A recent qualitative analysis examined the experience of bereaved parents navigating the loss of a co-parent to cancer. Results of this study were presented in a European Oncology Nursing Society (EONS) session at the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress by Jeff Hanna, PhD, of Ulster University in Jordanstown, UK, and Cherith Semple, PhD, of the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Dundonald, UK.
In his presentation, Dr Hanna said, “1 of 14 children experience the death of a parent before their 18th birthday.” These children are at risk of adverse mental and physical health outcomes, as are bereaved co-parents, he explained, but the experience of bereaved children and co-parents is not fully understood.
The study involved semistructured one-to-one interviews with parents of dependent children younger than 18 years, who have experienced a co-parent’s death from cancer. Participants were recruited through a family support service, a hospice, and a public advertisement in Northern Ireland.
Twenty-one bereaved parents were recruited (12 mothers and 9 fathers). Two predominant themes emerged in the study: adapting to life without the parent who died from cancer and keeping alive the memory of the deceased parent.
Among parents, keeping the children’s routine stable was considered helpful, although this was sometimes challenging with the additional responsibilities now on the sole parent. There was also tension parents felt regarding getting back to other aspects of life, such as work. Work was identified as important for financial support, but some parents felt they needed time to adapt to new responsibilities associated with being the sole parent, and social networks were helpful for some.
“Bereaved parents also did report very intense feelings of loneliness as they were now having to navigate the responsibility of parenting alone,” Dr Hanna said. There was very much a strong sense of something missing from these bereaved parents regarding activities previously cherished as a couple, such as going on holiday or having a family meal together, he continued.
Navigating grief as a family varied, and some parents were concerned that children may not be fully processing the loss. Meeting others who have gone through a similar experience appeared helpful.
Regarding the theme of keeping the memory of the deceased co-parent alive, Dr Hanna explained that helpful approaches included integrating mention of the deceased parent into conversations, discussing memories, and also looking at photos and videos obtained prior to the parent dying. Not all parents were certain of when or how to incorporate these approaches.
Drs Hanna and Semple’s presentation offered recommendations, such as urging bereaving parents to remember grief is a process, to maximize support networks, and to remember the importance of self-care. They also pointed out that school plays an important role in the child’s experience. Dr Hanna mentioned the importance of “recognizing it’s not necessarily about striving to be that perfect parent but being a good parent and doing what you can in the here and now and everyday.”
Hanna JR, Semple CJ. Bereaved parents’ experience of adapting to life after the death of a parent with cancer who has dependent children. Ann Onc. 2022;33(suppl_7):S815-S817. doi:10.1016/annonc/annonc1043