivors of suicide at 70 percent. 

 

Grief and Grief Therapy

According to a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine review, newly bereaved individuals experience: “dysphoria, anxiety, depression, and anger, may be associated with physiological changes such as an increased heart rate or blood pressure, increased cortisol levels, sleep disturbance, and changes in the immune system.” 

The New England Journal of Medicine article went on to state that “the early bereavement period has been associated with increased risks of health problems such as myocardial infarction, Takotsubo (stress) cardiomyopathy, or both. The death of a loved one is also associated with an increased risk of the development of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders.”

Beyond normative grief responses, some grief is extended and profound; this is more commonly known as complicated or prolonged grief. While it is relatively rare across the world, with a prevalence of 2-3 percent from all forms of grief, bereaved parents have high rates of complicated grief measured at 30 percent.

Data and Sources

Kochanek KD, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Tejada-Vera B. Deaths: Final data for 2014. National vital statistics reports; vol 65 no 4. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016. 

WHO, Statistics, 2009.   Stillbirth numbers based on WHO definition of birthweight of 1000g or gestational age of at least 28 weeks. Cousens S, Blencowe H, Stanton C, Chou D, Say L, Lawn JE  et al. National, regional, and worldwide estimates of stillbirth rates in 2009 with trends since 1995: a systematic analysis. Lancet April 2011.

Umberson, D. (2018). Death of a Child: Extent of the Problem and Estimating Burden. Presentation. National Academies of Science, Washington, D.C.

The Toll

Field, M. and Behrman, R. When Children Die: Improving Palliative and End-of-Life Care for Children and Their Families. Institute of Medicine. 2003.

Rogers, C. Floyd, F.J. et al.  Long-term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife.  J Fam Psychol. 2008 April; 22(2): 203-211.

Rogers, C. Floyd, F.J. et al.  Long-term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife.  J Fam Psychol. 2008 April; 22(2): 203-211.

 Li. J., Laursen, T.M., Precht, D.H., Olsen, J., Mortensen, P.B. Hospitalization for mental illness among parents after the death of a child.  N Engl J Med. 2005 Mar 24;352(12):1190-6. 

Li. J., Precht, D.H., Mortensen, P.B., Olsen, J.  Mortality in parents after death of a child in Denmark: a nationwide follow-up study.  Lancet. 2003 Feb 1;361(9355):363-7. 2003.

Siblings

Yongfu Yu, Zeyan Liew, Sven Cnattingius, Jørn Olsen, Mogens Vestergaard, Bo Fu, Erik Thorlund Parner, Guoyou Qin, Naiqing Zhao, Jiong Li. Association of Mortality With the Death of a Sibling in Childhood. JAMA Pediatr. 2017;171(6):538–545. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.0197

IMPORTANT TAKEAWAYS

    What are the health implications?

    • Cardiac events
    • Immune dysfunction
    • Depressive symptoms
    • Substance use
    • Cognitive Decline
    • Psychiatric hospitalization
    • Premature Mortality

  Who experiences child death by race?

29% of Black families 

20% of Hispanic families 

16% of White families 

  Who experiences child death by age?

1%  of 20-year old parents

5%  of 30-year old parents

7%  of 40-year old parents

9%  of 50-year old parents

12%  of 60-year old parents

15%  of 70-year old parents

18%  of 80-year old parents

19%  of 90-year old parents

Our best projections find that

20 million Americans

have experienced the death of a child.

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