Death of a Parent Has Multi-Generational Impact: New York Life Foundation Survey

When a child experiences the death of a parent, that loss often has a multi-generational impact tangibly shaping parenting decisions that occur decades later, according to new survey results from the New York Life Foundation.


In the survey, a strong majority (71%) of adults who had lost a parent growing up felt that the loss affected or affects the way that they parent their own children, and nearly eight in 10 (79%) said that they missed the perspective and guidance of their parent when they became a parent themselves. An overwhelming majority (85%) wished they could talk to their deceased parent about life as an adult.

“The survey findings reinforce that childhood grief is a lifelong journey that extends far beyond childhood and into the next generation,” said Heather Nesle, president of the New York Life Foundation, the leading corporate funder of programs that assist grieving children and their families.

Survey respondents cited a range of ways in which the loss of a parent, despite its lasting impact, had actually helped them become stronger parents. A full 72 percent said that losing their parent had helped them become a better parent overall, including conveying to their child(ren) the importance of never taking anyone for granted (86%).

“Encouragingly, many who experience childhood bereavement experience growth in areas such as awareness of their own strengths and the importance of personal relationships. These strengths can be an important asset that they will be able to bring to their role as parents down the road. The quality of support they received from their surviving parent after the death has been found to be one of the strongest predictors of their growth over time,” said Dr. Irwin Sandler, Director of the Prevention Research Center at Arizona State University, where he leads the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program.

Personal Experience with Loss Inspires More Attention to Family Traditions

Many parents who experienced the loss of a parent at a young age identified positive parenting habits that they attributed to their loss. More than three-quarters (78 percent) said that the loss prompted them to develop more family traditions with their own child(ren), and to work harder to document and record family memories for their children.

Among Americans overall, 73 percent wish that they were doing more to preserve their family’s memories for the sake of their children down the road.

“Bereaved children often grow up treasuring their special memories of traditions shared with their deceased loved one,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). “As a result, they tend to be especially purposeful about honoring family traditions when they become parents themselves.”

Clear Message from Bereaved Families: Grieving Parents Need Support, Too

Nearly half (47%) of those who experienced the loss of a parent growing up said that their surviving parent’s struggles to cope with the loss had a negative impact on them. As a result, a strong majority (71%) wishes that there had been more resources available to help their surviving parent cope with their grief.

“Through our many partnerships in the grief support space, the New York Life Foundation sees firsthand how hard it is for grieving children to receive adequate care when their parent or guardian isn’t being attended to as well,” said Nesle. “In response, we’ve begun dedicating more grantmaking dollars to initiatives that focus on extending care to the entire family grieving parents in particular.”

These include the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program at Arizona State University’s Reach Institute, which promotes effective parenting and teaches resiliency skills following the death of a parent/caregiver, and the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, which is developing a new app for parents to process grief and communicate about loss effectively with their children.

The Foundation is also reaching grieving parents through its longstanding partnerships with leading bereavement camp networks Comfort Zone Camp and The Moyer Foundation/Camp Erin, which have both begun to incorporate programming and resources for parents to supplement the camp experience for children.

“All of these projects share the conviction that when a grieving parent is supported, the whole family benefits,” said Nesle. “That’s why parent-focused initiatives in the bereavement space are so critical and need our continued support.”

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