The Impact of Loss: How Children Are Hurt by the Death of a Loved One

The death of a parent or other loved one can cause injury to a child in several ways:

1. The death of a friend or loved one is the ultimate form of lost attachment. (See our publication: Mechanisms of Injury for more information on attachment injuries) It’s the complete and irreversible severing of an important emotional connection. As such, the death of a parent or other close attachment attacks a child where they are most vulnerable. Because injuries to attachment are generally capable of producing the most profound harm resulting in a wide array of symptoms. This puts the death of a loved one near or at the top among the worst forms of adversity a child can face.

2. A parental death or loss in the immediate household almost certainly means a major disruption for the entire family. In cases of parental death, the remaining parent is thrust into the role of sole caregiver and provider. This commonly results in significant family instability, another prominent source of harm for children. In any situation where a loss was suffered among the immediate family, it will mean numerous transition and adjustment issues, and these can take their toll. Even in single parent families, the loss of the other parent who was at least partially involved in caretaking before can mean some significant adjustments for the remaining parent.

3. A death within the family causes pain not just for children, but for everyone. When a parent experiences the death of a spouse or other loved one, they often enter a state of depression that can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. Since children feed off a parent’s emotions, and since parental depression also impacts a caregivers quality of care and is one of the leading causes of child maladjustment, the parental depression created by the death of a loved one can be a significant detriment for the child in itself.

4. The death of a loved one often means diminished support for the child in all aspects of life. Every attachment and every provider means a source of love, affection, comforting, guidance, and overall emotional and financial support. Taking one of these providers away can often create ripple effects in all aspects of a child’s life. Some of these can last decades, well into adulthood. Everything from financial assistance for college to wedding days to help fixing the car or advice in a particular aspect of life, a lost attachment is the loss of social, emotional, and technical resources. The less human capital a child has, the more vulnerable they are. The death of a parent means parental estrangement and a child who is now, effectively, resident of a single-parent household. Single parenting by itself comes with numerous risk factors and potentials for injury.

5. In all people, the death of someone close or familiar to us, especially if it’s sudden, provokes a sense of a total loss of control that combine with feelings of helplessness. Death is the one aspect of life that all of us are completely powerless over. Therefore the death of a friend or loved one attacks one of our most fundamental psychological staples: a sense of control. When this is disturbed, it can leave us feeling anxious, depressed, fearful, and a whole host of other things we don’t enjoy being.

The Affects of Death & Child Adjustment Problems After the Loss of a Loved One

When a child looses a loved one to death, it can have a profound impact on their life. While most children will recover from the most severe trauma symptoms within a year or two, others can continue to show scars from the loss well into adulthood. Here are some of the short-and long-term affects of death on children.

A) Behavioral problems are common following the loss of a parent or other caretaker. One study found that 40% of bereaved children had behavioral disturbances in the clinical range compared to 10% for those with intact families. (Kranzler et al., 1990) These behavioral problems often persist for quite some time after the death. (Kaffman & Elizur, 1983)

B) Children may have a harder time enjoying things they had before the loss such as life, work, friendship and love. (Lenhardt & McCourt, 2000)

C) There is a pronounced link between parental loss and major depressive disorders that can often persist well into adulthood. (Kendler et al., 2002; Kivelae et al., 1998; Bifulco, Harris & Brown, 1992)

D) The death of a parent or other important loved one often has profound implications on a child’s social development. Children who experience the early death of a parent tend to have difficulty with intimate relationships and social functioning. (Shroeder & Gordon, 1991) This can carryover well into adulthood. Research indicates that experiencing the death of a parent in childhood significantly added to the incidence of loneliness and social isolation years later. (Marrone, 1997)

D) The death of a parent often leaves a child insecure, and this can predispose them to a tendency for phobias well into adulthood. (Worden, 1996) They are in general more likely to be fearful, more distrusting, and more prone to anxiety disorders. (Tweed et al., 1989)

E) The loss of a loved one often disrupts a child’s cognitive functioning, thus impacting their academic performance at school or otherwise creating developmental delays.

F) A variety of other pathological conditions can develop. One study found that 77% of children who experienced early parental loss met research diagnostic criteria for a major psychiatric disorder in adulthood, mostly for affective disorders. (Breier et al., 1988)