The death of a child and the survival of faith: Part two

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https://doi.org/10.52456/WACJO325

An empirical research study into the faith journeys of bereaved Christian mothers in the UK.

Abstract

This article is the second of two articles originating from MA research into influences on the faith journeys of bereaved Christian mothers in the UK.

The first article (also in this issue) offered a tentative conceptual model that integrated Neimeyer’s meaning reconstruction model (Neimeyer & Sands, 2022) with Pargament’s theory of religious coping (1997).

This second article presents the findings of a small research project that explored the potential influences on bereaved mothers’ faith journeys that were identified in the first article . The research used an interpretive phenomenological approach to explore influences that may be relevant to, and could be influenced by, Christian ministry.

The research findings confirm that faith re-appraisal often occurs after the death of a child and suggest that potential influences on the mother’s faith journey include her pre-loss core faith beliefs, the nature of her relationship with God and the availability of appropriate spiritual support. It highlights the need for churches in the UK to increase their understanding of the muti-faceted impact of child death in order to substantively improve both the scope and the appositeness of the spiritual and emotional support they offer bereaved mothers.

Keywords: child death, faith reappraisal, meaning construction, religious coping, maternal grief, pastoral care, theodicy, spiritual growth.

Research aims

Lived experience aligns with limited research on the spirituality of bereaved parents in suggesting that bereaved mothers may re-appraise aspects of their faith in the light of their child’s death. However, there appears to be no such research in a UK Christian context.

The conceptual model presented in the previous review article (see Neve [2023], this issue) suggests that a bereaved mother’s faith journey may be influenced by her pre-loss core faith beliefs, her relationship with God and her relationship with her faith community.

This research therefore utilises these pre-identified themes to explore the lengthy and often hidden faith journeys of Christian bereaved mothers in the UK, with the hope of informing and shaping UK Christian ministry.

Methodology

This research is an ethnographic study[1] (Swinton & Mowat, 2016:156) of three bereaved mothers, who professed a Christian faith at the time of their child’s death from natural causes, as research suggests death by accident, murder or suicide are associated with different outcomes (Lichtenthal et al., 2013:327-330). The research focused on mothers whose child died ten to twelve years ago, as studies show that after this length of time outcomes such as post-traumatic growth and prolonged grief disorder have settled (Meisenhelder, 2021:104; Harper, O’Connor & O’Carroll, 2015:907; Lannen, Wolfe, Prigerson, Kreicbergs & Onelov, 2008:5870). The research falls within the qualitative research paradigm as it focuses on the ‘deep’ investigation of the subjective experiences of the three bereaved mothers (Bottery & Wright, 2019:113; Swinton & Mowat, 2016:60).

Semi-structured interviews were utilised to explore the participants’ experiences within the pre-identified themes proposed in the first article. An adapted interpretive phenomenological approach (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2015:30; Thomas, 2013:53) utilising thematic content analysis was employed to analyse the data (Smith, 2008:67-76), with the issues revealed in the interviews initially clustered into the pre-identified themes of faith reappraisal, relationship with God and relationship with their faith community. The participants’ views of what helped them through their grief, and the changes they retrospectively noticed in their faith since their child died, were also included as they are pertinent to the research.

Critical reflection upon these results identified of a number of connected sub-themes, which were then used to compare the three mothers’ faith journeys (Swinton & Mowat, 2016:272; Smith, 2008:70).

These connected sub-themes were also used to inform private conversations with three other individuals with noteworthy personal experience of child death, subsequently referred to as ‘expert sources’, in order to triangulate the participant data (Smith, 2008:239). (As all three of these individuals have previously spoken publicly and written about their personal experiences of child death, they were not considered suitable as research participants.) These individuals included the Bereaved Parents’ Co-ordinator (Park, 2022) from the organisation ‘Care for the Family’ (Care For The Family, 2021). This individual has both personal experience of the death of a child along with extensive experience of supporting many other bereaved parents, and thus provides a rich picture of the experience of child death. The researcher also gathered informal data through private conversations with two bereaved mothers who have both written and spoken extensively about their personal experiences of child death within the context of a UK Christian faith community (Gantlett, 2022, 2021; Williams, 2022, 2019, 2018). It is acknowledged that, with their extensive capacity to theologically reflect upon their experiences, these two bereaved mothers are not typical. However, it is this ability to reflect and explore their experiences in the context of their Christian faith that makes their contribution to this field of study so valuable.

Evaluation of the presence or absence of these sub-themes, within both the research participants experiences and the triangulation data from the expert sources, identified some potential interconnected influences on the mothers’ faith journeys. These potential influences were then compared to the proposed integrated model presented in the first article (Denscombe, 2011:204).

Results

Participant variables

To aid the understanding and interpretation of results, it is appropriate to mention some key participant variables that may exert influence on the mothers’ faith journeys.

All participants in this research have been given pseudonyms.

Catherine’s daughter Hannah was diagnosed with a brain tumour at 4 years old and subsequently died aged 13. Catherine attends an Anglican church. Ruth’s daughter Olivia was diagnosed in utero with a condition incompatible with life and died shortly after birth. Ruth attends an independent evangelical charismatic church. Jane’s son Ben was stillborn after being diagnosed in utero with a life-limiting genetic disorder. Jane attended a Pentecostal church for many years before moving to a new church.

Initial analysis of participant data

Table 1 summarises the raw data.

 

ThemeComments aboutCatherineRuthJaneTotal
1.Faith reappraisal(a)Theodicy, divine healing, God’s plans and purposes, God’s sovereignty1551939
(b)Tension between

reality and beliefs

51511
(c)Afterlife beliefs4610
2.Relationship with God(a)Provides comfort and strength14251251

 

(b)Negative feelings towards God53412
(c)Positive comments on God’s character27211
3.Relationship with faith community(a)Being judged, misunderstood, hurtful comments6222654
(b)People not wanting to listen, loneliness etc3202649
(c)Spiritual tensions with church community,

church services difficult

3121025
(d)Inadequate church pastoral support at some point, feeling disconnected19919
(e)Receiving any spiritual or emotional support67215

 

 

4.Participant’s views of what helps

(a)Being real, being understood, talking about child4161535
(b)Relationship with God215219

 

(c)Knowledgeable and/or Christian support37515
(d)Friendships or peer support54413

Table 1: Total number of comments per issue.

This data suggests these participants found their faith and relationship with God provided them with more comfort and strength (total comments for 2 (a) = 51) than challenges (total comments for 1(b) + 2(b) = 11+12 = 23).

Relationships with their faith community appear to have caused the bereaved mothers more pain and distress (total comments for 3(a), 3(b), 3(c) and 3(d) = 54+49+25+19 = 147) than afforded support (totals comments for 3(e) = 15).

The participants felt that what helped them the most was being able to be real, being understood and talking about their child (total for 49(a) = 35).

Initial thematic analysis

Faith reappraisal

After the death of their children, both Catherine and Jane struggled to align their core faith beliefs about the nature of God and suffering with their reality. They both experienced intense and persistent questioning around the issues of divine healing and God’s plans and purposes, with Catherine stating she still asked God, ‘Why didn’t you heal her?’ Additionally, while Catherine’s belief that Hannah was safe in God’s care ‘eased a lot of the upset’, she also described how she had asked herself, ‘Is this punishment for something that we’ve done?’ Jane similarly declared, ‘I still don’t have all the answers I want’ and wondered whether sin or a lack of faith was in any way responsible for Ben’s death. However, Ruth stated she did not question why her daughter died because she knew ‘we live in a fallen world’.

