Background: AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death in South Africa. Little is known about the experiences of mothers who have lost a young child to AIDS. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the attitudes and experiences of women who had lost a young child to HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.
Methods: In-depth interviews were conducted with 10 women who had lost a child to AIDS. The average age of the deceased children was six years. Interviews were also conducted with 12 key informants to obtain their perspectives on working with women who had lost a child to AIDS. A thematic analysis of the transcripts was performed.
Results: In addition to the pain of losing a child, the women in this study had to endure multiple stresses within a harsh and sometimes hostile environment. Confronted with pervasive stigma and extreme poverty, they had few people they could rely on during their child's sickness and death. They were forced to keep their emotions to themselves since they were not likely to obtain much support from family members or people in the community. Throughout the period of caring for a sick child and watching the child die, they were essentially alone. The demands of caring for their child and subsequent grief, together with daily subsistence worries, took its toll. Key informants struggled to address the needs of these women due to several factors, including scarce resources, lack of training around bereavement issues, reluctance by people in the community to seek help with emotional issues, and poverty.
Conclusions: The present study offers one of the first perspectives on the experiences of mothers who have lost a young child to AIDS. Interventions that are tailored to the local context and address bereavement issues, as well as other issues that affect the daily lives of these mothers, are urgently needed. Further studies are needed to identify factors that promote resilience among these women.