Background: Little is known about the effect of parental bereavement on physical health. We investigated whether the death of a child increased mortality in parents.
Methods: We undertook a follow-up study based on national registers. From 1980 to 1996, we enrolled 21062 parents in Denmark who had a child who had died (exposed cohort), and 293745 controls--ie, parents whose children were alive, and whose family structure matched that of the exposed cohort. Natural deaths were defined with ICD8 codes 0000-7969 and ICD10 codes A00-R99, and unnatural deaths with codes 8000-9999 and V01-Y98. We used Cox's proportional-hazards regression models to assess the mortality rate of parents up to 18 years after bereavement.
Findings: We observed an increased overall mortality rate in mothers whose child had died (hazards ratio 1.43, 95% CI 1.24-1.64; p<0.0001). An excess mortality from natural causes (1.44, 1.15-1.78; p<0.0001) was noted in mothers only during the 10th-18th year of follow-up. Mothers had increased mortality rates from unnatural causes throughout follow-up, with the highest rate recorded during the first 3 years (3.84, 2.48-5.88; p<0.0001). Bereaved fathers had only an early excess mortality from unnatural causes (1.57, 1.06-2.32; p=0.04). Mothers who lost a child due to an unnatural death or an unexpected death had a hazard ratio of 1.72 (1.38-2.15; p=0.0040) and 1.67 (1.37-2.03; p=0.0037), respectively.
Interpretation: The death of a child is associated with an overall increased mortality from both natural and unnatural causes in mothers, and an early increased mortality from unnatural causes in fathers.