The death of a child can shorten the life of their parents, particularly mothers, a study suggests.
Researchers have found that women who lose a child are much more likely to commit suicide, die in an accident and even die from disease compared with other mothers.
Fathers are also affected but to a lesser extent.
Doctors believe the grief and stress associated with such an event are to blame.
They said their findings highlighted the need for professionals to do more to help parents cope with losing a child.
Dr Jorn Olsen and colleagues at the University of Aarhus in Denmark studied the health records of more than 21,000 parents who had a child die between 1980 and 1996.
They compared their medical histories with almost 300,000 parents whose children were still alive.
They found that women who lose a child are four times more likely to commit suicide or die in an accident in the four years after the child’s death.
After this time, the chances of dying in this way decrease but are still high - twice the rate of other women.
In addition, these women are 44% more likely to die from heart disease, cancer and other serious conditions later in life.
Fathers who lose a child do not appear to be at increased risk of dying from natural causes.
However, they are twice as likely to commit suicide or die in an accident in the four years after the child’s death, compared with other men.
Dr Olsen said the stress associated with losing a child can have a long-term impact on a mother’s health.
“Losing a child is one of the most stressful events there is. Stress can cause a rise in blood pressure which can put people at risk of heart disease.
“Stress can also cause people to adopt less healthy lifestyles such as drinking or smoking.”
Speaking to the BBC, he added: “The important message is to realise this is a dangerous situation for the family.
“If parents do not deal with their grief successfully they are at risk of dying early.
“Public health officials need to ensure that these people get the support they need to help them cope.”
The study is published in The Lancet.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD