The Maternal Bereavement Effect Explains Why Parents Die From Grief

Brilliance | Dec. 09, 2017

The December 2016 death of actress Carrie Fisher, followed a day later by her mother, the iconic Debbie Reynolds, became a tragic Hollywood example of the maternal bereavement effect. A 2013 study found that a mother's mortality rate increases dramatically after the loss of a child.

Mothers Can Die From A Broken Heart

If you've ever lost a loved one, you know the immense grief that consumes you. And as hard as it can be to lose a grandparent or a parent, studies show that losing a child might be the most debilitating loss. In some cases, studies show that bereavement can even be fatal. The aforementioned 2013 study of more than 69,000 American mothers found that losing a child is associated with an even larger mortality risk than the death of a husband or wife. In fact, a mother's chance of dying increases by 326 percent in the two years after the child's death, the study found. A few Israeli, Danish, and Swedish studies showed similar results.

In the case of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Dr. Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, told Science of Us that "grief likely played a role in Reynolds's death." Another Hollywood example of the maternal bereavement effect? The 2007 death of Anna Nicole Smith six months after her son died. Grief can also cause severe health conditions, such as heart attack or stroke.

Here's The Science Behind This Tragic Phenomenon

What is it about grief that causes such a severe reaction in parents? Elizabeth Mostofsky, Sc.D., a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard, told CNN that "depression, anxiety, and other strong emotions associated with grief may be partly responsible for the spike in heart-attack risk." These side effects are particularly harmful for pregnant women and the health of their babies. According to adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Victor Fornari, maximum amounts of stress hormones are also to blame. He elaborated to the Science of Us: "the increases in pulse, blood pressure, and arrhythmia can be life-threatening, especially to people with preexisting conditions."

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