ECONOMICS OF GRIEF: New evidence of the impact on parents of losing a child

The loss of a child has an immediate effect on almost every aspect of family life – from reducing household income to increasing the likelihood of divorce and reduced mental health.

Parents” economic wellbeing also suffers for a long time after intense grief has subsided: in some cases, the chances of being out of work years after the child”s death is 9% greater than if the child had not died, while the probability that a parent would be hospitalised for mental health problems is two to three times higher than otherwise.

These are among the findings of a new study by Professor Gerard van den Berg, Petter Lundborg and Johan Vikström, published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Their findings could help policy-makers improve the support provided to bereaved parents, which in turn could reduce the economic costs to the family and the state.

The researchers present a comprehensive picture of the devastating social and economic impact of a child”s death by analysing extensive information on the parents of all Swedish children aged one or older who died from traffic collisions or sudden accidents between 1993 and 2003 – almost 2,000 children.

In such cases, parents could not have modified their behaviour in response to an impending death, making their situation just before the tragedy comparable to parents in similar circumstances that have not lost a child.

Professor van den Berg explains:

”Clearly, grief may lead to sickness absence. But in some cases, the parent decides to quit work or is pushed into a long-term sickness programme. The resulting prolonged spells of inactivity may have persistent negative effects on the individual”s labour market chances.”

”After a substantial amount of time out of work, it becomes more and more difficult to find a job again. In extreme cases, the parent will never work again and could separate from their partner.”

”A loss of employment seems to trigger a downward spiral in parents” subsequent lives. This suggests that it is important to communicate to parents who have just lost a child that they should try, where possible, to continue working.”

”In addition, if such parents do actually quit employment, it may be sensible to think about how these people can get professional support and help to prevent a downward spiral in their subsequent lives.”

The study shows that the estimated effects on a grieving parent are invariant to most characteristics of the child; they do not depend on the age of the child, where the child is in the family birth order or overall family size. Professor van den Berg adds:

”Whether the child is a son or a daughter does not matter either, with one exception. If a family has more than one daughter and one of them dies, then the father seems to be less affected than if the family has multiple sons of which one dies.”

”In the latter scenario, the father”s income goes down more strongly than in the former. For mothers, we do not see such differences, and if the only daughter dies, then there is no difference for fathers either.”

”The Economics of Grief” by Gerard van den Berg, Petter Lundborg and Johan Vikström is published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Gerard van den Berg is at the University of Bristol. Petter Lundborg is at Lund University. Johan Vikström is at Uppsala University.

Johan Vikström