A new study published in Science Direct looked at bereavement and mental health and the generational consequences of a grandparent's death.
“We were interested in examining whether adolescents who experience the death of a grandparent between the ages of nine and 15 showed evidence of lasting mental health challenges that might predict subsequent difficulties in schooling,” study author Dr. Ashton M Verdery told us. “Most work on bereavement - experiencing the loss of a close relative - suggests that grief is a normal response to the event but that some people go on to develop major mental health challenges.”
The literature, however, explained Dr. Verdery, is not clear on how often this happens after a grandparent dies, which is what the research team was interested in testing.
“In general, we thought there was likely to be some negative association but were open to the idea that perhaps it wouldn't be strong enough or last long enough to show up in the data,” Dr. Verdery told us. “We also were aware of a lot of literature concerning how male and female adolescents experience grief differently, which suggested to us that there might be gender differences in response.”
The researchers have been doing a lot of work on bereavement lately, for instance they published a series of articles regarding COVID bereavement, and that work suggested that the greatest bereavement increase from COVID deaths would be in numbers of adolescents losing grandparents. Because of that, they were interested in knowing whether grandparental bereavement poses a significant threat to young people's well-being.
“We used a multigenerational prospective cohort design where we examined children and their mothers from when the children were ages nine to 15 and looked at whether those who experienced the death of a grandparent in that window showed increases in their depressive symptoms,” Dr. Verdery told us. “We also examined whether this increase was primarily driven by their mother's response to the death, i.e., whether their mother became depressed (mother's response did not explain all of the change).”
The researchers found large increases in depressive symptoms for adolescent boys, especially after the loss of a grandmother.
“We were somewhat surprised by both the magnitude of the association and its persistence,” Dr. Verdery told us. “We found that the increase in depressive symptoms lasted as long as seven years, which is quite a long time.”
Dr. Verdery believes these results add to the evidence that’s needed to pay greater attention to youth mental health and they suggest a potentially meaningful risk factor that prior work had not considered.
“We think greater attention to the loss of a grandparent during these young ages would be beneficial, for instance we think there should be mental health screens for adolescents who experience such a loss,” Dr. Verdery told us. “Our estimates suggest that the COVID crisis has led to a four million person increase in the number of adolescents who have lost grandparents, which suggests that this is an important time to consider these losses as risk factors for youth.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com