Your child died too soon. Will you?
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
I posted information about a study on the link between grief and physical pain. Now let’s talk about the link between bereaved parents and premature death. This is an especially timely discussion given the approaching holidays, and the anguish many will face with the prospect of the first year (or another year) with an empty place at the table.
Ironically, suicide rates actually drop rather than rise during the holidays — many social scientists believe this is because people don’t want to ruin other family member’s holidays, and more family support is prevalent at this time, as well. Friends drop by, plans are made, and we go through the motions. However, just after the first of the year, there is a 40% spike in male suicides (women’s rates remain higher for attempts, but also steadier). So, given that backdrop, I’m putting out a second post about the effects of grief on the physical body, and research, and what it all may mean.
A September 2011 study published in the British Journal of Medicine’s Supportive and Palliative Care found that grieving parents who lost a child, as a clinical trial group, tended to have shorter-than-average lifespans as a result. The study suggested several reasons for the increased rates of death among bereaved parents — weakened immune systems or perhaps some long-lasting biological side effects due to experiencing such great stress. Also, of course, the authors noted that they could not rule out suicide as a frequent cause of death among bereaved parents, too. No one can seem to collect THE numbers — THE suicide rate for our group — but it is known to be understandably high.
Furthermore, the effects of a child’s death has been shown to affect parents as long as 25 years later.
I have been successfully treated for late stage, invasive breast cancer. When I was diagnosed, the surgeon provided a pathology report to stage it and track its growth. He concluded that the tumor had probably started as a tiny cell approximately nine years earlier, and he asked if I was aware of a triggering, traumatic incident at that time in my past. Nine years before diagnosis, my son was killed in a car accident. Was there a causal link? Not rocket science, that 2-1=1, was it?
The researchers studied 5% of UK deaths, and the results were telling: Bereaved mothers in England and Wales have a four-times higher risk of dying within 15 years, and Scottish parents (stiff upper lip, you know) were more than twice as likely to die or be widowed. The study followed bereaved parents from 1971 to 2006, making this a longitudinal study with clinically significant results.
Part of the results might be indirectly as well as directly linked to stress. Immune systems are depressed, yes, we know that. But what about the likelihood of inattentive driving? I know I lived in somewhat of a hazy period following Daniel-Paul’s death, when it felt like I was living another person’s life and just going through the motions while driving to work or for groceries or to the post office. I doubt I was a stellar driver then.
The effects of self-medication? Increased suicidal ideation is a common side effect of narcotic-like pain relievers and many sleeping aids or anti-depression medications commonly prescribed by psychiatrists. Then let’s add to that equation increased alcohol consumption, forgotten meals and low blood sugars.
Bereaved parents also are more likely to let go of hope and all positive feelings (actively shutting those down if they feel like a betrayal – how could I ever laugh again if my son was DEAD?). Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness (classic signs of clinical depression) are immune system depressants. Positive feelings nurture and heal our minds and bodies, but allowing positive messaging isn’t really on our radar after standing at our child’s open grave.
I’ve posted as many tips as possible on this site for overcoming stress, for recognizing what is happening to you, all the while trying to help you build a bridge to a sustainable or at least livable life “after”. In turn, I’ve asked you, if you are suicidal, to stand back and consider the bigger consequences to your family, friends, co-workers. What would your death contribute to your child’s memory and (if you believe in it, which I do personally find helpful), what impact would it have on your child’s continuing psychic energy and connection to you? (Yes, I WOULD resort to guilt to help nudge you past a suicidal contemplation. I would do whatever it takes.)
You are hurt. You are ravaged. You were left amputated in the world without a clear definition anymore for “parent”, which used to be an active verb but now is a mystery, a black hole. You are grieving and ONLY another bereaved parent could even BEGIN to understand. And if you have lost faith in all else, please find faith in this: we do, those of us writing for you. We do understand.
Reach out. We are here. Let us hold you up until you can get new legs under you again. Take care of yourself and if you can’t do that right now, ask for help from your clergy, your family, a stranger with Ph.D. after their name. Do whatever it takes to help you grow scar tissue and “heal”.
We are here.