Development and Psychopathology

Research Article

Mourning or early inadequate care? Reexamining the relationship of maternal loss in childhood with adult depression and anxiety

Antonia Bifulcoa1 c1, Tirrill Harrisa1 and George W. Browna1

a1 Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, University of London


Two population enquiries in Walthamstow and Islington, London, have shown that loss of the mother before the age of 17 years, either by death or separation for a year or more, doubles the risk of depressive and anxiety disorders among adult women. Furthermore, there was a particularly high rate of adult depression among those whose mothers died before they were 6 years old, and this was associated with a measure of childhood helplessness. There was no such link of either adult disorder or childhood helplessness with age at loss under 6 years for those losing a mother by separation. Two possible explanations were explored for these contrasting results. That concerning the adequacy of mourning of the mother's death received no support. However, evidence indicated that experience with the mother before the loss (usually affected by ongoing illness) explained the link of adult depression or anxiety with her early death. The failure of age at loss to relate in the separation group was probably due to the fact that among them age of separation was not a good indication of the quality of maternal care before age 6. Indirect evidence emerged which suggested that quality of early attachment (before age 6) to the natural mother before any loss relates to childhood helplessness. This in turn relates to a higher risk of disorder in adult life.


c1 Address reprint requests to: A. Bifulco, Department of Social Policy and Social Science, Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, University of London, 11, Bedford Square, London WC1B 3RA, UK.