Summary: For up to 7 years following the death of a grandmother, adolescent males show a 50% increase in depression symptoms than their non-grieving peers. Mothers of girls were also at increased risk of depression.
Source: Penn State
Losing a beloved family member is never easy, but a new study suggests the loss of a grandmother in particular may have repercussions for the loved ones she leaves behind.
The researchers found that for up to seven years after the death of their grandmother, adolescent boys had a 50% increase in depression symptoms compared to peers who were not grieving. Additionally, this loss also was associated with a higher chance of both adolescent boys’ and girls’ mothers also becoming depressed.
Ashton Verdery, Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics at Penn State, said the findings suggest that recognizing these experiences as a risk factor for teen depression could help identify opportunities to intervene and prevent additional detrimental events, such as major depressive disorders, dropping out of school, substance use, and criminal justice system involvement, among others.
“As a society, we think such losses are normal, which to some extent they are, as almost everyone loses their grandparents during the first few decades of their lives,” Verdery said.
“However, just because such experiences are common does not mean these losses are not a source of great sadness for many people, and possibly a risk factor for worse health outcomes among a subset of them.”
The study was recently published in the journal SSM – Mental Health.
Along with co-authors Michelle Livings and Emily Smith-Greenaway from the University of Southern California and Rachel Margolis from the University of Western Ontario, Verdery has been studying how bereavement — or experiencing the death of a loved one — has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how those losses affect people’s health.
As the team examined previous research, they noticed that few studies had explored what happens to those who experience the death of a grandparent during their teenage years.
“This was surprising because such deaths are the most common type of bereavement teenagers will face, and there are several reasons that suggest these experiences can be detrimental,” Verdery said.
“This might be especially true for those who live with single parents, are lower income, or are from Black and Hispanic populations where co-residing with grandparents and other forms of frequent interactions with grandparents are more common, which is why we focused on this population.”
The group’s prior work estimated that more than 4 million children and adolescents in the U.S. have grandparents who died of COVID-19, a notable increase on top of the 10 million to 12 million that typically lose grandparents annually.
“Not only have youth faced school closures, social distancing, and subsequent isolation since the pandemic started, but millions are also grieving a grandparent,” Livings said.
Verdery said with so many families experiencing these losses, he and his co-authors were interested in seeing whether the death of a grandparent has a noticeable toll on such youths as part of their larger initiative to study the social ramifications of bereavement.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data gathered from 4,897 primarily low-income children and their parents at several checkpoints throughout the children’s childhood and adolescence. Of these participants, 3,086 were followed from ages 9 to 15, the period of time the authors examined in this study.
Data included information on depressive symptoms in both adolescents and their mothers, the adolescents’ genders, and whether they experienced the death of a grandparent during the study.
Verdery said more research needs to be done on why the death of a grandmother has this effect, but not the death of a grandfather. He said it’s possible that the death of a grandfather also can affect adolescents, but in different ways.
“We haven’t yet examined whether ‘acting out’ behaviors like school suspension or criminal justice system involvement can be predicted by these deaths, but it’s possible that a grandfather’s death could have a larger role in those outcomes,” Verdery said.
“This could especially be true for boys, since grandfathers can sometimes act as male role models, especially in lower-income communities beset by high rates of incarceration and related challenges.”
Smith-Greenaway also noted that gender socialization may explain boys’ unique vulnerability to these losses. Even though adolescent girls are more likely to experience depression, they tend to have more peer support and are socialized to grieve in more outward, expressive ways, whereas adolescent boys may feel pressure to internalize their emotions to avoid appearing weak.
Verdery added that future work could help identify the precise reasons why adolescent boys are especially at-risk.
Funding: The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped support this research.
Bereavement & mental health: The generational consequences of a grandparent’s death
The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of children and adolescents grieving the sudden death of a grandparent. Yet, we lack knowledge of the mental health implications of a grandparent’s death for youth.
This study uses longitudinal data to examine if the loss of a grandparent increases adolescent grandchildren’s likelihood of experiencing their mothers’ major depressive disorder, and of having depressive symptoms themselves.
Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based cohort study of children born in 20 U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, we estimate associations between the death of a maternal grandparent in mid-childhood and adolescents’, and their mothers’, depressive outcomes when the adolescent is roughly age 15 (in 2014–17), net of a robust set of covariates, including pre-bereavement depression.
Adjusted regression models show no elevated depression risk associated with a grandfather’s death—neither for adolescents nor their mothers.
A grandmother’s death within the previous seven years is associated with a higher likelihood of adolescents having a depressed mother compared to both non-bereaved adolescents (odds ratio (OR) = 2.42; 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.17, 5.01) and those whose grandmother died more than seven years ago (OR = 3.78; 95% CI = 1.54, 9.31).
Furthermore, adolescent boys have a 50% increase in their depressive symptoms following a grandmother’s death relative to their non-bereaved peers—an increase that operates independently from the influence of the death on their mother.
Together, the results show the death of a grandmother is an underappreciated, persistent risk factor for adolescents experiencing maternal major depressive disorder, and for adolescent boys experiencing depressive symptoms personally.