Role of Gender in the Effects of Immediate Family Network Members’ Deaths on Adult Children’s Psychological Well-Being

Jill Suitor, Megan Gilligan, Yifei Hou, Marissa Rurka


The impact of major negative life events that are shared by all members of networks, such as the deaths of central members, may be shaped by the gender of both the individual who experienced the event and the gender of other members of the network. In this paper, we use mixed-methods data from the Within-Family Differences Study to explore how the psychological well-being of adult children is affected by the deaths of mothers, fathers, and siblings, as well as to examine how gender shapes these processes. We address these questions using data collected from 800 adult children nested within 350 families, approximately 25% of which experienced the death of at least one parent or sibling in the previous five years. Multilevel regression analyses using the full sample showed that the deaths of siblings did not affect the depressive symptoms of surviving brothers and sisters; however, separate analyses by gender revealed that sibling death predicted sisters’ but not brothers’ depressive symptoms. In contrast, analyses using the full sample showed that parental death was associated with higher depressive symptoms; but only in the case of mothers’ death. However, further analyses revealed that both parents’ and children’s gender moderated the impact of parental death on well-being. Only mothers’ deaths were found to predict daughters’ depressive symptoms, whereas neither parents’ deaths predicted sons’ well-being. Qualitative data revealed that sisters were substantially more likely than brothers to say that their mothers’ and siblings’ deaths had affected their day-to-day lives, including their social relationships. In particular, they reported that both their mothers’ and siblings’ deaths had led to higher conflict within the sibling network, which previous research has shown to be an important predictor of helping psychological well-being. Taken together, these findings demonstrate the salient role of gender in shaping well-being following major negative life events, even in the face of events of such magnitude as the deaths of parents and siblings in adulthood.



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