A psychotherapeutic exploration of the long-term effects of the death of a parent in childhood

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Coghlan, Anne
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BA (Hons) Counselling and Psychotherapy
Dublin Business School
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Parental death is possibly one of the most traumatic events that can occur in childhood, a reality faced by approximately 5% of the general population, with several studies suggesting negative outcomes over the long-term for those who have experienced such an event. The purpose of this study was to explore, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, the long-term effects of the death of a parent in childhood, with a view to gaining a qualitative insight into such experiences in order to supplement the wealth of quantitative data available. Existing research into the consequences of parental bereavement in childhood was examined, which was broadly indicative of a range of disadvantages over the long-term for individuals within this category. In particular, a higher incidence of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem amongst those who had been parentally bereaved in childhood emerged in the findings, compared with their non-bereaved counterparts. A further key element, which transpired from the existing literature, related to additional factors contributing to outcomes in adulthood. Specifically, the level of support provided to the bereaved child by the surviving parent seems to play a key role in determining any potential long-term effects, as does the age of the child at the time of bereavement and also possibly their gender. Based on the literature reviewed, younger children were at greater risk of negative outcomes, as were females. In terms of supplementing this literature with a psychotherapeutic exploration of the long-term effects of a parental death in childhood, four therapists were interviewed, each of whom had experience of working with clients who had experienced such a loss. A total of eight clients in this category were discussed and the semi-structured nature of the interviews allowed for a deeper level of insight into the experiences of these individuals, than is necessarily conveyed within existing studies. Similar to the reviewed literature, the findings which emerged from the interviews also pointed towards a prevalence of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in those who had experienced an early parental bereavement. Of additional note, however, was the way in which these difficulties manifested into the lives of those affected, quite often impacting on personal relationships. Finally, this research also notes that despite the emphasis on negative long-term effects of the death of a parent in childhood, not everybody who experiences this type of loss goes on to experience difficulties in later life as a result. Specifically, those who receive a strong level of support from the surviving parent appear less likely to suffer negative consequences. A key recommendation arising, therefore, suggests a greater level of education and support be made available to the surviving parent in order to provide them with the tools to minimise for their child, insofar as is possible, the type of negative outcomes at the focus of this research. Author keywords: Bereavement, death, grief, long-term effects, childhood, parent