New York, NY, November 15, 2017—Those who lose a parent growing up feel an impact that resounds over a lifetime – but usually only receive support from family and friends for a few short months, according to a new survey on bereavement from the New York Life Foundation.
The survey revealed that 57 percent of Millennials and Gen Xers who had lost a parent growing up felt that support tapered off within a mere three months of the loss, with 20 percent saying that support declined after the first week and an additional 21 percent saying after the first month.
At the same time, those who lost a parent growing up attest to the relentless, long-term nature of grief. When asked how long it took before they could be happy again and move forward after the loss, the mean period was over six years, and grievers’ most common response was "I’ve never been okay with my loss" (30%). They identified the top misperception of grief as "Just because you seem okay on the outside means you must be fine on the inside" (50%).
"For many, childhood bereavement is a deeply painful and destabilizing experience that warrants attention and support long after the death," said Brook Griese, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Judi’s House/JAG Institute in Denver, Colorado. "Yet, support from family and friends often falls away after only a few short months. There is not a timeline or formula for grief, so a continuum of effective services and resources needs to be accessible to children and families whenever and however their grief affects their lives."
But for those looking to help, the survey reveals that even the simplest acts can make a big difference to a bereaved child. Individuals who lost a parent growing up identified the most helpful things family or friends did after their loss as basic gestures like sharing stories about their loved one, remembering important dates like birthdays and death anniversaries, spending holiday time with them, and continuing to ask how they were doing well after the loss.
"Given these results, we are encouraging people to take some time around Children’s Grief Awareness Day and reach out to those family and friends who have lost someone special in their lives. A small gesture - a phone call or a visit, even a text – can provide meaningful support," said Heather Nesle, president of the New York Life Foundation.
The survey, the latest in New York Life Foundation’s research series around the issue of childhood bereavement in America, was released in conjunction with Children’s Grief Awareness Day (Thursday, November 16). The new survey, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights, polled 1,004 Americans and 587 Millennials/Gen Xers who had lost a parent before age 20. The New York Life Foundation is the largest corporate funder of childhood bereavement support.
Public Dialogue Around Loss Is Growing – But Societal Discomfort Persists
The survey revealed that while there is growing dialogue around death and loss in the United States, general societal discomfort persists – frequently to the detriment of bereaved individuals.
On the one hand, 70 percent of Americans believe that today people are more open about issues of death and dying than they were five to ten years ago. But at the same time, well over half (63%) of Americans admit that they have sometimes avoided talking to someone about their loss because they were worried they’d say the wrong thing.
Those who have experienced childhood bereavement testify to the ongoing problem, with 68 percent acknowledging that it would have been easier to cope with their grief if our society was more open to talking about death and loss.
"Despite its ubiquity, grief is a deeply isolating experience," said Nesle. "We need to break through the persistent and debilitating silence that too often surrounds death and loss by continuing to develop a public vocabulary and comfort level around the issue."
Opportunity Ripe for Greater Online Bereavement Support But More Personal Communication Still Matters
Social media is becoming a common medium to communicate about loss, with over half of Americans (52%) reporting their use of social media to share thoughts about someone who has passed. Even more Americans (58%) say that social media has enabled them to reach out to people they otherwise wouldn’t have to express condolences about the loss of a loved one.
But the survey also found that nothing can take the place of reaching out in a more personal way. When asked about preferred modes of communication following their loss, 41 percent said that they preferred for friends to reach out in person or over the phone rather than online.
"Social media can greatly facilitate the sharing of condolences and concern, but it’s clear that Americans are looking for more ongoing support and one-off messages are not always enough," said Nesle.
Of course, communication cuts two ways. Interestingly, relatively few bereaved are using social media as an outlet to cope with their grief. Only 26 percent of those who lost a parent reported that they have used social media to connect with other grieving individuals – signaling a significant opportunity for more online support and networks.
"In today’s highly connected, digital world, there are important opportunities to provide bereaved individuals with support and information that can be accessed easily and in a time and place that is comfortable for the bereaved person," said Katherine Shear, MD, Director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. Dr. Shear, with a grant from the New York Life Foundation, has developed a mobile app to help bereaved parents provide better support for their grieving children by understanding and navigating their own grief journeys.
Most Americans Have Dealt with Loss, Yet Only a Minority Know Where to Turn for Help
For most Americans, the issue of bereavement hits close to home: 80% of those surveyed said that they have experienced the loss of a close friend or relative that had a profound impact on them. Yet when it comes to resources, less than half of Americans (46%) said they would know where to turn in their community for help if they suffered a loss and among those who lost a parent growing up, 54 percent say they struggled to find grief resources after the death.
"Across the country, numerous grief support programs, bereavement camps, and grief-related interventions are being offered, but all too often, bereaved families don't know where to find them. We know that bereaved youth can benefit from various forms of support following a death, so identifying and locating those resources is a critical component of helping children adapt to the loss and build resiliency," said Julie B. Kaplow, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. Director, The Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children's Hospital.
In the survey, those who lost a parent growing up who said they had been able to move forward "very well" were twice as likely as those who didn’t feel they had been able to move forward well to report that their support did not taper off (27% vs. 14%). The more resilient group was also less likely to say that they had struggled to find grief resources after the loss (35% vs. 67%).
Importantly, Americans do acknowledge that the onus to close the support and resource gap falls on everyone. Eighty-five percent of Americans say that there is a lot more we all can do to better support kids who lose a loved one growing up.
And with activity in the grief support space on the rise, numerous new resources are available for grieving children and those who want to support them – including their families, educators, and community members. A summary list of current resources can be found on the New York Life Foundation’s site.
"When New York Life began investing in the child bereavement space in 2008, there was very little public conversation about death and loss, despite the fact that virtually everyone experiences a profound loss at some point in time," said Nesle. "But we’re encouraged that today public openness and inclination to lend support is on the rise. It’s incumbent on all of us to translate this momentum into action."
Inspired by New York Life’s tradition of service and humanity, the New York Life Foundation has, since its founding in 1979, provided more than $240 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofit organizations. The Foundation supports programs that benefit young people, particularly in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement. The Foundation also encourages and facilitates the community involvement of employees and agents of New York Life through its Volunteers for Good program. To learn more, please visit www.newyorklifefoundation.org.