African-Americans suffer inordinate loss of parents, children and siblings

(Reuters Health) - By the time they turned 10 years old, black children born in the U.S. in the 1980s were three times more likely than white children to have lost their mothers and twice as likely to have lost their fathers, a new study shows.

Lead researcher Debra Umberson imagines the grieving children and the far-reaching repercussions of their losses when looking at her study’s broader findings: compared to white individuals, black people born between 1900 and 1984 had to cope far more often with the deaths of their parents, siblings and even their children, earlier and throughout their lives.

“It’s a national crisis,” she said in a phone interview. “The effects of these deaths reverberate throughout these communities.”

Umberson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and her team compared national statistics for blacks and whites between 1900 and 1965 and between 1980 and 1984. The findings point to the “the spiraling damage” of racial disparities, the authors write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Blacks born from 1900 through 1965 were twice as likely as whites to have lost their mothers and 50 percent more likely to have lost their fathers by the age of 20, the study found. By age 60, they were nearly twice as likely to have lost a spouse and 50 percent more likely to have lost a sibling.

“I’m almost 60. I have never lost anyone,” said Umberson, who is white.

One of the statistics that startled her most was the racial disparity for child loss. Blacks born in the 1980s were two and a half times more likely to have lost a child by age 20 than whites, the study found. Blacks born from 1900 to 1965 were more than three times more likely to have lost a child between the ages of 50 and 70.

“All of these losses are very scarring. It’s parents losing children; it’s children losing parents, and it’s altering the families these people come from,” she said.

Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, a psychology professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has seen the toll of grief and loss on young men she interviewed in Baltimore.

“The study echoes and affirms what young black men have been communicating to me is happening in their daily lives,” she told Reuters Health.

They grapple with the loss of their relatives and friends, and they so often see death that they fear for their own lives, Lee said.

A 19-year-old man in East Baltimore told her: “It’s a lot of work to keep your life.”

The news media have reported on the disproportionate number of black men killed on the streets, Umberson said. But blacks die even more frequently from illness.

“I think it’s extraordinarily important that we draw attention to the race difference in homicide,” Umberson said. “Violence is a leading cause of death.”

“It’s a big deal, but others are even bigger. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, perinatal conditions contribute to more of the race difference in life expectancy than homicide,” she said.

Previous studies have shown that mourning increases the risk for mental and physical illness, and the consequences may be particularly rough and lasting for grieving children and young adults, the authors write.

Often, when children return to school after experiencing the death of a mother, father, sister or brother, their teachers have no idea, Umberson said.

“The kid just comes back and starts acting out,” she said.

Umberson and Lee both called for programs to help teachers, doctors and others to identify children who are in grief and to provide needed support.

Some of the young men Lee interviewed in Baltimore told her she was the first person who talked to them about the violence they confront daily.

One youth told her he expected to die before he turned 25. When she interviewed him again, he had passed the milestone.

He rolled up to meet her in a wheelchair. He’d been shot in both legs during a robbery just past his 25th birthday.

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online January 23, 2017.