Research examines the reaction of adult children upon the death of a parent

AUSTIN, Texas—The death of the parent has a much more profound and far-reaching impact on adult children than most people believe, according to new research by a sociologist at The University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Debra Umberson, professor and chair of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts at the university, interviewed more than 3,600 adults at two points in time over a three-year period. More than 200 of these individuals experienced the death of a parent in that time, allowing her to make comparisons of them before and after the death, and compare them to counterparts who had not lost a parent. Her findings, as well as numerous anecdotal stories, have just been published in a new book, “Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.”

“On average, adults who lose a parent experience increased risk for depression, they begin to drink more and they experience a decline in health,” Umberson said. “Some relationships tend to suffer from the loss while other types of relationships tend to improve. Perhaps most striking is the remarkable change that adults experience in their sense of self. The time following a parent’s death is a time of tremendous upheaval and change in the way we think about who we are and what we want to accomplish in life.”

In her research, Umberson found that some adults benefit following the death of a parent and experience a sense of relief.

“Some adults actually experience improved emotional and psychological well-being following a parent’s death,” she said. “This is most likely to happen to those adults who grew up with an extremely critical parent. These adults often feel a sense of liberation and relief in their newfound ability to live life without constant criticism and disapproval.

“In addition, while sons who grew up with a father with mental health or alcohol problems tend to exhibit more symptoms like their fathers, daughters who grew up with dysfunctional fathers are much more likely to experience the sort of relief effect that is characterized by improved mental health.”

Umberson’s research also shows that adults react somewhat differently to the death of a mother versus that of a father.

“They are more likely to experience symptoms of emotional or psychological distress following a mother’s death yet adults are more likely to increase their alcohol consumptions following a father’s death,” Umberson said. “A decline in physical health, though, is equally likely following a mother’s or a father’s death.”

Although adults’ health is likely to decline in the short term following a parent’s death, the long-term outlook on their physical health is much more positive.

“In the first three years following the loss, overall physical health declines more for those who lose a parent than those who did not lose a parent,” she said. “But, when we look at those same people eight years after the loss, we see that those adults who lost a parent actually exhibit improved health compared to those who did not lose a parent. The loss can sharpen their own sense of mortality. In response, many adults make important changes in their health habits that can have a long-term positive effect on health. For example, an adult who has a fear of heart disease may begin to exercise and lose weight—health habits that are good for their long-term health.”

Other areas examined in Umberson’s research include the change in relationships with spouses and siblings after the loss of a parent, how adults react to the death of the second parent and how adults deal with their own children after the death of a parent.

For more information contact: Robin Gerrow, College of Liberal Arts, 512-232-2145.