Why we need to know more about the hardships parents, siblings face when a child dies
The repercussions of a child’s death extend far beyond the grief of their parents, siblings and family. It’s life altering, of course, but research shows it can even be life ending too.
Just look at the headlines.
In February, longtime soap opera star Kristoff St. John died from heart disease with alcohol as a contributing factor, according to an autopsy. The morning of his death, his ex-wife told Entertainment Tonight that the actor had called her and claimed he was seeing their son, who died by suicide in 2014. “He was just so depressed,” she said.
Hours after her adult son, a victim of the recent New Zealand mosque shooting, was buried, Saud Abdelfattah Mhaisen Adwan died from a heart attack as she mourned his death. A family friend told the New Zealand Herald that she “couldn’t put up with the sorrow and sadness of losing her son.”
And Jeremy Richman, 49, died of an apparent suicide in March, just more than six years after his six-year-old daughter Avielle was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
According to the Institute of Medicine, losing a child is one of the most significant and enduring stresses an individual can experience. Parents are more likely to face long-term psychological, spiritual, social and physical hardships, according to researchers.
And, with an estimated 400,000 American families grieving the loss of a child each year, these hardships, including family solvency and economic stability, have ripple effects for the entire country.
More depressive symptoms, earlier deaths
Grief might be silent, but it can quickly alter the mental and physical health of a parent whose child has died.
Researchers have uncovered a link between child death and the early death of parents. Danish researchers say the death of a child is associated with an increase in mortality from both natural and unnatural causes, such as accidents, drug overdoses and suicides, in mothers, and an increase in mortality in unnatural causes among fathers.
When a child dies, life for parents becomes an enduring struggle. Even 18 years after a death, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being and more health problems, one study found. They also were more likely to experience depression and marital issues.
Yet another study determined that mothers were more at risk for psychiatric hospitalization as many as five years after the death of their child.
Substantial financial hardships
The fallout after the death of a child is more than just physical and emotional. Parents who are mourning their child grapple with on-the-job and money issues too.
Researchers are just beginning to examine the full financial impacts, but studies show those ramifications include higher medical expenditures, loss of wages or employment, loss of productivity and reduced future income.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows covered employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition before they return to work. The law, however, doesn’t give parents the right to take time off to grieve the death of their child or even plan a memorial. And employers aren’t doing much better. They tend to give their employees just three or four days of paid leave when a child dies.
So it’s no surprise that one study found that the economic effects are “substantial,” citing costs associated with funeral and medical expenses, along with “presenteeism” at work. That’s when a person goes to work, but isn’t as productive because of sickness, injury, anxiety or, in the case of bereaved parents, grief.
Sibling impact is immense
Siblings also face an uphill battle as they process the death of their brother or sister and witness the grief of their parents. The Handbook of Bereavement Research: Consequences, Coping and Care says that siblings can experience “agitated depression, chronic illness, enduring and intense clinical reactions, such as guilt, and significant disturbances in self-esteem, job and school performance and interpersonal relationships.”
In fact, a study of more than 5 million people in Denmark found that when a sibling dies during childhood, their brothers and sisters face a stunning 71 percent increased risk of death from all causes. Those higher risks are especially predominant during the first year after a sibling’s death and among siblings of similar ages and the same sex.
And that’s just what we know.
Despite the profound repercussions to families and communities when a child dies, there’s no comprehensive review of child loss literature. No national data has been collected. No universal clinical guidelines exist to help those who are suffering. There’s not even an accrediting body or treatment standard for grief therapists.
We must do better
At Evermore, we’re working to raise awareness, money and support to address the difficulties families endure when a child dies. We look forward to highlighting the stories of researchers and groups who are effectively supporting families and spotlight areas where more help is desperately needed.