On Track or Off the Rails? A Phenomenological Study of Children's Experiences of Dealing with Parental Bereavement Through Substance Misuse

  • Philippa Grace

Student thesis: Phd


Parental bereavement has widely been considered, in the context of child development and well being, to be one of the most traumatic events that can occur in childhood. Parental bereavement through substance misuse is a previously unresearched aspect of bereavement research, and a previously unresearched aspect of 'hidden harm.' This qualitative research looks at the lived experiences of four girls who have been parentally bereaved through substance misuse, using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA serves the dual purposes of 'giving voice' to these previously unheard voices, and interpreting their experience of dealing with bereavements, through the lens of psychological theory and the wider canon of bereavement research. The information for the analysis was collected in individual meetings with each of the girls, gathered through semi structured interviews which took place over one to four meetings. Life for all the girls was difficult and complicated as a consequence of their parents' troubled lives, and for all the girls their lives were marked by multiple losses and adverse childhood events both before and after their mother's or father's death. The analysis tries to capture the children's narratives about their lives as a journey in which one girl is managing to stay 'on track', whilst the others have gone 'off the rails.' None of the girls had made a deliberate choice to be 'off the rails', yet the environment in which they live meant their life journey is a stormy one, with no safe haven, and their lives have not offered them the 'lifelines' they needed in order to stay 'on track', and navigate their way through this traumatic event. They feel shame for their disruptive manifestations of grief, for the ways in which they 'cope ugly.' They now have 'spoiled identities', and are struggling to achieve a sense of self that will help them to make the transition to adulthood. The experience of the fourth girl demonstrates the ways in which she works to achieve her personal identity, preserve her 'reputation', and the secure attachment she needed, in order to police her potentially disruptive manifestations of grief. In the context of this research 'on track' or 'off the rails' are positioned as more helpful constructs than 'normal' and 'complicated' grief. The findings of this small scale research demonstrate the risks and inaccuracies in accepting the conclusion of large scale research studies which seem to indicate parental bereavement is not a risk factor for child wellbeing when family variables are taken in to account. Instead it demonstrates the ways in which dealing with parental bereavement, especially when compounded by other complex life events and insecure attachments, can result in children being positioned as 'bad' rather than 'sad' as villains rather than victims, children for whom their troubled lives and loss offer 'no excuse' for their troubled grieving. More research is needed to understand more about the lives and experiences of this vulnerable sub group of parentally bereaved children.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorGarry Squires (Supervisor) & Kevin Woods (Supervisor)


  • Bereavement through Substance Misuse
  • Children's Experiences of Bereavement
  • Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis
  • Parental Bereavement

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