Relationship with God

All participants expressed the view that their relationship with God was important and gave them strength and comfort, both before and after their child’s death. For Ruth, her relationship with God was key, as she said, ‘I just felt so completely held by God and so sure of what he was doing.’ However, all participants experienced some negative feelings towards God after their child died. Ruth said she ‘got very, very angry with God’, Catherine stated she ‘really felt quite sore with God’ and ‘disappointed’, while Jane described how she felt ‘so let down’. All participants also expressed a disconnect from God around the time of their child’s death, with Catherine saying God was ‘surprisingly distant’. All the participants similarly found prayer a significant comfort while their child was ill, but after their child died, they all found personal prayer difficult.

Relationships with church and faith communities

All participants felt misunderstood and judged by other people in both their church and wider faith communities since their child died. This was a significant issue for Ruth and Jane, with Ruth saying, ‘I felt there was a lot of judgement there and criticism and that was very, very difficult.’ Jane similarly declared, ‘people telling you how you should be feeling… is really unhelpful’.

All participants experienced some support from their churches before their child died and around the time of death, but they all felt this support reduced after the initial months. Jane particularly appeared to lack support and stated, ‘everyone wanted to pray for me before, and then afterwards I felt a bit abandoned, you almost feel like you failed’.

Ruth and Jane found their church services difficult after their child died. Ruth described them as ‘alienating’ and ‘absolutely irrelevant’, adding church ‘doesn’t provide you with a means with which to access God in your reality’.

Participants’ perception of what helped them

Ruth and Jane expressed the view that they needed a safe person to be real with, and to be understood. Jane stated, ‘I think you just want people there who you can be real with’ and Ruth felt, ‘There definitely wasn’t room to be real, to question to begin with, so that made things harder.’ All the participants felt it was helpful for them to be able to talk about their dead child, with Jane saying it was ‘one of the biggest things that would help’ and Ruth saying it was her ‘greatest need’, but that she felt people wanted her ‘to shut up and go away’.

All participants spoke about needing Christian support that also had good knowledge of maternal grief. Ruth stated, ‘I think the absolute best thing [to have] is a Christian who’s walked through it. The second-best thing is really a Christian with an awful lot of experience of child bereavement… because then they’re not going to say stupid things.’

Changes in the participants’ faith over time

All participants had experienced changes in their faith since their child died. Table 2 shows an interpretation of the participants’ individual faith journeys as described by them in their interviews.

 

Prior to child’s diagnosisIllness / pregnancyAt death of childFirst two yearsCurrently
CatherineFoundational

 

Coasting

Prayer important

 

Intense faith experience

 

Frustration and confusion as no divine healing

Disconnected

 

Disappointed

 

Still solid ground under feet

 

Questioning lack of healing

 

Unsure of God’s plans and purposes

 

Walked away from God, gradual reconnection over time

Faith same as prior to Hannah’s illness

 

Still questions but more comfortable with not knowing

 

RuthSecure

 

Important

Held by God

 

Brought peace and strength

 

Not much questioning of faith

 

Issues with other Christians

Angry

 

Abandoned

 

Desire to find God

Relationship with God fundamental

 

Able to lament

 

Growth in faith

 

Major issues with church

Significant spiritual growth

 

Increased passion for Jesus

JaneSecure

 

Important

Prayer important

 

Disconnected

 

Angry

 

Questioning lack of healing

Questioning lack of healing

 

Major issues with other Christians and church

Continuing questioning

 

Angry with other Christians

 

Faith different, less secure

Table 2: Interpretation of the participants’ faith journeys

It appears all participants struggled with their relationship with God around the time of their child’s death, while later on their faith journeys were more diverse and, at the time of this research, had seemingly different outcomes.

Results interpreted through meaning reconstruction process

To determine whether the participants were able to reconstruct meaning through their faith reappraisal, the presence of any sense-making and benefit finding was assessed and is listed in table 3.

CatherineRuthJane
 

Sense-making

 

Still questions, appears comfortable with tension of not knowing

 

Faith makes sense

Congruent core beliefs

 

 

Many questions persist

 

 

 

Benefit finding

 

No

 

 

Spiritual and psychological growth

 

No

 

 

Table 3: Meaning reconstruction components

This approach to interpreting the participants’ faith journeys tentatively suggests that, currently, Ruth has been able to reconstruction meaning in her life while Jane has not. It is unclear if Catherine has been able to reconstruct meaning, but it appears she has become more comfortable with holding the tension of her reality with her questions, which may in time influence her ability to reconstruct meaning through any ongoing faith reappraisal.

Emergent main themes and sub-themes

Reviewing the data indicates the presence of two main themes: relationship with God and relationship with faith community. Within these themes various sub-themes emerged as potentially important factors that may influence a bereaved mother’s faith journeys.

The two main themes would appear to be the mother’s relationship with God and her relationship with her faith community (including but not exclusively her church community). Sub-themes to the theme of her relationship with God are the mother’s pre-loss core faith beliefs, the questioning of these beliefs and the ability to hold any tension between reality and these beliefs. Sub-themes connected to the theme of the mother’s relationship with her faith community include disenfranchisement, misunderstanding and disconnection from her church community and the provision of knowledgeable one-to-one spiritual support from her wider faith community.

Within these sub-themes it appears there are notable similarities and differences in the participants’ experiences. These are summarised in table 4. This table indicates that, compared to Jane and Catherine, Ruth appears to have experienced a different faith journey after the death of her child.

Table 4: Summary of the experiences of participants by the emergent themes and sub-themes

Additional data for triangulation purposes

The emergent sub-themes were used to inform and frame the expert source conversations for data triangulation purposes.

All three expert sources expressed the opinion that pre-loss Christian faith is commonly reappraised by the mother after the death of her child. Furthermore, all argued the nature of the mothers’ pre-loss theodicy and beliefs about the nature of God have a fundamental influence on this process. Indeed, Williams described theodicy as a ‘skeletal structure when life is in chaos’. Park stated, ‘if a bereaved parent’s concept of God is flawed, their faith is more likely to be blown apart’. All expert sources felt churches today are often failing to help people gain sound theodicy and theology, arguing that teaching around suffering needs to be explored and lived, not merely taught or imposed. Gantlett, however, said for her there was ‘no theodicy that helps or satisfies’, but being comfortable with the ‘mystery of not-knowing had proved to be enough’. Indeed, all three concurred that being comfortable with the mystery of God could be a helpful approach for bereaved parents unable to find any acceptable answers to their questions.

Lament was also highlighted as an important part of processing grief with God, with Williams stating emphatically ‘lament is the key to spiritual growth’. All three sources felt evangelical churches were particularly poor at offering opportunities for lament, or providing any communal worship that acknowledges the reality of suffering.

All the expert sources stressed appropriate spiritual support is vital for bereaved mothers, with Williams stating this provides ‘the safe container for exploring and finding a theodicy that makes sense’. Gantlett said, ‘there are not enough safe people in the church’, and Park emphasised the need for ‘people to be there for the long haul and without judgement’. Gantlett and Park independently stated that the greatest need of bereaved parents is for people to ‘turn up and shut up’. All three expert sources also called for more training for ministers and pastoral carers and a greater understanding of parental grief within the Church.

Table 5 summarises the major themes discussed in these conversations and whether each source was in agreement with each premise. It is notable there appears to be no difference in these views, except for Gantlett’s somewhat differing view on the role of theodicy.

Table 5: Views of expert sources from their interviews

Summary of results

The data from the participants’ interviews triangulated with the views of the expert sources suggests bereaved mothers often reappraise aspects of their faith as part of the process of meaning reconstruction after the death of their child.

