July is recognized internationally as Bereaved Parents Awareness month to support those who have experienced the devastating reality of losing a child. The support is more than warranted, as the loss of a child is arguably one of the most challenging hardships a person can face. In fact, a recent study in Psycho-Oncology found that both mothers and fathers experienced prolonged grief and psychological symptoms like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder up to five years after losing a child.
Each year, just over 9,000 U.S. children aged 14 and under die, leaving their parents to cope with the loss. The leading causes of death in this age group include cancer, congenital health problems, and accidental injuries. While the loss of young children is undoubtedly a tragedy, parents hope for their children to outlive them, making the death of a child at any age a significant burden to bear.
Grief following the loss of a child can be significant and long-lasting, but there is support available, as well as ways to cope.
Causes of Parental Grief
Common causes of childhood death include cancer, injuries, and health problems, all of which can contribute to parental grief. According to the American Cancer Society, childhood cancer rates have been increasing slightly, and 10,500 children under age 15 are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, with around 1,200 expected to die. This makes parental grief from cancer an unfortunate reality.
Other causes of parental grief can include substance abuse and suicide. Data from the CDC show that there were 70,630 overdose deaths in the United States in 2019, with most deaths involving opioids. As opioid addiction plagues the nation, parents may find themselves mourning the loss of a child who has lost their battle with addiction. While younger children are unlikely to be involved in drug overdose deaths, the loss of a teen or adult to addiction is still devastating.
Also devastating is the loss of a child to suicide, which is particularly common among teens and young adults. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among the age groups of 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. In 2019, over 8,000 young adults aged 15-24 died by suicide, compared to nearly 6,000 in the age range of 15-24 and 534 aged 10-14.
How Bereavement Affects Parents’ Lives
The loss of a loved one is challenging, but losing a child can be particularly gut-wrenching, leading to long-lasting effects for bereaved parents. One study found that parents who had lost a child to cancer demonstrated the following mental health symptoms:
- Mild depression
- Moderate symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder
The above symptoms of grief were experienced regardless of how long it had been since the loss of a child. On average, the average length of time that had passed since the death of the child among parents in the study was around three years.
Sleep troubles and mental health symptoms aren’t the only effects that bereavement has on the lives of grieving parents. Other research has shown that parents may struggle with the following outcomes after the passing of a child:
- Physical health problems
- Withdrawal from friends and family members
- Extreme feelings of guilt
- Yearning for the lost child
- Marital disruption
The intense emotions and sadness that come with the loss of a child can make it difficult to care for oneself, resulting in physical health problems. Extreme depression after the death of a child can also make it challenging to be present for other family members, resulting in marital conflict, difficulty caring for surviving children, and social isolation. Parents who have lost a child may also have trouble performing at work due to depression and withdrawal from others.
Learning to Cope Following the Death of a Child
Coping with the death of a child is understandably difficult, and feelings of grief are normal and expected. That being said, when grief is long-lasting and interferes with a parent’s ability to function in daily life and tend to the family’s needs, there are a variety of negative outcomes. Seeking support early can alleviate some of the negative consequences of grief and help you to develop coping skills that allow you to be present in daily life while still working through the loss of your child.
Consider the following strategies for coping with depression following the loss of a child:
- Connect with other bereaved parents. Research has shown that connecting with other grieving parents is a helpful coping mechanism. Interacting with others who have experienced similar struggles can normalize your experience and help you to feel supported. Local mental health clinics may offer support groups or referrals to local groups, or you may be able to find a support group through a pediatric hospital that treats children living with conditions like childhood cancer or congenital health problems. Some counseling agencies may even offer group therapy sessions for grief.
- Seek the support of a counselor. Researchers have also found that working with a professional counselor is helpful for bereaved parents. In counseling, you can learn strategies to cope with distress and manage symptoms like depression and guilt.
- Take time to remember your child. Parents who are mourning the loss of a child benefit from connecting to memories of the deceased child. Keeping photos around the house, celebrating your child’s life, and recognizing important dates can keep your deceased child’s memory alive and help you to cope.
- Turn to family and friends for support. You may be tempted to isolate yourself from others while you work through your grief, but the reality is that social isolation can make feelings of sadness even worse. Reach out to friends and family, and do not be afraid to tell them what you need. Loved ones likely want to help, but they may be unsure of how to approach you without offending you or making matters worse. They may need reassurance that it is okay to talk about your child, for instance.
- Specific therapies may be warranted. Given that rates of depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms are relatively high among bereaved parents, you may need to reach out for treatments explicitly developed to address these conditions. For instance, you may benefit from taking medications for depression or working with a therapist who practices EMDR to address trauma.
TMS as an Adjunctive Treatment
Support groups, medication, and therapies can be useful for coping with depression following the loss of a child, but as research has shown, bereavement following the death of a child can lead to prolonged depression. If you or a loved one is living with depression following the death of a child, and you find that symptoms just aren’t improving, you may benefit from seeking out transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) services.
Pulse TMS is happy to provide evidence-based TMS treatment for patients in the Los Angeles area, which can alleviate depression when added to a regimen that includes counseling and medication. This non-invasive treatment can be completed in just 20 minutes a day and involves placing magnetic coils over the head to stimulate areas of the brain linked to mood. Contact us today to learn more.