Losing a parent is one of the most difficult experiences we ever have to face. Losing a parent in childhood is devastating and traumatic, and significantly raises the risk of developing mental health issues.
Children dealing with prolonged grief from losing a parent are vulnerable to long-term emotional problems due to their failure to resolve their sense of loss. This can include being prone to symptoms of depression, being more anxious and withdrawn, showing more problems in school, and having poor academic performance.
But studies also suggest that losing a parent as an adult can also negatively impact us physically and mentally too. Adults may experience a range of contradictory emotions following the death of a parent including sadness, anger, rage, anxiety, numbness, emptiness, guilt, remorse, and regret. Losing a parent can lead to increased risks for long-term emotional and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
“In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time…[leading to] diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved,” Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist with Doctor On Demand told Fatherly.
Studies show that there are physiological changes that happen when an adult loses a parent; grief can cause changes in the brain, as well as changes in sleep and appetite. “Physiological changes might include headaches, stomach aches, dizziness, tightness in the chest too much sleep, too little sleep, overeating, or lack of appetite,” Jumoke Omojola, a clinical social worker in Omaha, Nebraska, told Fatherly.
In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk; there are links between unresolved grief and hypertension, cardiac events, immune disorders, and even cancer.
Other studies have shown that men and women are affected by grief differently; one study showed that a father’s death leads to more negative effects for sons than daughters and a mother’s death leads to more negative effects for daughters than sons. Problematic effects of parent loss are reflected more in men’s physical health reports than women’s.
Daughters have more intense grief responses than sons, but men who lose their parents may be slower to move on. “Many people report feeling a greater sense of loss when a mother dies,” Manly says. “This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship,” Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author, told Fatherly.
“Males tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more.”
Meanwhile, losing a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — purpose, vision, belief, commitment, and knowing oneself.
Social support during the bereavement period is crucial for recovery.