Analysis of the results indicates some of the sub-themes identified in the participant interviews may influence this process and hence the faith journeys and outcomes of bereaved mothers. These influences may include the mother’s pre-loss core beliefs and her ability to hold them in tension with reality, the nature of her relationship with God and the provision of appropriate one-to-one spiritual support. These results also infer, while church communities can and do support bereaved mothers, they also have the potential to cause significant distress.

Discussion

Exploration of potential influences

Core beliefs

The traumatic nature of child death appears to illuminate a bereaved mother’s core beliefs, exposing any inconsistencies in her faith that were previously hidden. As the starting point of a bereaved mother’s faith journey, her pre-loss core beliefs would appear to be particularly influential. These beliefs may be incorporated into her worldview through her church’s theological approach and teaching and, in this small study, core beliefs concerning suffering and divine healing were found to be particularly important to the bereaved mothers.

Prior to their child’s death both Catherine and Jane believed God could heal their child and had prayed accordingly with their faith communities. When their child died, this core belief was shattered. Jane’s comment, ‘everybody was praying for him, and he still didn’t get healed’, reveals her frustration and disappointment in God. Catherine’s comment, ‘you know that it is possible for healing, complete healing, to happen, and it’s difficult when it’s not forthcoming’, demonstrates the tension that exists for both her and Jane between their beliefs and their reality. This tension may be due in part to the way their churches preach and pray for healing (Clifton, 2014:213).

For example, Jane’s continuing struggles with the fact her son was not healed in utero may be due to aspects of her Pentecostal church background, as at the heart of the Pentecostal worldview is the idea that ‘healing is God’s will’ and ‘faith should be manifest in the supernatural’ (Castelo, 2014:216). The tension between her reality and her belief that divine healing happens if there is ‘enough faith’, appears difficult for her to hold, and she seems unable to embrace the mystery of God. This ongoing struggle may begin to explain her persistent spiritual and emotional distress twelve years after the death of her son (Kelley, 2010:88).

Conversely, while she still has many unanswered questions, Catherine declared, ‘I just have to trust that there is a purpose to her not having been healed’, indicating that over time she has become more able to hold the tension between her beliefs and reality. This ability to accept there are no answers to some questions appears to have, over time, ameliorated her spiritual distress.

At the time of Olivia’s death, Ruth seemed to trust God’s plans and purposes, saying she ‘had been chosen by God to carry Olivia’. As such, her faith seems to have provided her with less challenge and more comfort than the other participants. While Ruth deemed her theodicy congruent with her reality, stating her ‘faith made sense’, it would appear that over time she has consciously or subconsciously ‘chosen’ not to question some aspects of her faith because she felt, like Gantlett (2022) and Swinton (2018:3), there were no answers, no theodicy, that would satisfy.

It may be that those who do not question their core faith beliefs, or are comfortable with the tension of not knowing, have better faith and grief outcomes than those who continue to question. This is possibly because any persistent spiritual questioning that is unexplored and unsupported may be destructive to an individual’s spiritual core, subsequently damaging all areas of their functioning (Park, 2020:273; Roepke, Jayawickreme & Riffle, 2014:1059; Hughes, 2011:50).

Relationship with God

This research suggests the ability of a bereaved mother to either accommodate her core beliefs, or hold the tension of not knowing, may facilitate her relationship with God. Conversely, if persistent questioning and a negative opinion of God continues for a significant length of time this would appear to disrupt this relationship. Park (2022) believes disappointment in God is a common experience for bereaved parents and indeed both Catherine and Jane acknowledged feeling this way. This may have contributed to the disruption they both experienced with their relationship with God. Indeed, Catherine described how ‘it didn’t stop me from trusting Him, but I didn’t seek Him out at all’. This disconnect may hinder any meaningful religious practices such as prayer, lament and spiritual contemplation that could be employed as coping activities (Swinton, 2018:14; Jueckstock, 2018:48; Hastings, 2016:86). It is conceivable the disrupted relationship both Catherine and Jane had with God reduced their capacity to utilise any religious coping practices, and particularly to be real with God and lament in God’s presence. At the time of this research, even though her faith had become ‘more intense’ when Hannah was ill, Catherine feels her relationship with God has returned to much the same as it was before Hannah became ill. However, Jane’s persistent questioning, and ‘less secure’ and seemingly more fragile faith, suggest she may be experiencing complicated spiritual grief (Burke & Neimeyer, 2014:1095).

By contrast, Ruth demonstrated a secure relationship with God in the first few years post loss, declaring her ‘relationship with God has been fundamental’ to her experience. After Olivia died, Ruth’s stated need was ‘to find God in it’, and this appears to have driven her desire to connect with God. She described her relationship with God as having ‘a raw realness’ and she was able to use religious practices such as contemplation and lament to bring her pain to God to help her cope with her suffering. Indeed, Ruth stated that since Olivia’s death her faith ‘really, really grew’. As such it appears she is the only participant experiencing some spiritual post-traumatic growth (Waugh, Kiemle & Slade, 2018:8).

Furthermore, Ruth appears to have had a significant spiritual encounter with God that sustained her through her grief as she explained, ‘His presence and His power… was such a tangible thing… that kind of intellectually held me.’ It is notable bereaved mothers Gantlett (2021:77,86) and Williams (2018:159) also had spiritual encounters with God that appeared to sustain them through their grief. It could be argued that these transformational changes only occurred because these three mothers were able to maintain their connection with God. These encounters may explain one of the ways a secure relationship with God can influence a bereaved mother’s faith journey.

Provision of support by church and faith community

Bereaved mothers need people who will listen to their stories and acknowledge their pain, as narrating is an important method of restructuring meaning (Shear, Boelen & Neimeyer, 2022:154; Seigal, 2017:50). Catherine’s comment that talking about Hannah would help ‘if there was anyone to listen’ demonstrates it was, and indeed remains, hard for all the participants to find people who are comfortable with listening to their experiences. Ruth’s comment, ‘my absolute greatest need was to be able to talk about Olivia, but people really just could not handle it’” further highlights this difficulty. This may explain why bereaved mothers often seek support from other bereaved mothers, who ‘understand both their need to tell their stories and the depth of their pain’ (Park, 2022).

Additionally, if a bereaved mother’s core beliefs are not congruent with her reality, she may also need a safe place to explore and potentially deconstruct and reconstruct these beliefs (Miner, 2008:228; Wolterstorff, 2002:56; Fowler, 1995:296). However, all participants gave examples of how, at times, their church failed to provide them with any safe place to explore their doubts. Ruth was told ‘it was wrong to feel angry with God’ and stated she felt her grief was ‘misunderstood and interpreted as a faith crisis’. When Catherine felt she needed to ‘forgive God in order to move on’, she was told by her vicar’s wife this was ‘blasphemous’, an approach to the ‘forgiveness of God’ that Kendall amongst others would not agree with (2012:6-8). This response not only left her distressed and alienated but potentially impeded the prospect of any spiritual growth (Zàhorcovà, Halama & Enright, 2020:199; Martinčeková & Klatt, 2017:248).

However, despite this negative experience, Catherine reported less judgement and disenfranchisement of her grief than either Ruth or Jane. Indeed, both Ruth and Jane repeatedly spoke about such difficulties with their church communities. This disparity could be in part because both Ruth and Jane’s children died around birth, which can result in a more disenfranchised and misunderstood grief compared to the death of an older child (Lang, Fleiszer, Duhamel, Sword et al., 2011). Indeed, Jane was asked by one church member, ‘You didn’t know him, so how can you grieve?’

