UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Losing a grandmother may trigger depression among her surviving family members, according to a new Penn State study. Any death in a family is a tragedy, but study authors report a significant correlation between a grandmother passing away and depression,
This appears especially true among adolescent boys. The study states that for up to seven years after the passing of their grandmother, adolescent boys showed a 50 percent increase in depression symptoms in comparison to peers who were not grieving a loss. The loss of a grandma was also linked to a higher chance of both adolescent boys’ and girls’ mothers becoming depressed.
What can we learn from this research? Study authors say it’s important for society to recognize that the loss of a grandma is a serious risk factor for depression – and not just for a few weeks either. This increased risk lasts for years. The team at Penn State hopes their work can identify new ways of intervening and stopping adolescent depression before it has a chance to develop into something even more serious like substance abuse, major depressive disorders, etc.
“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,” says study author Ashton Verdery, Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics at Penn State, in a press release. “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.”
Prof. Verdery, in collaboration with Michelle Livings and Emily Smith-Greenaway from the University of Southern California, and Rachel Margolis from the University of Western Ontario, has been studying bereavement (loss of a loved one) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way, researchers noticed how little work had been done focusing specifically on the death of a grandparent during one’s 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,” Prof. Verdery explains. “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.”
According to the research team’s calculations, approximately four million U.S. children and adolescents have lost a grandparent to COVID-19. That’s a major addition to the usual 10-12 million U.S. kids who lose grandparents annually due to other causes.
“Not only have youth faced school closures, social distancing, and subsequent isolation since the pandemic started, but millions are also grieving a grandparent,” Livings adds.
To reach these latest findings, study authors analyzed data on 4,897 primarily low-income children and their parents. Among that larger group, 3,086 had been tracked between ages nine through 15. Data included information on depressive symptoms among both the kids and their mothers, adolescent genders, and of course, whether or not they had lost a grandparent during the study.
As far as explaining these results, Prof. Verdery says more work is needed. For example, study authors can’t say right now why the loss of a grandfather doesn’t have the same effect — although losing a grandpa likely impacts family members 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,” Prof. Verdery concludes. “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.”
Why adolescent boys and not girls? Smith-Greenaway speculates young girls are usually more open about their feelings and have more emotional support to fall back on than boys. Young men often feel like they must internalize, or push away, their emotions.
The study is published in SSM – Mental Health.