The death of an infant or child has been described as the most stressful life event, but few reports exist on the effects on parents’ physical health in the year after the death.
To examine acute illnesses, use of health services, and medication changes among parents from 3 racial/ethnic groups 1 to 13 months after the death of an infant or child in the neonatal intensive care unit or pediatric intensive care unit.
In a longitudinal study, 96 parents (41% black, 32% Hispanic, 27% white) of deceased infants or children were recruited from 4 children’s hospitals and death records. Parents reported demographic information, acute illnesses, health services used, and medication changes 1 to 13 months after the death. Descriptive statistics and 1-way analysis of variance were used to analyze the data.
Seventy mothers (age, mean [SD], 35.9 [7.13] years) and 26 fathers (age, 39.0 [7.37] years) participated; 56% of mothers and 42% of fathers had preexisting health problems before the death. Morbidity was greatest in the first 6 months, was relatively quiescent in months 7 through 10, and increased in months 11 through 13. Mothers reported 363 acute illnesses, 16 hospitalizations, and 124 medication changes. Morbidity rates and medication changes for fathers followed similar patterns but with lower frequency.
After the death of an infant or child, interventions for parents, especially parents with chronic health problems, are best targeted on illness prevention and mental health in months 1 to 6 and 11 to 13 following the death.