Both Jane and Ruth’s interviews also revealed the depth of their disillusionment and frustration with the church services they attended after their child’s death. Both these churches are evangelical charismatic churches who generally offer less opportunity for liturgy and lament in their services (Emerson, 2018:28,57; Percey, 2013:45; Stackhouse, 2013:156-7). This difference may further explain some of the difficulties Ruth and Jane experienced, as Wortman and Park believe Christian denomination affects the process of grief (2008:703). Catherine did not express any concerns about her church services, possibly because she attends an Anglican church, which may have provided her with a more liturgical, and potentially more relevant, experience during her intense early grief. It is likely members of Ruth and Jane’s evangelical church communities were also challenged to appraise their own core beliefs around suffering and divine healing in the light of the trauma in their midst. As such, it is difficult to know whether bereaved mothers disconnect from their church community because they feel misunderstood and judged, or whether this disconnect is precipitated by some in the church community themselves withdrawing, unable to cope with the mothers’ spiritual distress and questioning. It is likely that there is in fact a reciprocal dynamic occuring that contributes to the disconnect experienced by both parties in the aftermath of this incomprehensable tragedy.

Indeed, within the evangelical tradition (Foster, 2017:229) reconstructing faith in the light of loss appears to be challenging. This may be due to a more rigid theology, where holding mystery may be viewed as contrary to biblical truth (Emerson, 2018:xxiii), and where there is an expectation God will intervene (Greig, 2020:70). Furthermore, the process of going through a process of faith reappraisal can cause individuals to become uncomfortable with their church community, either because their faith has transitioned or because they seek more support and understanding (McLaren, 2021:284; Wortmann & Park, 2009:27; Jamieson, 2007:33; Hagberg & Guelich, 2005:296; Fowler, 1995:275). It thus appears not unusual that Ruth and eventually Jane sought out new church communities after the death of their child.

While this research has shown that both church and wider faith communities can cause bereaved mothers much pain and distress, they can also provide the context for appropriate one-to-one supportive and nurturing spiritual relationships. Indeed, when exploring Ruth’s faith journey, it is possible to see how a negative experience with a church community can be mitigated by the availability of some appropriate and sustained one-to-one spiritual support. Indeed, Ruth intentionally sought out and received significant spiritual support from a number of individuals within her faith community. This may have facilitated her spiritual formation, as she stated her faith, her gifting and her desire for God all grew in the years after Olivia died (Benner, 2012:179; Jamieson, 2007:63). It is noteworthy both Williams and Gantlett also had some form of spiritual accompaniment, with Gantlett stating she ‘had wise people who could theologically pull me through, but most people don’t have that’.

Interconnection of influences

The above discussion suggests that, while it is difficult from this limited research to confirm the nature of any causal relationships, the three proposed influences would appear to be interconnected and interdependent. A proposed model illustrating how these potential influences may impact the faith journeys and outcomes of bereaved mothers is shown in figure 1.

This model suggests good preaching engenders the bereaved mother with sound theology and theodicy, while apposite worship facilitates her connection to God. The further provision of competent pastoral ministry, as the presence of one with another, provides a safe place for the bereaved mother to explore her doubts and questions, reconstruct her beliefs and be heard, understood and accompanied in her grief. This model would appear congruent with the concept that preaching and worship are key components of good pastoral ministry (Lyall, 2001:135; Peterson, 1992:19; Willimon, 1979:47).

Figure 1: Possible model of influences on the faith journeys of bereaved mothers

Implications for Christian ministry

Although it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of any Christian ministry (Swinton & Mowat, 2016:162), it would appear there is a significant gap between what some churches perceive as the needs of bereaved mothers and the expectations of the mothers themselves. While it was anticipated the participants would have experienced a degree of disconnect from their church and faith communities after the death of their child, the amount of misunderstanding and judgement Ruth and Jane in particular experienced raises concerns about the support some UK churches offer bereaved mothers. However, it must be noted churches are not the only context where support for bereaved parents is lacking, as several studies have found support is inadequate in many professional contexts due to the ‘absence of comprehensive understanding’ of parental grief (Vig et al., 2021:1).

Nevertheless, this potential lack of understanding of the magnitude and nature of parental grief by both church ministers and laity may go some way to explain why bereaved parents might experience inadequate pastoral care and seemingly irrelevant or inappropriate church services. It has also been noted some churches may lack a coherent and honest engagement with suffering (Swinton, 2018:121), with many creating cultures in which people feel compelled to ‘have it all together… or pretend’ (Emerson, 2018:98).

Lived experience suggests some bereaved mothers seek professional grief therapy because they cannot find anyone else who will listen and sit with the overwhelming reality of their pain. Meisenhelder states the aim of any such therapy is to normalise grief and encourage self-care through non-judgemental listening (2021:102). I would strongly suggest this undertaking should not be beyond that of authentic Christian ministry, responding as it should to the call to hold, support and love the marginalised and broken (Hastings, 2016:116; Kelley, 2010:126; Crabb, 2005:xi; Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 25:40). Indeed, the ability to listen, acknowledge and hold another’s pain without judgement is the ‘principal element in providing any effective pastoral support’ (Lyall, 2001:55). One positive outcome of the recent Covid pandemic is that it appears some churches are starting to realise all grief and trauma need better support and understanding, and that they must endeavour to equip the body of Christ for this crucial role (Loss & Hope, 2022).

Additionally, if a bereaved mother in time ceases to ask, ‘why God?’, she may well begin to ask, ‘where are you God?’, or ‘what do I do now, God?’. It is at this point in her faith journey that a knowledgeable spiritual accompanier can encourage an awareness of God, as the mother chooses to lean into her pain and hold the tension of all her questions in the presence of God (Emerson, 2018:33; Swinton, 2018:113; Hastings, 2016:116). Indeed, as Wyatt argues, ‘ultimately suffering is not a question that demands an answer, it is not a problem that requires a solution, it is a mystery which demands a presence’ (2009:220).

However, it is important to note this ‘presence’ should come from one who has explored and tested their theodicy, so they are able to help others do the same (Nash, 2011:39; Oden, 1984:223). As such, Sollereder asserts the Church needs to practice a ‘compassionate theodicy’ that provides ‘pathways of possible meaning that the person suffering can choose’ (2021).

It is also important to note that spiritual support in the context of trauma or bereavement, should not become fixated on spiritual growth. While spiritual growth and indeed redemption are possible in these circumstances (Benner, 2012:71), it is a process that is neither inevitable nor easy (Hastings, 2016:16). As this research has shown, suffering does not always lead to growth (Swinton, 2018:20). Suffering can lead to ‘chaos, confusion and immaturity’, and rather than building faith it can lead to disbelief (Oord, 2019:134). Spiritual growth, if it happens, is a gift from God in the darkness (Isaiah 45:3) that needs to be held in tension alongside the pain of loss (Kelley, 2010:135).

While all three participants in this research sought to access spiritual support after their child’s death that was both Christian and knowledgeable about maternal grief, only Ruth was ultimately able to do this. Ruth affirmed that such support is vital for bereaved parents, stating ‘I think it’s really important, really important, to be able to process your grief with God with others… and it’s the most difficult thing to find.’ I would respectfully encourage the Church to start asking why this desperately needed spiritual support is so hard for bereaved mothers to find.

