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

May 5, 2003

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.

6 Comments to "Research examines the reaction of adult children upon the death of a parent"

1.  nancy rafert said on Aug. 13, 2011

My elderly mother's illness and death was something I could cope with; it was expected, gentle, and after a long life. I was her POA and executor. I am the second youngest of 4 children, all of us in our late 50's or early 60's. Over the 5 year period of her decline, death (2 1/2 yrs ago) and settlement of her estate, my relationship with my siblings has deteriorated tremendously. I assume there were some latent rivalry issues that came out, although I am still confused and deeply hurt by the extent and depth of them. I believe I have been scapegoated: frequently the subject of hostility, criticism, and at best cautious or superficial cordiality for the entire time. Nothing I have done has been right or good enough despite a fair and legally airtight will, the assistance of a lawfirm, and no history of financial wrong doing in our family. It is a huge loss for me, and I keep grieving the loss the rest of my family of origin. When my father died 23 years ago, it was not the same. I would be interested in any thoughts or research regarding adult child dynamics/relationships after a parent's death. I am a therapist myself and also seeking personal perspective. Thanks,

2.  Troy Brauchlae said on Sept. 30, 2011

I just lost my Mother, I was a caregiver for her and my Father since 2007. My father passed 10/08. Mother just past last month. My siblings are ganging on me because I got the house. I will give them what Mother requested. I can't sleep, hardly eat. All I think of is 'what are they doing, what are they thinking?" I moved here from Austin to take care of them with my partner who was attending UT. Now it's my fault he didn't finish school. We were there 10 yrs. and he didn't finish in that amount of time either.

3.  Kevin S. said on Oct. 5, 2011

My father just passed away recently (last weekend). We were not close and had been estranged for years. He was a very abusive man, especially towards my older siblings who bore the brunt of his violence. I was not prepared for how different you feel as a person when a parent dies. Your sense of self changes and you begin to examine all your previous interactions with your parent, especially the ones where there could have been an opportunity to heal, but it did not occur for whatever reason. It's very difficult to put into words how this experience changes you. You expect that since you were not close you will not be so affected when they die. This is not true.

4.  alicia black said on Feb. 9, 2012

my father paased 7/20/10, aftet 49 years together mother has one year to live, i moved closer in miles, not mind, my little sister's are freaking out, as the oldest how do i cope? should i fast tract my grief and deal with it?

p.s. just sisters, no brothers

5.  Jeannie said on March 13, 2012

I would be very interested to know if any of the adult children started reaching out to relatives they hardly know, tried to build bridges that they never cared much for before the death of the parent. If so, what could be the sane reasoning behind this behavior?


6.  Joey said on May 17, 2012

Is there research on those same adult children who have experienced a loss of a parent by means of suicide? And the long term effect of losing that parent (father) for example at the age of 13 having never grieved or cried until college graduation day? Never openly speaking about or talking with his or her mother as to why, never knowing? What are the effects long term for a young man or woman, now an adult child having experienced this horrific trauma and never having dealt with it?? Where do they go now how do know, what potential long term anything would one of these adult children experience and where do they finally find or go for closure or peace?