Losing a Grandparent Hurts Boys at School

Death is not random. Demographers estimate that 75 percent of Americans are expected to live to age 70, meaning that most deaths occur late in life. The death of an older relative, such as a grandparent, is expected. As such, a grandparent’s death is considered part of life and not an event with consequences that ripple through space and time. But what if this is a misconception?

Historically, there has not been much research on this topic. Social scientists have tended to downplay grandparental death as a potentially significant event in a young person’s life. Scholars have long taken interest in adverse consequences of deaths viewed as more traumatic, such as those of a parent, sibling or child. But grandparental deaths are almost never studied—despite being at least 10 times more common than any other losses for people under age 20. Perhaps this reflects the general view that grandparent deaths are just part of life, an excuse to miss gym class or an inconvenient exam.

A closer look at the death of grandparents, however, reveals that the impact of their loss is very real and can be harmful for boys in particular. Our research shows that losing a grandparent hurts boys in school at a critical time in their life, and this is especially the case for Black and Hispanic boys.

Approximately 7.3 million children—about 10 percent of U.S. kids—live with their grandparents, a phenomenon that is especially common among Asian, Hispanic, Black and other minority populations, as well as among families with less education and fewer resources. But it is far from rare in any demographic groups. Social scientists overlooking grandparental death contrasts with robust findings emphasizing the importance of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren, especially when grandkids live with single moms. Grandparents often help with childcare, financial support and housing, all essential to their grandchildren’s development and well-being. A grandparent’s death can ripple throughout a family, influencing not only a grandchild directly but also their parents’ mental health, behavior and even economic and relationship stability.

Given how common grandparental death is, and with good reason to expect that such a loss might carry hidden costs, we set out to understand whether and how young grandchildren respond. Our suspicion, based on the vital roles grandparents play in their grandchildren’s lives, was that their death would disrupt their grandchildren’s healthy development. We wanted to go beyond looking at feelings of sadness, or even the somewhat rarer development of psychological disorders. Therefore, we focused on more intermediate outcomes, including cognitive development, school performance and ultimately the mastering of academic skills.

We used a national dataset of pairs of mothers and children interviewed multiple times since the child’s birth. This dataset focuses on diverse family circumstances, including large proportions of children of color born to unmarried, less-educated mothers, allowing us to examine kids who we expected might be most affected by losing a grandparent. We used standard assessment tools to measure whether the death of a grandparent in early or middle childhood affected a nine-year-old grandchild’s academic performance, including math skills, reading comprehension and verbal skills, reflecting their command of grammar and vocabulary.

Overwhelmingly, our study shows that the loss of a grandparent harms the academic performance of boys. Boys who recently lost their grandmother had lower verbal skills, compared with their peers whose grandmothers were still alive, and boys whose grandfathers died earlier in childhood had lower math skills, reading comprehension and verbal skills, compared with their peers whose grandfathers were still alive. In contrast, we found no differences in girls’ academic skills following the death of a maternal grandparent, compared with girls whose grandparents were still alive. Although our data do not allow us to confirm what is driving these gender differences, we suspect that gender socialization, which can result in boys feeling that grieving and being sad are not “masculine” behaviors (and thus are not appropriate for boys), can harm these boys’ school performance.

Because of racial differences in children’s school and family environments, we took this analysis a step further and examined whether Black, Hispanic and white children had distinct experiences after losing a grandparent (too few Asian children were in the dataset for us to explore). Overall, the findings suggest that boys of color suffer the worst impacts. Black boys had lower verbal skills after the recent death of a grandparent, and Hispanic boys had lower math skills, reading comprehension and verbal skills after losing their grandfather in either early or middle childhood.

Our results provide cause for concern. As of November 2023, an estimated 4.6 million Americans have lost a grandparent as a consequence of COVID. When we think about the impact of COVID on school-age kids, we tend to focus on school closures and their consequences for youth learning and socialization. But considering the large number of excess deaths related to COVID—and the large number of grandchildren who have lost a grandparent to COVID—our study suggests that a “double dose” of learning loss and stalled academic development is underway for many children. Beyond COVID, our study suggests a massive population of children might be harmed by an event many think of as harmless. After all, our estimates suggest that anywhere from 10 million to 12.5 million Americans lose a grandparent each year even without this novel disease.

For most of the year, schools are essential safety nets for supporting kids. Although grief interventions have been tested in some, broad implementation of such programs is necessary. School counselors can also help bereaved children grieve while continuing to excel academically. Even so, policy makers, health professionals and educators need to think more broadly about this phenomenon. This is of critical importance for future generations, given that mastery of these fundamental academic skills early in life is predictive of numerous outcomes in adulthood.

Losing a grandparent may be a rite of passage, but it is not harmless. Our study suggests the death of a grandparent is harmful for many boys, and this is particularly true for boys of color. Society has traditionally focused on some losses as more worthy of sympathy and consideration—but our research emphasizes the need to recognize that any exposure to death, especially in childhood, is a possible source of adversity.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.