Finding a way forward. Shutterstock
The death of a child is one of the most traumatic experiences that a parent can experience. Those who do experience it can struggle to recover. Child loss leads to intense grief and depression. Many affected parents state even decades later that their sense of joy in life has simply never returned.
These changes may also have an effect on the parents’ economic well-being.
Now, it might seem callous to link the huge pain of mourning for a lost child to the implications for the parents’ earnings. As the stereotype suggests, it takes an economist to quantify emotions in terms of money. And I admit that the economic impact is of second order importance when seen in the light of the intense grief in such heartbreaking circumstances.
But there are sensible reasons for examining the long-term impact on economic health. Deaths due to traffic accidents or medical malpractice may often result in financial compensation. In such cases, one should take future income losses for the parents into account.
Perhaps more importantly, not all parents suffer to the same extent in terms of their earnings. Our data show that many years after the loss of a child, some parents earn 30% less, year after year after year, whereas others start with an income loss of 10% but then almost fully recover their income loss some six years later. By following parents over time, we can learn a lot about what drives these differences. Is there some event after the child loss that increases the likelihood of a downward spiral? And if so, can we use policy measures to prevent that from happening?
Studying the economic effects of child loss may also shed light on effects of grief in general. Grief can be triggered by many other, less dramatic, events, such as the death of a more remote family member or the end of a relationship. If we see that the effect on the father’s earnings depends on the gender of the child and on the household composition at the time of loss then we may be able to deduce more general insights about what drives the severity of grief responses. This is what we set out to do in our research.
Much of the existing literature on child loss focuses on the intensity of the grief itself. As child loss is rare, and as many affected parents are not in the mood to be interviewed by academic researchers, these studies often end up with very small numbers of parents available as study material for interviewing. It is difficult from a practical point of view to follow them up years after the child loss, or to gain access to comparison groups of parents who were in the same situation but who did not experience child loss.
In our research, we took a radically different approach. We did not talk to the parents. Instead, we used population registers following the whole population of a country (Sweden) for 11 years (1993-2003) to observe child deaths and the circumstances in the household before and after the death.