The long-term impact of early parental death: lessons from a narrative study
This study exploring the impact of early parental death has revealed the long-term damage and suffering that can be experienced by individuals in adult life if appropriate levels of support are not provided at the time of bereavement. The paper describes the low self-esteem, loneliness, isolation and inability to express feelings of some individuals who lost a parent in childhood, with the effects felt for as long as 71 years after the bereavement. The researchers found common themes that affect the experience of parental loss, including disruptions and continuity, the role of social networks and affiliations, and communication. Professor Mari Lloyd Williams speaking on behalf of the research team said: “Moving home and separation from family and friends makes adjustment to parental death significantly more difficult and increases stress in bereaved children. Long periods of disruption or living arrangements that do not meet the needs of the bereaved child means they are more likely to experience emotional difficulties and feelings of insecurity and loneliness in adult life.” The researchers suggest a model to identify and support individuals who may be more vulnerable to less favourable outcomes in adult life and point to the best practice guidelines set by The Childhood Bereavement Network which provide a framework for support of parents of bereaved children.
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Objective To explore the individual experiences of those who had experienced the death of a parent(s) before the age of 18, and investigate how such experiences were perceived to impact on adult life. Design An exploratory qualitative design using written (n = 5) and oral (n = 28) narratives and narrative analysis was adopted to explore the experiences 33 adults (7 men and 26 women) who had experienced parental death during childhood. Setting UK Participants Individuals living in the North West of England who had lost a parent(s) before the age of 18. Main outcome measures Views of adults bereaved of a parent before the age of 18 of impact of parental loss in adult life. Results While individual experiences of bereavement in childhood were unique and context bound, the narratives were organized around three common themes: disruptions and continuity, the role of social networks and affiliations and communication and the extent to which these dynamics mediated the bereavement experience and the subsequent impact on adult life. Specifically they illustrate how discontinuity (or continuity that does not meet the child’s needs), a lack of appropriate social support for both the child and surviving parent and a failure to provide clear and honest information at appropriate time points relevant to the child’s level of understanding was perceived to have a negative impact in adulthood with regards to trust, relationships, self-esteem, feeling of self-worth loneliness and isolation and the ability to express feelings. A model is suggested for identifying and supporting those that may be more vulnerable to less favourable outcomes in adult life. Conclusions The findings suggest that if the negative consequences are to be minimized it is crucial that guidelines for ‘best practice’ that recognize the complex nature of the bereavement experience are followed.
Read this research for free Article details Ellis, J., Dowrick, C., & Lloyd-Williams, M. (2013). The long-term impact of early parental death: lessons from a narrative study JRSM, 106 (2), 57-67 DOI: 10.1177/0141076812472623