Comparison with other research

The premise that successful meaning reconstruction predicts better grief outcomes (Jueckstock, 2018:48) appears to be supported by this research, as each participant’s ability to reconstruct meaning seems to have impacted both their faith and grief outcomes. As such, the proposed model presented in article one (Neve, 2023) integrating meaning reconstruction with religious coping activities could potentially provide one framework for understanding how this process may occur in bereaved Christian mothers. However, this research has highlighted that the holding of beliefs and reality in tension, or being comfortable with the mystery of God, can also be an approach to meaning reconstruction for some mothers. Thus, the proposed model could be amended to more explicitly include this alternative approach to meaning reconstruction. An amended model is shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: Possible use of religious coping by bereaved parents within the meaning reconstruction model (adapted to include the role of mystery of God & holding tension of beliefs)

Additionally, the finding that bereaved Christian mothers in the UK may reappraise aspects of their faith and can experience complicated spiritual grief in the form of a disconnect from God or their faith community, aligns with the results from Burke and Neimeyer’s studies in the USA (2014:1103). However, this research raises the question as to whether it is possible for a bereaved mother to experience spiritual growth, as an aspect of post-traumatic growth, while also suffering from complicated spiritual grief. I would reason that, as spiritual formation is predicated upon the grace of God, it seems unlikely any significant spiritual growth could occur alongside a complete disconnect from God. Conversely, if the bereaved mother’s disconnect is solely from her church community, then these results imply there is still the potential for spiritual growth to occur, especially if there is still some connection to the wider faith community. While Stelzer, Palitsky, Hernandez, Ramirez and O’Connor claim the absence of communal religiosity is ‘strongly predictive of vulnerability to poor bereavement outcomes’ (2020:64), I would tentatively suggest the limited results of this research indicate a bereaved mother’s relationship with God appears to have a greater influence on her post-loss faith journey than her relationship with her church community. However, this research reminds us that the connections between personal faith and connection to God and church community are complex and easily fractured.

Limitations and further research

Despite their spiritual struggles, all participants had kept their Christian faith and stayed within a church community and thus these results will be skewed towards such experiences. It is acknowledged the support provided by the researcher to each participant is part of their faith and grief journey, and thus it is inherently part of the research. It is possible the researcher could have introduced bias into the data via any prejudgments or assumptions (Shenton, 2004:72), but it is hoped this possibility is reduced by the substantial triangulation of the data from other experienced sources (Denscombe, 2011:160). Furthermore, although use of the integrated model aided the study design and analysis, its use may too have influenced these results.

This research is also limited by the small number of participants, and thus its transferability is constrained. Research with larger numbers of participants over a greater range of Christian denominations is recommended. However, transferability of findings should not be discounted as, although each case is unique, it is as Shenton argues, ‘an example within a broader group’ (2004:69) and can provide indicators of what is helpful or unhelpful in these circumstances.

While researching just one category of child death may have produced greater clarity, this research could be mined for far more information. As acknowledged by other researchers (Pohlkamp et al., 2021:2; Harper, O’Connor & O’Carroll, 2015:913; Ungureanu & Sandberg, 2010:315), there is need for much more research with bereaved parents across the entire spectrum of experiences. Research on the perceptions and expectations of ministers concerning the support they provide might inform conversation in this area, as would research on the faith journeys of mothers, and indeed fathers, who had lost their faith and left the Church. While it is accepted that generally maternal and paternal grief differ in nature (Alam, Barrera, D’Agnostino, Nicholas & Schneiderman, 2012), there is little research solely on the grief of bereaved fathers (Proulx, Martinez, Carnevale & Legault, 2016:308).

Bereaved parents need much longer support than is currently recognised and more research on this is key as, in the absense of a grief model that accomodates parental grief, many parents continue to be given the inappropriate diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder (Neimeyer & Harris, 2022:409).

Conclusion

This research confirms the view of Campbell that ‘ministering to the bereaved is challenging because questions about grief are so closely intertwined with questions about faith’ (2020:524). Furthermore, there seems to be a two-way disconnect between grief theory and Christian ministry (Kelley, 2010:2,28), with many ministers knowing little about traumatic grief, particularly the isolating and devastating grief of bereaved parents (Harrill, 2021:67; Kelley, 2021:207; Daniel, 2019:199,202). It is likely this disconnect contributes to the misunderstanding around grief that often thwarts the provision of compassionate and substantive care for the bereaved. However, if we are to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world, I would agree with Hastings (2016:18) in arguing this needs to change.

To increase our knowledge and awareness of the multi-faceted impact of child death on a mother it is necessary to observe and seek to understand the varied lived experiences of bereaved mothers. However, to examine their complex experiences clearly, their journeys need to be viewed through more than one lens. Therefore, this research has sought to briefly observe a small part of the faith journeys of bereaved mothers by looking through the lenses of trauma, grief, spiritual formation and suffering. Accordingly, the lens of trauma reveals that the death of a child shatters the bereaved mother’s world, and so we need to recognise her brokenness. The lens of grief reveals that she will have an overwhelming need to talk about her child, and so we need to give her a safe place to be heard. The lens of spiritual formation reveals that her faith will be challenged and may evolve, and we need to support this precarious and precious process. And the lens of suffering helps us understand that the bereaved mother is hurting and lost, and, if we do nothing else, we need to be there.

As this study and wider research suggests, the practice of ‘being there’ for bereaved parents is a challenging endeavour. With the Church appearing to struggle to provide the spiritual support bereaved mothers need, church leaderships must purposefully increase both their understanding of maternal grief and their provision of care for the bereaved. It is vital Christian ministry can support those marginalised by the tragedy of child death in informed, sensitive and compassionate ways, not just at the point of crisis, but by continuing to accompany the bereaved through the dark months and years ahead. Furthermore, attention must also be given to supporting those who provide the bereaved with this care, as it is often long-term and personally demanding.

As such, it is also time for the UK Christian Church to recognise the roles other Christian ministries can play in the spiritual formation of those suffering from traumatic bereavement, including the death of a child. Indeed, lived experience suggests other intentional one-to-one relationships such as Christian coaching, mentoring and spiritual direction have much to offer the bereaved mother. The forward focus of coaching and mentoring, with their inherent emphasis on reviewing internal and external resources and exploring limiting beliefs, can be especially helpful to a bereaved mother in exploring questions such as ‘what now?’ when she becomes stuck in her grief (Shear, Boelen & Neimeyer, 2022:158; Collins, 2002:241). Similarly, the use of a spiritual director can provide the bereaved mother with a secure place for spiritual questioning and exploring nascent faith transitions that may not be available within her local church community (Jamieson, 2007:65; Guenther, 1993:98).

Swinton and Mowat argue the aim of practical theology is to inform and shape the life of faith by feeding back into the practice of the Church, not just to increase our understanding of its practices but to change them (2016:25-26). Therefore, it is hoped this research may help inform and shape Christian ministry, in whatever form or context, for the challenging but privileged work of supporting bereaved mothers after the death of their child, and thus facilitating the survival of their faith.

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About the author

Elizabeth Neve BSc (Hons), MA

Elizabeth completed her MA in Spiritual formation at Waverley Abbey College in 2022. She currently works as a grief therapist, an EMCC senior accredited coach/mentor specialising in loss and transition, and a pastoral supervisor. She also develops and delivers pastoral care training courses for ACC, and can be contacted at liz@elizabethneve.co.uk.

Copyright

Copyright 2023 Elizabeth Neve

[1] Ethical approval for this research was granted by the Waverley Abbey College Research Ethics Committee.

 

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The death of a child and the survival of faith: Part one

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https://doi.org/10.52456/WACJO324

The proposed construct of a model integrating the use of religious coping with the process of meaning reconstruction after the death of a child

Abstract

This is the first of two articles originating from MA research designed to explore possible influences on the faith journeys of bereaved Christian mothers in the UK, with the hope of informing and shaping UK Christian ministry.

Lived experience aligns with research in suggesting that the death of a child often triggers a faith reappraisal in the bereaved mother. Research further suggests that there may be a number of factors that can influence this process. However, while there has been research on maternal grief in other countries and cultures, there appears to be none in a UK Christian context.

This first article presents a literature review relevant to this field of study and proposes a tentative conceptual model that may help illuminate how factors relevant to Christian ministry can influence faith reappraisal after the death of a child. This conceptual model integrates the contemporary meaning reconstruction model (Neimeyer & Sands, 2022) with Pargament’s theory of religious coping (1997).

