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

Author: Elizabeth Neve

Publish date: November 23, 2023
Reading Time: 27 minutes

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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