Sept. 8, 2011 -- When her 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, died in a car accident in 1993, Susan Gilbert said her grief was exhausting. "I didn't sleep for a year. I slept for maybe half an hour a night," she said. "The experience is really beyond words."
Today, Gilbert works with other parents whose children have dies, and said the loss affects all aspects of their lives. "The loss of a child is something that you have to live with the rest of your life. While you do learn to live with it, you don't get over it," she said.
New research suggests that such parents can suffer devastating, long-lasting health consequences as a result ofo the death.
Researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom found that parents whose children died before their first birthday faced an increased risk of early death themselves. Their study followed more than 1,000 bereaved parents from the U.K. and found that parents in Scotland were more than 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 nonbereaved parents. The researchers included parents who had stillborn babies as well as those who had children die within their first 12 months of life.
The study was particularly important to Dr. Mairi Harper, the report's lead author, because she herself had a child who'd died several years before. She said she was surprised by what she and her colleagues found.
"There is evidence that bereavement is a risk factor for illness," she said. "We did expect that bereaved parents would show a higher illness factor, but we did not expect their risk to be as great as it was."
The study, published today in the British Journal of Medicine's Supportive and Palliative Care, suggests several reasons for the increased rates of death among bereaved parents, such as weakened immune systems or 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 bereaved parents.
The study is not the first to suggest that grief over the loss of a loved one could lead to early death. Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said that previous studies had found that people who experienced the death of a spouse could die soon after their loss. But Bea said he believed that in the case of bereaved parents, lifestyle factors could play a role too in increasing the risk of early death.
"These are grief-stricken individuals who could acquire some really negative lifestyle factors, things that would predispose them to an early death," Bea said, saying that some bereaved parents might turn to alcohol, drugs or an unhealthy diet to deal with the pain of their loss.
Harper said some of her previous research on bereaved parents did show increased rates of death because of drug and alcohol problems. But she doesn't rule out the impact the stress of grieving can have on parents.
"My own personal opinion is that parents don't get anywhere near the level of support and understanding they need to cope," she said.
Harper said parents may believe that they must try to move on and get past the death of their child. But she said many of the bereaved parents in her study reported finding comfort in remembering the child who was gone.
"Being able to continue the relationship with their child, even if it was a symbolic one, was something the parents said was very helpful," Harper said. She also urged parents to join support groups and connect with other mothers and fathers who have lost children.
Susan Gilbert said having the support of other bereaved parents helped her cope with the loss of her daughter. She wrote a book about her experience, hoping it would serve as a "portable supprot group" to other grieving parents. But she said she also found comfort in keeping Amanda's memory alive.
"I still talk to my daughter. I still think about her every day," Gilbert said. "I think you do find a way to maintain a relationship with your child. As time goes by, you almost incorporate them into your being."