This integrated model was subsequently used to inform a small empirical research project undertaken with bereaved Christian mothers, the findings of which are presented in part two (also in this issue).

Keywords: child death, faith reappraisal, meaning construction, religious coping, Christian, complicated grief, maternal grief, spiritual growth.

Introduction and rationale for the research

‘I don’t understand! Why would God let her die?’ In the hours after her daughter died, this mother’s anguished cries could be heard throughout the hospice. Her bewilderment, and disappointment in the God she said she loved, were evident as her questions tumbled out into the space between us.

As a volunteer chaplain in a children’s hospice, I heard many such questions as I sat with bereaved parents in the terrible emptiness and disorientation that occurs after the death of a child. As a bereavement counsellor I have journeyed with bereaved parents as they try to work through the emotional and spiritual challenges of this complex and very personal crisis. As a pastoral carer, I have witnessed how a church community, its people and its practices can hinder or facilitate the precarious faith journeys of bereaved parents. As a mother suffering perinatal loss, I, too, have been compelled to question my previously untested beliefs about God, whilst disenfranchised and misunderstood by a church community ill equipped to recognise my spiritual and emotional needs. Yet, I have also witnessed how long-term Christian mentoring can support the spiritual formation of a bereaved mother, and even facilitate her spiritual growth.

This lived experience supporting Christian parents after the death of their child suggests their faith brings comfort at one level whilst also bringing internal tension, as the parents seek to align their beliefs with their suffering. For some parents these struggles may produce spiritual growth, as they discover a deeper, more commited faith that does not negate their pain or deny their reality (Chandler, 2014:17; Kallmier, 2011:106; Fowler, 2000:40). However, for others their spiritual distress can trigger a loss of faith and a detachment from their faith community, causing upsetting secondary losses at a time of maximum disorientation in their lives. These faith struggles occur alongside the crushing sadness, guilt and fear experienced by bereaved parents and, as such, grief and faith are locked together in a long bewildering journey, with an often-uncertain faith outcome.

Witnessing these varied faith journeys and outcomes, I wondered what influences bereaved parents’ faith journeys. Is there anything Christian ministry can do to support the parents who make, as one parent described it, “the long journey back to faith”?

This article, therefore, discusses the literature relevant to the faith journeys of Christian parents after the death of their child and offers a tentative conceptual model that may help illuminate how factors relevant to Christian ministry can influence faith reappraisal after the death of a child.

This proposed model was used to inform a small empirical research project undertaken with bereaved Christian mothers, the findings of which are presented in a part two.

Background: The impact of child death

The grief of bereaved parents is known to impact all areas of their life (Hawthorne, Joyner, Gaucher & Liehr, 2021:229; Meisenhelder, 2021:102; Vig, Lim, Lee, Huang et al., 2021:9), and even increases their risk of mortality (Parkes & Prigerson, 2010:143). The longing for the child and the feeling of emptiness can last a lifetime and bereaved parents struggle with cognitive, affective and physical symptoms for many years after their child’s death. As a result, bereaved parents – in particular bereaved mothers – are sometimes diagnosed, some may say controversially, with prolonged grief disorder (Pohlkamp, Kreicbergs & Sveen, 2019:1533; Burke & Neimeyer, 2014:1089; Lichenthal, Currier, Neimeyer & Keesee, 2010:794).

While research on the relationship between bereaved parents and their faith or church communities is limited, secular studies frequently note bereaved parents need their grief recognised, understood and supported by those around them (Hawthorne, Joyner, Gaucher & Liehr, 2021:229; Meisenhelder, 2021:102; Pohlkamp et al., 2021:526; Vig et al., 2021:6). Indeed, disenfranchisement of grief by those close to bereaved parents has been found to increase their risk of prolonged grief disorder (Shannon & Wilkinson, 2020:145). This need to be heard and accompanied in grief is recognised by Wolterstorff, a bereaved Christian parent, when he says, ‘what I need to hear from you is that you recognise my pain, you are here for me’ (2002:35). However, while bereaved parents may receive spiritual and emotional support in the short term from healthcare chaplains or community faith ministers (Wells, 2018:14, Nolan, 2012:129, Nash, 2011:43), many parents report their long-term grief, and any concomitant spiritual distress, is often hidden, disenfranchised and misunderstood (Gantlett, 2021:229; Petro, 2015:14; Price & Jones, 2015:222; Hurcombe, 2004:52).

Literature review

This review focuses on literature that attempts to illuminate the faith journeys of Christian parents after the death of their child. To date most published research has been undertaken on bereaved mothers, with bereaved fathers grief being less well understood (Proulx, Martinez, Carnevale & Legault, 2016:308). However, while it is accepted maternal and paternal grief differ in nature (Alam, Barrera, D’Agnostino, Nicholas & Schneiderman, 2012), many studies do not distinguish between the grief of fathers and mothers. Thus, by necessity, this review includes research undertaken on both parents as well as that undertaken solely on bereaved mothers.

This review will now explore some of the factors and processes that research and lived experience suggest could influence the interaction between faith and grief, and that may be responsible for the range of both faith (Jueckstock, 2018:48) and grief (Keesee, Currier & Neimeyer, 2008:1146) outcomes observed in bereaved parents. While grief is acknowledged to affect all areas of functioning (Parkes & Prigerson, 2010:21), this review focuses on the spiritual aspects of grief and particularly on the spiritual core beliefs (Pargament & Exline, 2020; Kallmier, 2011:78) that may be shattered by the death of a child.

Grief theory and Christian ministry

Despite mainstream grief theory evolving significantly over the last fifteen years, Hindmarch argues conventional grief theories are ‘often perceived as inadequate’ when it comes to understanding the devastating death of a child, particularly when those theories focus on the resolution of grief (2009:35). Furthermore, while spirituality is known to both facilitate and complicate bereavement (Park & Halifax, 2022:358; Christian, Aoun & Breen, 2019:321; Gubi, 2015:121; Machin, 2009:51; Doka, 2002a:3), much grief theory does not specifically incorporate aspects of spirituality (Park & Halifax, 2022:356; Harvey, 2018; Hastings, 2016:17; Klass, 2014:3). Indeed, a recent complilation of contemporary grief research (Neimeyer, Harris, Winokuer & Thornton, 2022), whichaims to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners, contains minimal reference to spirituality generally and even less to Christianity (Park & Halifax, 2022:359). This observation strengthens the view of Kelley that there is ‘a significant disconnect between the world of grief theory and the world of Christian ministry’ (2010:2).

Nevertheless, some contemporary grief studies do acknowledge spirituality can be a coping strategy for bereaved parents across a range of different faiths and cultures (Frei-Landau, Hasson-Ohayon & Tuval-Mashiach, 2020; Parente & Ramos, 2020; Baykal, 2018; Hussin, Guàrdis-Olmos & Aho, 2018; Rouzati, 2018). However, research into how Christianity and grief interact in bereaved parents is limited, and there appears to be none within a UK context. As such, much of the research quoted in this review is from the USA, where a ‘deeply entrenched form of Christendom’ still exists in many areas (Murray, 2004:17). This contributes to a cultural framework which has the potential to influence the worldviews of many Americans, including beliefs around the role of God in their suffering. Vig et al. acknowledge, in their systematic scoping review of research into child death (2021), that most studies they reviewed were carried out in the USA. They argue that in the USA Christianity is seen as a significant source of support to bereaved parents, whereas other studies carried out across mainland Europe appear to show religion plays a less significant role in these parents’ grief (2021:12). However, in post-Christendom Britain, where Christianity and churches are more marginalised (Murray, 2004:20), it is unclear how and to what extent Christian faith impacts the grief and faith journeys of bereaved parents in a UK Christian context.

