There are few things more painful to a parent than the loss of a child. Although many people successfully develop coping mechanisms for dealing with stressful events, it has been suggested that parental bereavement is more difficult to cope with than any other type of bereavement.

Several small studies have suggested a relationship between persistent symptoms of anxiety and depression and a child’s death. A study published in the March 24, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the impact of a child’s death on the risk of parental hospitalization for mental illness.

About the Study

The study was conducted using records from a Danish registry that included more than one million people who had at least one child under the age of 18. The researchers looked at data from 1970 through 1999. During that time, 11,895 deaths of children under the age of 18 occurred in the study population and the number of bereaved parents was 17,033. These parents were compared to parents who had not lost a child during that same time period.

The study looked at hospital admissions due to mental illness. The researchers focused on affective disorders (mood disorders such as depression), but also looked at schizophrenia and substance abuse. In addition, the parents’ age and sex, the deceased child’s age, the time since the death of the child, and the number of children in the family were studied to determine if any of these factors influenced the risk of psychiatric admission.

The Findings

The results showed a 67% increase in risk for hospitalization for any psychiatric disease among parents who had lost a child as compared with parents who had not lost a child. Bereaved mothers had a slightly higher risk than fathers—78% versus 38%, respectively. Mothers who had lost more than one child were more than three times as likely to be hospitalized for any psychiatric disorder; fathers were more than twice as likely.

The risk of hospitalization due to affective disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse were all elevated in bereaved parents (see the following table).

% Increase in Risk of Hospitalization for Bereaved Parents as Compared to Non-Bereaved Parents

All Mental Disorders





Affective Disorders










Substance Abuse





The risk of being hospitalized for bereaved mothers was greatest during the first year following a child’s death. The risk declined with time, but remained significantly elevated after five years or more. The age of the child at the time of death did not significantly affect the risk of hospitalization, nor did the age of the parent. However, among mothers, the risk of hospitalization decreased with an increase in the number of surviving children in the family.

How Does This Affect You?

It is said that the grief of a bereaved parent is the most intense grief of all. The results of this study illustrate the deep and profound emotions that can be felt by a bereaved parent—emotions so powerful they lead to an increase in hospitalizations for mental illness. Additionally, the study’s authors point out that their data may actually underestimate the prevalence of psychiatric illness after the death of a child because the study only included parents who were hospitalized.

Many organizations are available to bereaved parents that provide support, counseling, and contact with other bereaved parents. However, a parent dealing with such a traumatic loss may have difficulty reaching out for help. In such cases, it may be up to close friends and family to reach out to a bereaved parent.

The Compassionate Friends, an organization that provides support to bereaved families, offers the following suggestions for concerned friends and relatives when dealing with a bereaved parent.

Helping a Bereaved Parent


  • Be open in showing your concern and caring
  • Be available to listen and to help with the children, pets, shopping, and cooking
  • Say that you are sorry about what happened to their child, and encourage them to talk about their loss as often as they want
  • Allow them to express as much grief as they are willing to share—this may include misery, depression, anger, and guilt
  • Talk about the special qualities of their child
  • Reassure them that they did everything they could, and tell them of everything true and positive about the care given to their child
  • Give extra attention to brothers and sisters; they too are hurt and confused, possibly frightened, and in need of attention, which their parents may not be able to give at this time


  • Avoid them because you are uncomfortable; being avoided by friends adds pain to an already intolerably painful experience
  • Say "I know how you feel" (unless you too have lost a child)
  • Tell them what they "should" feel or "ought" to do; there is no timetable for grieving and each person has to do it at their own pace
  • Change the subject when they mention their child
  • Avoid mentioning their child's name because you are scared of 'reminding' them - they won't have forgotten
  • Try to find something positive about the death (e.g., example, closer ties with the rest of the family, some kind of "moral lesson")
  • Suggest that they can have another child
  • Say "It's good you've still got other children"—they are not interchangeable
  • Make any comment implying that the care given to their child at home, in hospital or wherever, was inadequate
  • Let your own sense of helplessness keep you from reaching out to a bereaved parent

Adapted from the Compassionate Friends