Research into practice

Neil Thompson looks at research into the
important and sometimes overlooked role of spiritual beliefs in
responding to bereavement.

In this study researchers from the University
of Southampton developed a measure for quantifying spiritual belief
and applied this to 28 older people whose spouses had died.

Participants in the research were interviewed
three times in total: on the first anniversary of their spouse’s
death, again six months later and then a third time on or about the
second anniversary of the death. The researchers divided the sample
into three subgroups: low or weak spiritual beliefs, moderate
spiritual beliefs, and high spiritual beliefs. They did this with a
view to discovering whether people differed in their response to
the bereavement in keeping with their level of spiritual

The research found there was a clear
association between level of belief, personal meaning and
well-being. For example, the greater one’s level of spiritual
belief, the lower the chance of depression being reported. The
authors refer to a significant body of American research that
similarly makes a case for recognising the important links between
religious feeling and physical and mental well-being. However, they
also point out that these findings do not automatically transfer to
a UK situation.

The paper argues that, while the role of the
religion may well have declined in modern society, this does not
necessarily mean that people’s spiritual beliefs have similarly
declined. Indeed, the role of spirituality in general and the
support of faith communities in particular are clearly issues which
require closer attention.

The study uses a definition of spirituality
that includes reference to a higher power or “transcendent being”.
However, other authors, such as Moss,1 adopt a
definition that sees spirituality as being a matter of value,
purpose and meaning, which may or may not include a religious
dimension. Either way, we need to recognise that spirituality is
not simply a matter of religion.

In my view, this research is important for
three separate but nonetheless related reasons. First, it helps to
raise awareness of spiritual and existential issues which can often
be neglected in social work in general.2 Second, more
specifically, it helps us to question the validity of care
management approaches to working with older people that neglect the
less tangible needs associated with meaning, beliefs and
spirituality in favour of a primary, if not exclusive, focus on
practical care needs. Third, it reminds us that older people grieve
too, despite the common ageist myth that older people “get used to”
losses in their lives.3

The authors acknowledge that their study is an
exploratory one, and so it is to be hoped that it can form the
basis of further research work to develop a fuller understanding of
this important but neglected area of study and practice.

– Peter G Coleman, Fionnuala McKiernan, Marie
Mills and Peter Speck, “Spiritual belief and quality of life: the
experience of older bereaved spouses”, Quality in Ageing
3(1), March 2002.

Neil Thompson is a director of Avenue
and a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool. He
is editor of Loss and Grief: A Guide for Human Services


1 Bernard Moss,
“Spirituality: a personal perspective”, in N Thompson (ed),
Loss and Grief: A Guide for Human Services Practitioners,
Palgrave, 2002

2 M Lloyd, “Dying and
bereavement, spirituality and social work in a market economy of
welfare”, British Journal of Social Work 27(2), 1997; and
N Patel, D Naik and B Humphries, Visions of Reality,
CCETSW, 1997

3 S Thompson, “Old age”, in
N Thompson, as above.

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