With no specific grief model to illuminate the grief of Christian parents, this review will consider just two models that research indicates could provide insight into this area and that are most relevant to Christian ministry. The first is the contemporary meaning reconstruction model (Neimeyer & Sands, 2022), which can be viewed through the lens of spirituality and religion (Hall & Hill, 2019:467). The second is Pargament’s theory of religious coping (1997).

Meaning reconstruction

Frankl famously argued, ‘to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering’ (2004:9), and indeed Kessler contends that meaning reconstruction is the ‘sixth stage of grief’ (2019:2). However, as grief theory moves away from the ‘stages model’ of grief (Stroebe, Schut & Boerner, 2017), much contemporary grief research emphasises the role of meaning reconstruction throughout the entire grieving process. Despite this theory appearing to be a paradoxical way to understand the grief that occurs as a result of the seemingly senseless death of a child, this relatively new approach is proving to be insightful in understanding this traumatic loss.

‘Meaning’ can be a confusing concept but, according to Kelley, is concerned with how individuals make sense of a life event, how they integrate this into their system of core beliefs, and how this then brings coherence to their life narrative (2010:41). Indeed, one important method of reconstructing meaning is through the process of narrative reconstruction, or telling stories (Shear, Boelen & Neimeyer, 2022:184). Kelley argues traumatic loss can potentially disrupt or even decimate our life story, our meaning system and our sense of self (2010:83). As such, for bereaved mothers, the process of telling the story of their loss finds a place for the death of their child within their self-narrative.

However, when spiritual beliefs form part of an individual’s core beliefs, any conflict between these and the individual’s reality can trigger spiritual struggles, which over time can result in a range of outcomes, from loss of faith through to spiritual growth (Wortmann & Park, 2009:18). Lichenthal et al. argue that the ‘loss of a child can be especially disruptive to a parent’s meaning structures as the death is often perceived as meaningless’ (2010:792). Indeed, multiple research studies have shown the reconstruction of meaning is central to predicting the grief outcomes of bereaved parents (Neimeyer, 2019:79; Bogensperger & Lueger-Schuster, 2014; Keesee, Currier & Neimeyer, 2008). Conversely, research by Davis, Wortman, Lehman and Silver suggests some parents do not need to reconstruct meaning (2000:497) and yet adjust well to their loss. Doka reasons that when meaning reconstruction is not required, it is likely the bereaved parent’s core beliefs can absorb their loss without being completely disrupted (2002b:51). However, the different research approaches to the actual content of meaning reconstruction make comparisons between these findings difficult. As Neimeyer’s meaning reconstruction model is the most widely accepted within grief theory (Kelley, 2010:71), this review utilises his approach, and thus will now explore the roles of sense-making and the ability to find unsought benefit as a consequence of the experience.

Sense-making

One component of meaning reconstruction, according to Neimeyer, is the capacity to make sense of the experience. Studies by Keesee, Currier and Neimeyer in the USA found that, regardless of the passage of time, the parent’s gender or the cause of death, the degree of sense-making as a component of meaning reconstruction was a potent predictor of current grief symptoms. In their research it accounted for fifteen times more distress than any other factor, with the inability to make-sense a positive predictor for prolonged grief disorder (2008:1145,1157). Further research, also carried out in the USA, found around 45% of parents were unable to make any sense at all from their child’s death but, where sense-making did occur, themes involving spirituality and religious beliefs were the most common (Lichenthal, et al., 2010:791,807). This suggests religious beliefs can be employed to make sense of loss, particularly by considering what may follow death, or whether God is absent or present in suffering (Park & Halifax, 2022:357). For Christian bereaved parents, this can involve attempts to grasp some reason for their child’s death, such as illness as a consequence of a ‘fallen world’, or perhaps embracing the belief that their child’s suffering has ceased and they are now ‘safe’ in heaven.

Kelley argues that, for Christians, how they make sense of loss depends on how they conceive the relationship between God and suffering (2010:87), suggesting a bereaved parent’s core beliefs about the nature and character of God are reappraised in light of their child’s death. However, Swinton believes ‘a crisis of theodicy after tragedy should not be framed as a crisis of faith, but rather as a crisis of understanding’ (2018:111). Furthermore, Daniel asserts a ‘toxic theology’ hinders the process of faith reappraisal and exacerbates the stress and anxiety associated with grief (2019:199,200). She describes this theology as consisting of rigid beliefs where God is seen as an authoritarian figure rewarding faithfulness, and where tragedy is a punishment from God. Daniel argues this impacts the ability to live with unanswered questions and is a significant factor in any prolonged grief disorder. Swinton concurs stating, ‘raw pain inspires hard questions and that problems arise when we try to answer them’ (2018:12). Indeed, for bereaved parents who ask ‘why did God let my child die?’ (Nash, 2011:22), there is frequently no answer (McIntyre, 2015; Finkbeiner, 1996:170) and no theodicy that satisfies (Scott, 2020:325; Swinton, 2018:13). As such, while much research suggests the process of sense-making is important for bereaved parents, it would also appear to have the potential to trigger spiritual distress and bewilderment for some Christian bereaved parents.

Benefit finding

The other component of meaning reconstruction according to Neimeyer is finding unsought benefit in the experience of the loss (Lichenthal et al., 2010:801). Multiple studies have found that, while parental grief is complex and prolonged, many parents respond in adaptive ways and can experience unsought benefits, including all aspects of post-traumatic growth (Albuquerque, Narciso & Pereira, 2018:199; Waugh, Kiemle & Slade, 2018:5-8; Thomadaki, 2017; Engelkemeyer & Marwit, 2008:344; Gerrish, Neimeyer & Bailey, 2014:151). While this process takes ‘many years of effort’ (Lichenthal, Neimeyer, Currier, Roberts & Jordan, 2013:337), post-traumatic growth can include an increase in compassion, a greater appreciation for life, changed priorities and often an enhanced spirituality (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2017:11; Lichenthal et al., 2010:802). In fact, Gantlett, writing after the death of her daughter, testifies she has ‘a more tender heart’, and experiences joy in a ‘deeper way’ (2021:264). However, Lichenthal et al. found, while bereaved parents were more able to find benefits than make sense within the meaning reconstruction process, at least 20% of bereaved parents were unable to find any unsought benefits five years post loss (2010:807). Interestingly, as well as experiencing more prolonged grief disorder, bereaved mothers also experience more post-traumatic growth compared to bereaved fathers (Waugh, Kiemle & Slade, 2018:5-9).

The finding that bereaved parents can experience spiritual growth after the death of their child aligns with the concept that Christians are formed into the likeness of Christ through suffering and life’s experiences (Mayseless & Russo-Netzer, 2017:179; Chandler, 2014:75-79; Kallmier, 2011:110; Hagberg & Guelich, 2005:172-3; Fowler, 2000:49; Romans 5:1–4), especially when those experiences create dissonance and challenge personal faith (Pargament, Murray-Swank, Magyar & Ano, 2005:246). Hagberg & Guelich state questions about meaning often ‘provide the energy for movement on our spiritual journey’ (2005:13) and Bridges also believes faith transitions start with ‘letting go of what no longer fits’ (2004:128-129). In agreement with this view, Gantlett states that, after her daughter’s death, her faith was ‘stripped back by pain and suffering’ and she ‘reconstructed a faith relationship with God that was more beautiful than what she started with’ (2021:77,86). Similarly, Wolterstorff, writing after his son’s death, declares his reconstructed faith revealed ‘a different kind of God, more mysterious’ (2019). As such, it appears that, for the experience of loss to trigger spiritual growth, the expectations of faith and God must be clarified (Shelby, 2005:135). Klass however cautions us that, although bereaved parents may find new growth and spirituality after their child’s death, all parents say they ‘would trade all the growth and gains if only they could have their child back’ (1999:6).

