‘But a Transition From This Life:’ Bereavement and Belief in the Afterlife

Posted on April 4, 2012 by

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“Death is but a transition from this life to another existence where there is no more pain and anguish. All the bitterness and disagreements will vanish, and the only thing that lives forever is love.” ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Grief from the loss of a loved one is often overwhelming and crushing. Religions often try to ease that gaping sense of emptiness through ritual aimed at facilitating gradual release. And the literature on the positive effects of religion on healing is significant. Becker, in his 2007 paper, “Do religious or spiritual beliefs influence bereavement?: A systematic review,” analyzed 32 studies, covering a total of 5715 persons. 94% of the studies showed some positive effects of religious or spiritual beliefs on bereavement [all references below].

But it is complicated to determine exactly what components of religious belief and/or practice make the difference.

Let us look at just one aspect of religious life, shared by many major religions: the belief in an afterlife. There is little definitive work on the topic, but the studies that there are support the theory that belief in life beyond the here-and-now helps bereaved people to cope.

Some studies are small and observational, rather than statistical. Take one that looked at how 10 mothers whose children had died constructed meaning. Researchers Braun and Berg determined that “the parent’s descriptions of the collection of beliefs, assumptions, values, and norms that characterized their reality or their knowledge of life before their child’s death” were crucial in avoiding emotional collapse in the face of such a devastating loss.  Of the 10 mourning parents, one exhibited “early and complete acceptance of the loss of her son whereas other informants found great difficulty in this, even over extended periods of time.” In trying to determine what could account for her adaptation, the researchers suggested three variables, one of which was, indeed, the mother’s strong belief in an afterlife. [The other two were her experience of “existential hardships” and her belief in an all-powerful God who always acted for the good.]

“Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.” ~David Searls   

In a larger scale study from the early 90s, “Belief in afterlife as a buffer in suicidal and 0ther bereavement,” researchers asked 121 bereaved persons to complete scales measuring belief in afterlife, impact of event, perceived recovery, spiritual well-being, emotional pain, and social support. Of these, only two reached significance. In terms of impact of event, the bereaved had the most difficulty coming to terms with suicides or accidental deaths. The only other relevant scale was belief in life after death. Conclude the authors, “the feeling of recovery following bereavement is enhanced by high belief in afterlife.”

Billings & Moos have done extensive research into coping strategies in the face of loss.  They’ve divided coping responses by method: there’s the more adaptive ‘active’ vs. the less psychologically healthy ‘avoidant’ strategy. Active coping is consistently associated with decreased experience of stress. The researchers found that belief in the afterlife was significantly correlated with active coping strategies, and thus more healthful responses to bereavement.

Analyzing college undergraduates with strong beliefs in afterlife, Schoenrade’s study was meant to test the theory that belief in the afterlife would improve perspectives on death. Sure enough, students with stronger beliefs were found to adapt more easily to the loss as a result of “reconcil[ing] the positive and negative aspects of death.” She concluded, “while enhancing positive death perspective, such belief also allows the individual to accept the negative aspects of death.”

Finally, to return to Kubler-Ross. Back in 1974, she revolutionized the way scientists and physicians looked at death by moving a belief in some form of life after death out of the realm of religion alone, asking them to take a new look at death itself. Her work consistently showed that people who believe in God and some form of afterlife can face both their own demise and the loss of a loved one better, with fewer overwhelming fears, than those without comparable beliefs.

There is a comfort that a belief in life after death brings, and it allows the belief holder to better reconcile his loss, to be less gripped by overwhelming fears, to adapt better, and, in some cases, to recover faster. So let me leave you with the words of  James Whitcomb Riley, reminding, for those of us can believe thus, that our loved one “is not dead, he is just away.”

“I cannot say, and I will not say/That he is dead. He is just away./With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,/He has wandered into an unknown land/And left us dreaming how very fair/It needs must be, since he lingers there./And you—oh you, who the wildest yearn/For an old-time step, and the glad return,/Think of him faring on, as dear/In the love of There as the love of Here./ Think of him still as the same. I say,/He is not dead—he is just away.”~James Whitcomb Riley   

References

Becker G. Do religious or spiritual beliefs influence bereavement?: A systematic review.” Palliative Medicine 2007; 21(3):207-217.

Billings AG, Moos RH. The role of coping responses and social resources in attenuating the stress of life events. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1981: 4(2):139-157.

Braun M, Berg D. Meaning reconstruction in the experience of parental bereavement. Death Studies 1994; 18(2):105-29.

Clarke SM, et al. Religiosity, afterlife beliefs, and bereavement adjustment in adulthood. Journal of Religious Gerontology 2003; 14(2):207-224.

Davis C, Nolen-Hoeksemea S. Loss and meaning: How do people make sense of loss. American Behavioral Scientist 2001; 44(5):726-741.

Schoenrade P. When I die…Belief in afterlife as a response to mortality. Personality and Social Psychology Journal 1989; 15(1):91-100.

Smith P, Range L, Ulmer A. Belief in afterlife as a buffer in suicidal and 0ther bereavement. OMEGA–Journal of Death and Dying 1991-92; 24(3):217-225.

Wuthnow R, Christiano K, Kuzlowski J. Religion and bereavement: A conceptual framework. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1980; 19(4):408-422.

Posted in: Bereavement