Losing A Parent, “Take-Aways” from Research That Can Make a Difference

Monday, August 25, 2014

Approximately 1 in 20 children experience the loss of a parent before their eighteenth birthday (US Census Bureau). What is so interesting is when we researched this topic we found both supporting research that this terrible event can have significant outcomes, either propelling individuals to success or driving them in the other direction, to substance abuse and incarceration. Although there is an elevation of risk for negative outcomes, many parentally bereaved children adapt well and do not experience serious problems (Worden & Silverman, 1996) Are there tangible ways we can help children cope with the loss of a parent to better ensure their well being? We lead with success from an October 2013 article on NPR by Robert Krulwich. “Successful Children Who Lost a Parent – Why Are There So Many of Them?” http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/10/15/234737083/successful-children-who-lost-a-parent-why-are-there-so-many-of-them

Losing a parent is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child. The world goes topsy-turvy. The psychologist Felix Brown reports that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole.

But for some people, Malcolm Gladwell points out , the death of a mother or father is a spur, a propellant that sends them catapulting into life. Because they are on their own, they are forced to persist, to invent, to chart their own way — into a curious category Gladwell dubs “eminent orphans.”

There are, he reports, a lot of them. Historian Lucille Iremonger discovered that 67 percent of British prime ministers from the start of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16.

Almost A Third Of Our Presidents

Twelve presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — lost their fathers while they were young.

A psychologist, Marvin Eisenstadt, poured through a number of major encyclopedias, looking for people whose biographies “merited more than one column” — and of 573 people, Gladwell reports, “a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of 10. By age 15, 34.5 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of 20, 45 percent. Even for the years before the 20th century, when life expectancy due to illness and accidents and warfare was much lower than it is today, those are astonishing numbers.”

Cause Or Correlation?

Gladwell doesn’t come out and say that losing a parent early increases one’s chances of success later. But in study after study, among those who have succeeded, the incidence of “eminent orphans” is oddly high.

This is a touchy subject. Nobody wants to say that catastrophe is a career booster; common sense says the opposite, that children with intact families get more love, protection and support, which ought to be an advantage later on. But it’s also true that kids with missing parents need extra muscles, grit and self reliance — also ingredients for success.

The surprise here is the proportion of highly successful people who lost a parent early. Their achievements, of course, may have little or nothing to do with how many parents they had at home, but looking through Gladwell’s footnotes, it is puzzling to see so many of them at the top of their professions. This suggests, ever so slightly, that pain trumps love at the start of the race. That’s a notion that makes me wince.

Then we head in a far more dark response, one not so optimistic, and find these results from the May 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry on a study led by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center; losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders.

Less than 3 percent of children who lose a parent to suicide will attempt one or die by one themselves, compared to less than 1 percent among those with living parents. In relative risk terms, however, they are three times more likely to die by suicide than children of living parents.

In addition, those who lost parents to suicide were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression as those with living parents. And those who lost parents to accidents or illness had 30 and 40 percent higher risk, respectively, for hospitalization.

Losing a parent, regardless of cause, increased a child’s risk of committing a violent crime, the researchers found.

Although, I wish we had concrete information on what makes the difference? Why do some children become strong and resilient and others not. Perhaps, its genetic and something we will never know, similar to the story of The Blind Side. However, it was clear in our research that there are tangible ways we can support this loss and support the children who lose a parent.

Tangible “Take Aways” from Research – Helping a Child through the Loss of a Parent

1. Lack of adequate parental care following the loss, appears to be more prevalent in the loss of a mother versus a loss of a father. Harris etal study (1986) observed it much more likely for a mother to take on the breadwinner role of a lost father than for a father to combine adequate caretaking with his traditional provider function.

2. The most powerful predictors of adult psychiatric status were indices of the home environment following the loss. Particularly vulnerable were those subjects who recalled feeling neglected and/or burdened by their remaining parent’s need for emotional support subsequent to the loss, and who were unable to forge supportive peer relationships.

3. The child’s age at the time of the loss, for the first 5 years of life and early adolescence are widely believed by loss researchers to be critical periods. In addition, subsequent caretaker behavior–deficient affection or care, and excessive control or protectiveness on the part of the surviving parent; and restricted mourning behaviors.

4. Being able to talk freely about the surviving parent and other family members about the death appeared to protect against later depressive experiences, as did a high level of care and affection from the surviving parent.

5. Shared mourning, with a positive coping message could also serve to reassure the child regarding the surviving parent’s ability to function, a favorable effect.

6. Groups can provide a powerful source of support, offering participants the sense of being accepted and understood, the opportunity to express emotion, education about loss, and the recognition that they can cope with the massive changes it entails. However, this may vary by child personality. Children sometimes can be more apt to be buoyed by engaging in normal kid activities with supportive peers, and by receiving attention from adult relatives or friends who encourage them to talk about their feelings.

7. Creative arts are thought to offer children a symbolic means of expressing painful, frightening, or embarrassing feelings.

8. Children who received home based family counseling had fewer behavorial, sleep, health, and learning problems. Their surviving parents also experienced a lower incidence of depression or health problems.

9. In closer examination on the relationship of crying about the dead parent, it was revealed that particularly for children older than age 5, crying was associated with fewer and less serious behavorial problems.

10. It was also noted as possible that we might foster in children too much preoccupation with grief feelings, encouraging grieving behavior to such an extent that we undermine appropriate attempts on the child’s part to regain a positive focus on his or her experience. It’s a fine balance between too little or too much support. Some children reported feeling overly pressured by their parents to be emotionally expressive.

11. The parent who has never cried in the presence of the child, and the parent who does so almost daily, are both insufficiently attuned to the child’s needs.

12. The surviving parent’s capacity to maintain structure and consistency in the child’s environment.

13. Age appropriate conversations about grief implied moderating the function by the age of the child. It may be that sharing grief work with a parent was comforting and empowering to an adolescent, but overwhelming to a younger child.

14. If continued trauma effects are noted in the child such as difficulty sleeping, eating, breathing, heightened startled response, avoidance of eye contact, agitation, terrified responses, or preoccupation studies indicate that Post Traumatic Stress Counseling is more effective than grief counseling alone.

15. If clinicians fail to look through a trauma lens and to conceptualize client problems as related possibly to current or past trauma, they may fail to see that trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.

16. Reassure the child in love and care repeatedly.

17. Inform teachers well into the future of the loss of a parent. This can prevent undue stress when completing projects such as Fathers Day or Mothers Day as well as allowing the teacher to monitor and assist the child. In addition to teachers, advise physicians and daycare caregivers as well.

18. If the surviving parent is not coping well, another family member or friend should take on a supportive role.

19. Adult reflections say they were helped by looking at old videos with surviving family members, by listening to favorite music and by writing memories of their parents in journals.

There are no perfect solutions for filling the loss a child experiences but armed with some information and more importantly supportive friends and family children can survive in healthy ways.


Childrens Adjustment to Parental Death, George C. Tremblay and Allen C. Israel, University at Albany, State University of New York

The Effects of Psychological Trauma on Children and Adolescents, Vermont Agency of Human Services, Kathleen J. Moroz, DSW, LICSW

Families with a Missing Piece, Hello Grief

Evidence Based Practices for Parentally Bereaved Children and Their Families, National Institute of Health

Studies: Crook & Eliot, 1980, Tennant, Bebbington & Hurry, 1980, Harris etal (1986), Bifulco et al (1992), Osterweis, Solomon & Green (1984), Saler & Skolnick, Worden (1996), Folken (1990), Black and Urbanawotiz (1985), Stroebe (1992), Sandler et al (1992)

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