There are few things as devastating in life as the loss of a child
. When contemplating the thought, the response of most parents is they can't imagine being able to go on. The grief would simply be too much to bear.
However, the majority of parents who have suffered such a loss do manage to go on with life, albeit a life that has been forever altered. Along with the sometimes paralyzing grief, the death of a child affects every facet of life. Grief can lead to severe, long-term health problems.
New research has found that parents can also suffer crippling, long-term health consequences as a result of the death of a child.
A study conducted at the University of York in the U.K. showed that parents whose children died before they reached their first birthday were at a greater risk of an early death as well. By following more than 1,000 grieving parents from the U.K., the study revealed that parents from Scotland had a two-fold increased risk of dying in the first 15 years after their child's death when compared to parents who had not lost a child. Bereaved mothers in Wales and England were four times more likely to die early than non-bereaved parents. The study involved parents of stillborn babies in addition to parents of children who had died in the first year of life.
Dr. Mairi Harper, the study's lead author, had lost a child several years before leading the study. She states she was surprised by what the research revealed.
"There is evidence that bereavement is a risk factor for illness," Harper said. "We did expect that bereaved parents would show a higher illness factor, but we did not expect their risk to be as great as it was."What increases the rate of death among grieving parents?
There are several possible causes. One is a weakened immune system
. Another is the long-lasting biological consequences of the stress involved in the loss. Also, suicide is a frequent cause of death among bereaved parents.
Previous studies have shown that the overwhelming grief
that accompanies the loss of a loved one could lead to an early death. Scott Bea, a psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic, states these studies had shown that those who lose a spouse could also die soon afterwards. But he believes that when it comes to grief-stricken parents, certain lifestyle factors could increase the risk of an early death.
"These are grief-stricken individuals who could acquire some really negative lifestyle factors, things that would predispose them to an early death," Bea said. Alcohol and drugs are often used to ease the pain.
While it's true that previous studies on grieving parents did show a higher incidence of death from drug and alcohol related problems, Harper doesn't negate the impact of stress on grieving parents.
"My own personal opinion is that parents don't get anywhere near the level of support and understanding they need to cope," she said.
Moving on and getting past the death of a child is probably the hardest thing a parent will ever do. However, the study found that many grieving parents find comfort in remembering the child who has gone before them. Continuing a “symbolic” relationship with their child helps get through some of the pain of the loss.