Will we die early? A look at psychology and biology of the bereaved parent.
Immediately after Vail's death, both Steve and I had thoughts that centered around not feeling like life was worth living without her. We talked about it and we both had scary impulses that we didn't act upon. While those intense feelings and thoughts have diminished over the past few months, we talk about it often. We talk about how we can understand that there may be shorter life spans for those who have lost a child. And yes, I am talking about suicide. But it's bigger than that too. In this blog post I will talk about both our recent experiences with the psychology and biology that could affect how long we live as well as the existing research on the subject. For my SUDC grieving parents, let this serve as your trigger warning. Though I like my entire blog series should have one of those stamped on it like the surgeon generals warning on cigarettes.
About 6 weeks after Vail passed, I received a call from Steve's mom. She had been going to a grief support group and in it one day they discussed the risks of suicide post- loss. Obviously she had concerns about Steve and I and so she was calling to express them. It was her way of checking in and it came from a good place. Even so, the call sent me into a full on panic. When Steve got home I was a mess. I wasn't sure if I should say anything to him, because I knew he wouldn't receive it well and I didn't want him to get upset at his mom. But I couldn't hold it in. I was right, he was upset. But mostly because I was so stressed out. The very last thing that I needed was another thing to worry about. I hadn't thought about it much, outside of our conversations about our feelings. Feelings that were very private and said by two people drowning in pain. I know that I had thought to myself many times that my family would be better off without me, if this is who I was going to be now. They deserved more. I'm not trying to upset anyone reading this. Those of you who have also lost your children will surely relate. These thoughts and feelings are totally normal. Anyone who doesn't think so, hasn't lost a child, and should therefore reserve their judgement.
Over the past 3-4 months, I have become aware of two families, who like us, lost their children to SUDC within the past 2-3 years. The reason they stood out among all of us bearing our losses is because they had been hit hard, again. These two families, through accidental tragedy had lost their male figures: fathers and husbands. Upon learning of this, I immediately felt deep sorrow for them and wondered how it could be possible that the world can be this cruel? First a child is lost, suddenly with no explanation and then, through another inexplicable twist of fate, the father/husband is gone too. As if anyone should have to deal with that much pain and loss. Can't the universe spread it around a little?
But it got me thinking. Will my life (or Steve's life) be shortened by the loss of our child? So I started to do some research. And what I found was interesting enough that I thought I'd share it with you all. First, let me start by saying there doesn't appear to be a ton of research studies on the subject so what I have summarized below is the bulk of what I could find.
"Researchers at the University of York in the U.K. found that parents whose children died before their first birthday faced an increase risk of early death themselves." Their study followed more than 1,000 bereaved parents and found that parents were twice as likely to die in the first 15 years following their child's death as parents who had not lost a child. Among bereaved mothers in England and Wales, the risk of early death was four times higher than non-bereaved parents. "There is evidence that bereavement is a risk factor for illness." The study suggests several reasons for the increased rates of death among parents who have experienced child-loss, they include: weakened immune systems and perhaps some long lasting biological effects caused by the stress of their loss. However, the authors noted that they could not rule out suicide as a frequent cause of death among this group.
I find this fascinating. Obviously the death of a child is "stressful." But so stressful that that we are twice as likely to die prematurely? Seems high. Or does it? This is an amazing amount of stress. I have aged at least 5 years in the past 4 months. Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic said that previous studies found that people who experienced the death of a spouse could die soon after. Is this broken heart syndrome? Bea attributes it to the fact that grief-stricken individuals often acquire negative lifestyle factors that can predispose them to early death, drug/alcohol problems are chief among them. Steve and I have said over and over and over that we are so glad that we aren't drinkers. I certainly see how that can get out of hand quickly.
A danish study found that mortality rates were higher among bereaved parents , particularly for deaths due to unnatural causes (accidents or suicide) within the first 3 years after their child's death. But they didn't say why. And it's the why that I am concerned with. I have a guess. Suicide I understand. The hopelessness and the despair coupled with the longing to be reunited with your child in whatever version of the afterlife you believe in. But accidents and illness? Maybe people who lost their children don't pay good enough attention when they are driving? My mind wanders a lot, I zone out and let my mind drift to memories of Vail. Or if a trigger gets me and I am lost to the PTSD flashbacks...an accident would be possible. Is it just a recklessness? Maybe grieving parents just don't have the same view of life and push the envelope? I don't feel that way, but I could understand if others do. None of the research studies show any statistics that would indicate why the rate of accidents increase. Maybe its not being suicidal at all. Maybe its just a general lack of caring about living or dying. We all know exactly how fragile life can be. Those of us who put to bed our healthy children and found them blue and cold know this better than anyone else. Maybe it's just a detachment from the world that results in ambivalence. By no means do I have any idea how to answer these questions. In fact my need to find answers may have only created more questions.
