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.1

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).2 

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 40.2,3,4,5,6

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.3

Bereaved parents are at an increased risk for marital strain after experiencing the death of a child.2

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.7

 

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.8

Experience the death of a loved one during childhood or adolescence has long term effects on biopsychosocial pathways affecting health.9,10,11,12

Distress can make it harder for children who have experienced the death of a loved one to focus in class.13

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.14 

Despite the evidence, sibling death is not considered a risk factor in the Adverse Child Experiences risk assessment.15 

 

Racial Inequities

Black Americans are at higher risk for experiencing the death of a sibling or child compared to white Americans.16

Black Americans are at greater risk for losing a sibling compared to whites through their 80s.16

Black Americans’ likelihood of losing a sibling compared to whites increases with age.16

Historical data show that black Americans were 20 percent more likely than whites to lose a sibling by age 10.16

Black Americans were 50 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 60.16

Black Americans were two and a half times more likely to lose a child by the age of 20.16

Black Americans were three times more likely than whites to lose a child by the time they reached 50-70 years of age.16

 

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.”8

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.”8

Citations

1Umberson, D. (2017). Black Deaths Matter: Race, Relationship Loss, and Effects on Survivors. Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

2Rogers, C., Floyd, F., Mailick Seltzer, M., Greenberg, J., & Hong, J. (April 2008). Long-Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife. Journal of Family Psychology, p. 203-211.

3Li, J., Laursen, T., Precht, D., Olsen, J., & Mortensen, P. (24 March, 2005). Hospitalization for Mental Illness among Parents after the Death of a Child. New England Journal of Medicine, p. 1190-1196.

4Li, J., Hansen, D., Mortensen, P. B., & Olsen, J. (2002). Myocardial Infarction in Parents Who Lost a Child: a nationwide prospective cohort study in Denmark. Circulation, p. 1634-1639.

5Li, J., Johansen, C., Hansen, D., & Olsen, J. (15 November, 2002). Cancer Incidence in Parents who Lost a Child: a nationwide study in Denmark. Cancer, p. 2237-2242.

6Rostila, M., Saarela, J., & Kawachi, I. (2011). Mortality in Parents Following the Death of a Child: A Nationwide Follow-up Study from Sweden. Journal of Epidemiology Community Health, p. 927-933.

7Shear, K. (8 January, 2015). Complicated Grief. The New England Journal of Medicine, p. 153-160.

8Yu, Y., Liew, Z., Cnattingius , S., Olsen, J., Vestergaard, M., Fu, B., . . . Li, J. (2017). Association of Mortality With the Death of a Sibling in Childhood. Journal of American Medical Association, p. 538-545.

9Braveman, P., & Barclay, C. (November 2009). Health Disparities Beginning in Childhood: A Life-Course Perspective. Pediatrics, p. 163-175.

10Miller, G., Chen, E., & Parker, K. (November 2011). Psychological Stress in Childhood and Susceptibility to the Chronic Diseases of Aging: Moving Towards a Model of Behavioral and Biological Mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, p. 957-997.

11Repetti, R., Taylor, S., & Seeman, T. (March 2002). Risky Families: Family Social Environments and the Mental and Physical Health of Offspring. Psychological Bulletin, p. 330-366.

12Shonkoff, J., Garner, A., Siegel, B., Dobbins, M., Earls, M., Garner, A., . . . Wood, D. (January 2012). The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. Pediatrics, p. 232-246.

13Sharkey, P. (29 June, 2010). The Acute Effect of Local Homicides on Children’s Cognitive Performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p. 11733-11738.

14Endo, K., Yonemoto, N., & Yamada, M. (2015). Interventions for Bereaved Parents Following a Child’s Death: A Systematic Review. Palliative Medicine, p. 590-604.

15U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. (2014). Child Health USA 2014. Retrieved from Adverse Childhood Experiences: https://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa14/special-features/adverse-childhood-experiences.html.

16Umberson, D., Skalamera Olson, J., Crosnoe, R., Liu, H., Pudrovska, T., & Donnelly, R. (31 January,  2017). Death of Family Members as an Overlooked Source of Racial Disadvantage in the United States. Preceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p. 915-920.

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

14%  of 70-year old parents

16%  of 80-year old parents

18%  of 90-year old parents

Our best projections find that about

18.7 million Americans

have experienced the death of a child.

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