Depressive Symptoms Trajectories Following Child Death in Later Life: Variation by Race-Ethnicity

TitleDepressive Symptoms Trajectories Following Child Death in Later Life: Variation by Race-Ethnicity
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsMellencamp, KAlexander
Academic DepartmentSociology
DegreeMaster of Arts
Number of Pages87
Date Published2019
UniversityBowling Green State University
CityBowling Green, OH
Keywordsacute, child death, chronic, cumulative disadvantage, Depressive symptoms, Growth curve modelling, later life, parental bereavement, race-ethnicity, Resilience, trajectory

Child death is among the most traumatic experiences a parent can endure. Prior studies have shown that this event is associated with immediate and protracted detriments to parents' psychological well-being earlier in the life course. Yet research examining child death experienced in mid-to-late life is scant. Moreover, no study has considered whether and how the death of a child may influence parents' psychological well-being differently across various racial-ethnic groups. To fill these gaps in the literature, I applied growth curve models to the 1998-2014 Health and Retirement Study to address two research aims. First, I mapped a trajectory of bereaved parents' depressive symptoms before and after child death and compared it to that of nonbereaved parents among adults aged 50 and older. Second, I compared the depressive symptoms trajectories of bereaved black and Hispanic parents to that of bereaved white parents. On average, both mothers and fathers experienced an immediate elevation in depressive symptoms following child death. It took bereaved mothers about 5 years to recover to depressive symptoms levels comparable to nonbereaved mothers' but bereaved fathers never fully recovered. Results from the second aim painted a more nuanced picture. Parental bereavement was equally detrimental in the short- and long-term for white, black, and Hispanic mothers, who all recovered in about 4 years, as well as for white and Hispanic fathers, who recovered in 6 years, suggesting child death is an acute stressor. However, black fathers displayed resilience as resistance to the initial detrimental effect of parental bereavement by reporting a surprising reduction in depressive symptoms immediately following child death. Black fathers who experienced child death reported worse well-being relative to white fathers both prior to and after child death, and even after reporting a decrease in depressive symptoms following bereavement, never reverted to nonbereaved levels of depressive symptoms, suggesting that black fathers' cumulative disadvantages in later life may provide them the coping repertoire necessary to resist the immediate psychological detriments associated with child death. Together, these findings suggest that future research should examine adjustment to bereavement separately by race-ethnicity and gender to unpack any heterogeneity in the short- and long-term outcomes associated with family death.

Citation Key10249