Religious coping

Pargament, Smith, Koenig and Perez describe people turning to religion when faced with stressful life events as ‘religious coping’, and argue people are more likely to engage in religious coping if religion has been a consistent and compelling part of their lives (1998:711). Religious coping strategies can be central to personal resilience (Park & Halifax, 2022:358; Dolcos, Hohl & Hu, 2021; Wortman & Park, 2008:703), but the way in which the bereaved utilise religious coping would appear to depend upon their concept of God (Kelley, 2010:114).

In their research with bereaved parents, Ungureanu & Sandberg found religious coping was of particular importance to bereaved parents (2010:313), while Anderson, Marwit & Vandenberg found that bereaved mothers who utilised religious coping had better grief outcomes (2005:823).

Pargament, Bockrath and Burdzy describe religious coping as both negative and positive, and operating in three dimensions: religious beliefs, religious practices and religious community. They state positive religious coping includes seeking God’s presence and care, and seeking to grow one’s relationship with God and other Christians, whereas negative religious coping includes faith questioning and struggles (2011:57). Notably, Balk argues spiritual change can happen during grief because an individual spends time in both negative and positive religious coping (1999:491), echoing the oscillation of loss and restoration activities in the dual process model of grief (Stroebe & Schut, 2010). As such, bereaved parents may spend time seeking God for comfort while also questioning God’s purposes.

Religious coping in grief as connections with God and faith community

Kelley believes religious coping that reflects a secure connection to God and a sense of connectedness to others is the most helpful to the bereaved. She argues that the belief that God is present in their suffering, while also being spiritually connected to others, leads to increased wellbeing physically, mentally and spiritually (2010:112).

Research by Jueckstock, carried out on bereaved parents in the USA, found that when the connection with God was deemed ‘secure’, the bereaved parent was able to ‘self-soothe’ and engage in positive religious meaning-making practices, such as prayer and lament, with their grief experiences characterised by recovery and resilience. Conversely, parents who continued having negative feelings towards God also displayed a lack of trust in God, and subsequently disconnected from God (2018:40,47).

Research by Burke & Neimeyer has explored a form of grief they describe as ‘complicated spiritual grief’, where grief triggers a disconnect from God or the faith community and a subsequent disruption in religious coping practices (2016; 2014). Significantly, their most recent research has shown that bereaved parents have a heightened risk of complicated spiritual grief, with 30% of bereaved parents being found to experience this form of grief (Burke, Crunk, Neimeyer & Bai, 2021:249). In such cases, the most common findings were resentment and doubt towards God, dissatisfaction with spiritual support and substantial changes in spiritual beliefs and behaviours (2014:1100). Their research found that bereaved individuals suffering with complicated spiritual grief indicated they frequently ‘felt robbed or lied to about God’s character’. Additionally, these individuals often felt misunderstood or abandoned by their churches who often sought to fix them with platitudes, with many seeking a fresh start in the safety and anonymity of other churches (2014:1103). Bridges’ statement that communities of faith often ‘offer only silence and abandonment when beliefs shatter’ as a result of suffering (2015:87), suggests that connection to a faith community can be difficult to maintain in such circumstances. As such, any disconnect from the bereaved individual’s church, or even their wider faith community, has the potential to hinder the bereaved mothers’ access to important religious coping resources, thus contributing to her spiritual and emotional distress.

The integration of meaning reconstruction and religious coping

Burke and Neimeyer (2014:1090), Lichtenthal et al. (2011:117) and Hall and Hill (2019:470) all argue that religious coping can provide the avenue for meaning reconstruction in bereaved parents. Indeed, Kelley believes that when faith is a significant component of a bereaved parent’s core beliefs, the capacity to reconstruct meaning and the nature of the bereaved parent’s relationship with God, would appear to be strongly connected (2010:89). Jueckstock concurs and goes even further in stating that the way in which Christian parents engage in meaning reconstruction is ‘directly related to their relationship with God’ (2018:48).

However, bereaved individuals also need safe and supportive places to lament and explore the religious issues that may mediate meaning (Doehring, 2019:241; Swinton, 2018:114-118; Wyatt, 2018; Bray, 2013:900; Pargament et al., 2005:264; Doka, 2002b:52). The church community can be viewed as being the ‘container’ that offers opportunities for religious coping activites such as lament and worship while also providing a safe place to facilitate spiritual questioning and supportive relationships.

It thus appears that the ability of a bereaved Christian parent to reconstruct meaning after the death of their child may occur through the use of religious coping practices, which in turn are influnced by the parent’s connection to God and connection to their faith community. The relationships between personal faith, connection to God and connection to church community are complex and almost certainly reciprocal, and therefore it is difficult to identify the causal process. However, its does appear that, just as ‘meaning reconstruction activities act on pre-loss meaning structures to construct new meaning structures’ (Gillies & Neimeyer, 2006:55), religious coping can potentially act on pre-loss faith beliefs to construct new faith beliefs in the aftermath of traumatic bereavement.

From the ideas presented in this literature review, a tenative conceptual model integrating meaning reconstruction theory with religious coping, in the context of child death, has been constructed and is illustrated in figure 1. The model includes references to the individual research articles that underpin the proposed integration of the two separate theories.

This proposed model takes the premise that a Christian bereaved parent’s core faith beliefs are illuminated by the death of their child, resulting in a reappraisal of their faith. If these core faith beliefs are found to be incongruent with their traumatic reality, then these Christian beliefs may be shattered.

The model proposes that, if reconstruction of meaning is subsequently required due to the shattering of these beliefs, the process may be influenced by both the bereaved parent’s relationship with God and their faith community facilitating any religious coping. When the process of meaning reconstruction is successful as a result of religious coping, the parent may experience some post-traumatic spiritual growth. Where it is unsuccessful, there is the possibility of developing prolonged grief disorder or complicated spiritual grief.

Correspondingly, if the bereaved parent’s core faith beliefs are deemed congruent with their reality, meaning reconstruction is deemed unnecessary. However, it is assumed that religious coping may still be utilised in order to gain comfort and connect with God in their suffering, which may or may not result in spiritual growth.

Conclusion

This literature review appears to suggest that the faith journey of a bereaved mother may be influenced, to some extent, by her religious coping activities acting upon her pre-loss faith beliefs, to facilitate the reconstruction of meaning in her life after the death of her child. These religious coping activities occur as a consequence of her connection to God and her faith community. Any resultant reconstruction of meaning appears to contribute to a reduction in emotional and spiritual distress, thereby influencing both the mother’s faith and grief journeys and outcomes. A tentative conceptual model is proposed that outlines this process.

The research on bereaved Christian mothers in the UK that is presented in article two utilises this conceptual model to provide an interpretive framework that assists in both the design of the research interviews and the approach to the data analysis. The research presented in article two thus focuses on exploring the pre-identified themes of faith reappraisal, relationship with God and relationship with faith community (see Neve, 2023; also in this issue).

Figure 1 Possible use of religious coping by bereaved parents within the meaning reconstruction model

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About the author

Elizabeth Neve BSc (Hons), MA

Elizabeth completed her MA in Spiritual formation at Waverley Abbey College in 2022. She currently works as a grief therapist, an EMCC senior accredited coach/mentor specialising in loss and transition, and a pastoral supervisor. She also develops and delivers pastoral care training courses for ACC, and can be contacted at liz@elizabethneve.co.uk.

Copyright

Copyright 2023 Elizabeth Neve

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