I'd like to revisit the idea of Broken Heart Syndrome. "It's a known fact in medicine that great loss (parent, spouse and especially a child) can have profound effects on health." Its a proven fact that grief increases blood pressure and the release of stress hormones, which can lead to conditions like heart attacks, strokes, and wait for it....broken heart syndrome. During which, the heart muscle suddenly weakens due to intense stress. Now this I buy into. Many times over the past few months I have felt like the stress could be affecting my health. Fortunately I am generally healthy, but I can see how if I wasn't, a heart attack could be on the menu. We have all heard of it before...a husband dies and his spouse passes very shortly after. I know its not the same thing, but this happened with our dogs, Bella and Rocco. Rocco got lymphoma and didn't respond to treatment, and sadly we had to ease his pain and end his life. Exactly two weeks later, Bella's heart gave out and she passed, at home, after having a very nice day with Steve. Broken heart syndrome at work. I can certainly attest to the palpitations, the night terrors, emotional distress headaches, irritable bowel, and chronic inflammation cause or aggravated by the intense stress of losing Vail. Not to mention the panic attacks and the sleep deprivation. So yeah, broken heart syndrome seams like a real possibility in terms of answering the the question of why.
A 2013 study of over 69,000 American mothers found that losing a child created an even bigger mortality risk than losing a spouse, a phenomenon the researchers call " the maternal bereavement effect." What is almost unbelievable is that they found that a mother's "hazard of mortality" (a way economists and epidemiologists calculate chance of dying) shot up by 326% in the two years following a child's death.
WHAT??????? 326% Wow. And there are more studies that indicate similar results, though most just say "significant increase", and don't offer up any percentage increase numbers. A 2016 Israeli study comparing over 5000 bereaved parents to over 70,000 non-bereaved parents found a "hugely increased risk of death" in both fathers and mothers in the first 3 years following a child's death, with a significant link between bereavement and deaths by coronary heart disease. What this says to me is that broken heart syndrome is really code for stress+risk factors=cardiac deterioration. This is nothing new; anyone who knows anything about cardiology would know that. And, as I have previously stated, there is nothing more stressful than the loss of a child. I wish I could express that stress more eloquently so that my friends and family who haven't experienced such a loss could better understand what we feel. But there is just no way to do so. It is just so overwhelming, there really aren't words.
And that's just the physical side effects of stress and loss. What about the psychological ones? A 2015 study of 2,512 bereaved adults found little or no evidence of depression in 68 percent of those surveyed shortly after the tragedy. About 11 percent initially suffered from depression but improved; roughly 7 percent had symptoms of depression before the loss, which continued. For 13 percent, chronic grief and clinical depression kicked in after their loss. The numbers in the study seem very low to me. But the article doesn't indicate how many of the participants lost a child vs another loved one. They only say "many" of whom were mourning the loss of a child. So, maybe if the study was just conducted with only participants who lost children, the numbers would change. I hazard a guess that they would. Also, it goes without saying that unbearable sadness doesn't have to equal depression. The one doesn't by rule cause the other. So it is possible to this hurt, lost and miserable, with a giant aching hole inside you and it not be depression. Even if it is depression, so what? If there is ever a time it's ok to be depressed its as a result of losing your child.
Here is the real kicker. The research suggests that the psychological damage caused by losing a child, often does not heal over time. Well no shit. I'm only 4 months in to my loss and I could have told you that without doing any research. The love we have for our children doesn't die with them. We will love them forever. As long as our love lives on, so will our grief.
Needless to say, the research didn't make me feel better about anything. Honestly, it didn't make me feel worse either. We who have lost our children are all walking the tight rope of sanity. Some of us have better balance than others but we can all understand what it feels like to fall. I don't have the energy to invest into worrying about the long term affects of losing Vail. I can only focus on making it through today. Hell, I can't even make plans for next week or a Super Bowl Party, or a haircut. What I can do is focus on my holistic health one day at a time. Steve and I admittedly haven't been eating well. Either not enough or too much, depending on the day. We haven't had the motivation to exercise and we both could stand to lose a few pounds. These are things we can work to improve on every day. One day at a time so it doesn't feel so overwhelming. Everything feels so overwhelming. The one thing we know for certain is that we have to take care of Aspen, so we better figure out how to take care of ourselves again too. If you take nothing else from this post and the studies listed heron, take that away with you. Among all the wreckage left behind when Vail passed, is our former selves and the health that went with us. Finding ourselves again will help us regain our health. That's the goal at least.
Grieving parents face higher risk of early death, study says. By Carrie Gann, ABC news medical unit. 9/7/2011
Journal of family psychology: Long Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parent's Adjustment in Midlife. Rogers, Floyd, Hong Mar 2010
"The Maternal Bereavement Effect: Explains why so many parents die after their children" Drake Baker Dec 2016
"What the death of a child does to parents, psychologically and biologically. Kirsch Jan 2019