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How does the sudden death of a parent affect a child? (Counselling Articles)

A number of researchers have theorized that the sudden death of a parent — such as from a car accident, job-site fatality, suicide or  homicide — may lead to worse suffering for a child than when the death of the parent is anticipated.

When a sudden death occurs, a child may experience a state of shock after being told that their parent has died. Without having a chance to say goodbye, or a satisfying explanation for why their parent is no longer alive, a child may develop the tendency to anticipate greater unpredictability in life.

When counseling for such instances, I often talk about learned helplessness theory, which explains how unpredictability can lead to increased symptoms of stress and depression.

When the death of a parent is the result of an accident, suicide, or homicide, I want to know whether the deceased parent was experiencing any mental health problems as a psychologist providing counseling for the surviving children. My curiosity stems from the fact that accidental deaths are associated with higher mental health problems in the deceased. Death due to suicide is associated with higher levels of depression and/or substance abuse. Death due to homicide frequently results from involvement in criminal or high-risk activities such as the drug trade when the deceased was not an innocent bystander.

Although these explanations implicate the characteristics of the parent who died, rather than the suddenness of death itself, they support the possibility that the child may develop poorer mental health, whether explained through the method of parenting they may have experienced or a possible genetic linkage.

Whatever the cause of the sudden death, counselling can help clarify how sudden death can be a cause for a child to anticipate greater unpredictability in life, and better define their need for persistent vigilance.

Read more about How the anticipated death of a parent affects a child’s mental health? and How do children respond to the death of a parent over time?

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