Eileen Simpson is a New York psychotherapist and author of such diverse (but always well received) books as "Reversals," about her own dyslexia; "Poets in Their Youth," about her first husband, the poet John Berryman, and his circle of brilliant but troubled poets; and a novel, "The Maze," at least in part based on her doomed marriage to Berryman.

Eileen Simpson was an orphan, but until very recently she did not realize that that was probably the most compelling aspect of her life. She was never permitted to understand or properly mourn the death of her parents.

She was not even a year old when her mother died, and not yet 7 when her father followed. Nonetheless, the indelibility of the separation would shadow her life until, in middle age, following the death of her second husband of 20 years, the unassimilated grief, the never-completed mourning for parents she barely knew, burst upon her, compounding and prolonging the grief of her more recent loss.

In her just published book, "Orphans, Real and Imagined," she writes of her feelings months after her husband's death: "The black ink of anxiety spilled and spread, saturating the fabric of my life. The anguish I felt was greater than any I had known in mourning . . . for the first time in my life I felt profoundly orphaned." ::

"In some ways," says Dr. Alan Breier, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, "I think that losing a parent might be the most profound life experience of all. It is an experience that is with people every day of their lives."

Breier and colleagues at the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of NIMH have just completed a study of 90 adult volunteers who responded to a newspaper advertisement for "adults who experienced separation from a parent during childhood."

Breier interviewed each of the volunteers and was struck, he said, by the fact that in almost every case, when he would say "tell me about the loss of your parent," there would be tears.

"In essence," he said, "it was extraordinarily profound, uncontrolled stress." One hypothesis suggests that such a loss induces the kind of learned helplessness seen in laboratory animals subjected to unavoidable stresses, such as electric shocks.

Based on earlier data on animals as well as on people, the NIMH scientists were not surprised to discover that a high percentage of their volunteers had experienced psychological problems in adulthood. Of the 90, 69 (or 77 percent) had undergone a major psychiatric disorder. Most of these were depressions, with anxiety disorders second and alcoholism third.

Breier notes that the sample was self-selected, rather than a true random sampling of people who had lost parents in their youth.

But neither were the subjects mentally ill at the time. Only four of the volunteers were experiencing any signs of depression. "These are not people who are in treatment for anything," says Breier. "They're out there living in the community, not on any medication, not drinking alcohol or taking drugs. In fact, the socio-demographic profile of our group is that they are very high functioning."

The study was designed to try to identify those childhood experiences that might predict later psychiatric difficulties, as well as to determine if any biological signs of stress were evident in the people who had problems in later life.

"There are a number of very good studies from animals that demonstrate that if an offspring somehow undergoes parental deprivation, that there will be an acute behavioral and neurological response at the time of the separation," Breier said. "What's been found out by following these animals -- and this is in several species, including monkeys, rats and others -- is that several years later you will find that a significant portion still have neurobiological and behavioral deficits.

"In one experiment related to our study," said Breier, "monkeys who have undergone parental separation are then resocialized into the colony so that they look and seem to behave just like all the other monkeys in the colony.

"But if you stress those animals several years later, you will find they have an abnormal behavioral and neurobiological response to stress, even though they had appeared perfectly normal.

"So," he said, "we wondered if people {who had been separated from a parent by death or divorce} out in the community might, in fact, be carrying some neurobiological vulnerability that might be related to the development of a mood disorder."

The researchers also wondered what aspects of a childhood might prevent such a reaction.

By computer and elaborate statistical analysis of information obtained through interviews with the 90 subjects and a control group, the researchers found that "by far the single most powerful predictor of adult psychopathology was the quality of home life and personal adaptation during childhood. In fact, that variable alone predicted 80 percent of all people who had a mood disorder."

Moreover, they found high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and ACTH in the blood of those who had had psychiatric problems. These higher levels also correlated with poorer home situations at the time of the parental loss. ::

Eileen Simpson and her sister, barely a year older, were placed in a convent/orphanage when they were 3 and 4 respectively, seeing their widowed father only on vacations and holidays. His death meant to them, on the surface, no more calls to the parlor for a visitor.

Simpson evokes the bewilderment and sorrow of these children to whom nothing was explained, as they waited vainly for relatives they knew they had, and especially for their maternal grandmother to come rescue them. Only in adulthood did Simpson learn from old court records that the children had been subjects of a longstanding family feud, and that for years, even as their sense of abandonment grew strongest, their maternal grandmother had been barely a room away, pleading vainly with the Mother Superior to let her see them. Eventually, a court settlement gave her visitation rights, but only on condition that she never tell her side of the story to the girls.

To this day, though, Simpson believes that because of the presence of her sister, she was one of "the lucky ones."

"Based on my own experience," she said, "what it takes to make a lucky orphan is first, a sibling near in age, then, hospitable relatives and finally a good amount of money." ::

What Breier and his team found among adults was not so different.

One woman he described -- married, with three children -- appeared to "be doing beautifully with her life until her husband told her abruptly he was leaving her for another woman. She then became profoundly, clinically, significantly depressed.

"But what she thought about, what she dreamed about was not about her husband but about her mother who had died when she was 9 years old. The mother had been in good health. She was there one day and then, after a night in which the woman remembered a good deal of commotion, her mother simply wasn't there anymore.

"Nobody ever told the child what had happened to the mother. Literally weeks and months went by before the child finally incorporated the fact that her mother had died, and even then, no one would talk to her about it."

The Breier study, which has been presented at two psychiatric conferences, now needs confirmation by prospective studies -- following children through time after the loss of a parent. Several are currently under way, said Breier, "but our study would suggest that attending to a child's emotional needs is extremely important, and not attending to them could have long-term negative consequences.

"Understandably, the surviving parent is undergoing an enormous amount of pain," Breier said, "and it can be hard to look beyond his own pain to help the child grieve as well, but it might be important for other family members or mental health professionals to be attuned to these things." ::

Recalling the death of her second husband, the event that made her deal with her orphanhood, Eileen Simpson said: "What the crisis did was to blast through the powerful defense I'd built up of the lucky orphan. I had had to believe that my losses had not been devastating . . . the intense anxiety and depression I suffered in the recent period of profound orphanhood had not to do with the present. They were holdovers from the past."