When a Parent Dies Suddenly, Child's Grief May Persist

MONDAY Sept. 12, 2011 -- Grief experienced by children and teens after the sudden death of a parent fades over time for most, but some have more complicated or prolonged grief that can lead to depression and interfere with normal functioning, a new study finds.

Researchers initially looked at 182 children and teens, aged 7 to 18, who had a parent die by suicide, sudden natural causes or accidental injury. One- and two-year follow-ups were completed by 165 and 141 of the participants, respectively, said the researchers at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

For 59 percent of the children and teens, grief scores decreased significantly between nine and 21 months after the parent's death and then remained low. For 31 percent of the youngsters, grief scores increased at about nine months and then steadily declined through 33 months. For 10 percent of the participants, grief scores were high at nine months and remained high through the 33rd month after the parent's death.

The researchers found that higher grief scores were associated with parental death due to accidental injury and higher self-reported depression scores at nine months.

They also found that the 10 percent of youngsters with high grief scores that did not decline much by 33 months were more likely to have functional impairment at nine months after the parent's death, a previous history of depression, and new-onset post-traumatic stress disorder.

Depression was more likely among the children and teens if their surviving parent had complicated or prolonged grief, if they felt others were responsible for the death of their parent, or if they experienced other challenging life events since their parent's death.

The study appears in the September issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"These findings have important clinical implications regarding intervention and prevention efforts," the researchers concluded in a journal news release. "It is imperative to assess the surviving parent and to intervene, when appropriate, to improve the outcomes for parentally bereaved children and adolescents."

More information

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has more about children and grief.

Posted: September 2011


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