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  April 28, 2003

Researcher Says Religion Makes
Bereavement Harder In Short Term

People who are religious experience more disruptions in their beliefs and goals immediately following the death of a loved one than do those who are not as religious, according to research by a UConn psychology professor. Ultimately, however, those who are religious exhibit better adjustment, as the stressful event is integrated into their worldview.

"Religion is initially associated with more meaning-making coping, as measured by intrusive thoughts and avoidance," says Crystal Park, an associate professor of psychology, "as well as with higher levels of depressed mood."

Image: Crystal Park, associate professor of psychology.

Crystal Park, associate professor of psychology, has studied the effects of religion on coping in the context of bereavement and other stressful events.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

Park is president of the American Psychological Association's Division on the Psychology of Religion.

"Over time, however, as people are making meaning from their loss, these effects disappear or are even reversed, suggesting a positive association between religion and long-term adjustment," she adds.

Park studied 169 bereaved college students who had lost someone they were close to within the past year. Of these, 157 reported that they had a religious affiliation, such as Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, and 12 reported no affiliation. The students' religiosity was assessed using a scale that measures the extent to which religion is the respondent's guiding motive.

The students were also questioned about who or what they saw as responsible for the death - the deceased, chance, or God; and how much the death interfered with their beliefs about the world and their goals. The coping mechanisms the students used in response to the death; any intrusive thoughts about the death - thinking about it when the subject didn't mean to; and deliberate avoidance of reminders of the death were also measured. The subjects' adjustment was measured by questioning them about the extent to which they experienced certain symptoms of depression, how satisfied they were with their lives; and any positive changes they may have experienced because of or following the death of their loved one.

Park's analysis of the data shows that early on, religion is associated with more disruption in beliefs and goals. Later, however, the association diminishes, possibly as the bereaved change their perceptions of the situation to fit their pre-existing beliefs.

Religion is also related to more meaning-making coping - when the bereaved attempt to reduce the discrepancy between how they regard the meaning of their loved one's death and the beliefs and goals that have been disrupted by the event. Ways of doing this include coming to see God's hand in the event or redefining the death as an opportunity to learn new coping skills or develop new sources of social support.

Those who are religious are also more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression immediately after their loved one's death, but by the latter part of the first year, those symptoms disappear. According to Park, in the study those who were religious were more likely to be satisfied with their lives and have made positive changes, such as rethinking the way they want to live their lives, as a result of the death.

"The results demonstrate how religion may serve as a meaning system within which the bereaved can reframe their loss, look for more benign interpretations, find coping resources, and, perhaps, find areas of personal growth," Park notes.

Park's research and results will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Social Issues.

In an unrelated study currently being conducted at the Health Center, Park is examining people who have survived heart attacks and what they do with the second chance they're given when they survive.

"What is it about some people that allows them to learn from the experience and grow?" she asks. "If you can figure it out, you can design interventions. Meaning in life seems to be the key."

In some of her other research, Park has studied stress, coping, and adaptation in older people living with congestive heart failure and myocardial infarction.

Park, who joined the UConn faculty in 1999, says all her work deals with people's search for a meaning-making framework. When someone is upset, whether it be by the death of a loved one or a serious illness, the stress he or she feels violates his or her beliefs and goals, she says. Meaning-making involves putting the pieces back together.

Park notes that although various aspects of religion are strongly related to physical and psychological well-being in everyday life and in the context of coping with adversity, few people are studying spirituality.

"Spirituality is not studied often by psychologists," says Park. "Most introductory psychology textbooks don't even mention religion. It's silly how anti-religious the field has been. I'm excited to be at the forefront of psychology's rediscovery of this field."

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