Losing a grandmother early in life could lead to severe and lasting mental health effects in adolescents and children, according to a new study

Because the death of a grandparent is a sad but normal part of life, the study findings may be surprising.

Published in SSM – Mental Health, the study revealed that the effects were very profound since losing a grandparent did not only increase the risk of adolescents having a depressed parent but also have higher depressive symptoms themselves.

Past research confirmed that grandchildren greatly benefit from the involvement and support of their grandparents. This is especially true for kids who grow up having single mothers because maternal grandparents provide a safety net through housing stability, child care, and emotional support — all are pillars for growth and development.

But what happens when that grandparent dies? In the study, the researchers used a national dataset on a sample of mother and adolescent pairs whom researchers have interviewed several times since the child’s birth. The researchers analyzed whether a grandmother’s death in later childhood or early adolescence affected their depressive symptoms. The same analysis was done on their mothers.

The researchers found that following a grandmother’s death, adult daughters tend to get more depressed relative to other women, experiencing an increase in symptoms for up to seven years following the death. Meanwhile, adolescent boys who lost their grandmother in the same time frame had higher depressive symptoms than their peers. This often leads to branching effects, such as poor performance in school and a lack of motivation to maintain healthy relationships with peers.

Interestingly, the researchers found no statistically significant increase in depression after a grandfather died.

This study comes at a time when adolescent mental health has steadily worsened. Fueled by financial hardship, social isolation, a looming climate crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, teen depression rates are reportedly rising.

According to the researchers, the findings underline the pressing need for both adolescents and parents to have immediate access to services that offer mental health support, especially now that grandparent death is a common experience in the COVID-19 era.