Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer
July 3rd was Bereavement for Parents Day. Unfortunately, the experience of losing a child is more common than one might think and can manifest in different ways at different ages. About 50,000 children die every year (Rogers).
Psychologically, parents who lose children at middle age experience a maximum level of trauma because the opportunity to have another child has often already passed. It also disconnects them from other people in their age bracket as they grow older, because the opportunity to become a grandparent disappears. The most major challenge, during and after the heightened bereavement period, is finding meaning.
Generally, the parent both wants to move on from the grief yet also remain connected to the child in some way. This motivates a bereaved parent to seek activities that maintain the child’s memory, but the grief is so interconnected, that the feeling of loss takes over the potential meaning. Without meaning, the parent could experience intense, crippling depression (Floyd). Finding new communities, activities, groups, or people that generate meaning can be the key to finding the strength to deal with the loss.
The aftershocks of losing a child can be almost as destructive as the grief itself. Divorce rates of bereaved parents are nearly 8 times the average, and bereavement has also been associated with long-term illnesses, like cancer. Intense depression and grief experiences trigger immense stress, which in turn can lead to lower immune systems and unhealthy coping behaviors (like smoking, unhealthy eating patterns, alcohol-related issues, etc.) (Rogers).
As an added layer, the experience of losing children is more common in some communities than in others. Studies have found that systemically, Black Americans “experience higher rates of poverty, inadequate healthcare, and criminal victimization” (Umberson). Because of disparities in life expectancies, Black Americans would likely be “exposed to significantly more family member deaths than white Americans from childhood through adulthood” (Umberson).
Bereavement and loss, while they may sometimes be related to freak accidents or sudden incidents, can be part of larger scale inequities. This could be inequity within in our healthcare systems, broader health and community resources, and/or financial disparities. As we remember and empathize with those who have lost children, it’s important to also remember why these children may have been lost. And, it’s just as important to consider what can be done to close these gaps and prevent more parents from experiencing such crippling loss.
For bereaved parents, this isn’t a loss that ever goes away, and someone’s child dying before they do destabilizes the entire concept of life’s natural progression. As generations continue, life expectancies are getting shorter as opposed to longer, which means we may have more people passing before their parents. “Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, reviewing data from the federal Health and Retirement Study from 1992 to 2014, report that 11.5 percent of people over age 50 have lost a child…. Of the roughly 2.5 million Americans who are 90 and older, 7 percent — about 175,000 mourning parents — have lost a child since turning 50” (Span). Let’s not forget.
Floyd, Frank J et al. “Parental bereavement during mid-to-later life: pre- to postbereavement functioning and intrapersonal resources for coping.” Psychology and aging vol. 28,2 (2013): 402-13. doi:10.1037/a0029986
Span, Paula. “A Child’s Death Brings ‘Trauma That Doesn’t Go Away’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/health/children-death-elderly-grief.html.
Rogers, Catherine H et al. “Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents’ adjustment in midlife.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 203-11. doi:10.1037/0893-318.104.22.168
Umberson, Debra, et al. “Race Differences in Death of Family Members.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of American, 31 Jan. 2017, http://www.pnas.org/content/114/5/915.