The Science of Relationships: Coping With Loss

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I think it was the biggest hole I had ever dug. Eight days before Christmas, and my eldest was out there with me struggling through the Carolina red clay. My back and arms kept at it thanks to a dose of Advil, but my face was dripping with tears.

A few months earlier, it was the same routine, albeit much smaller in scale. Red clay, Advil, and tears alongside my eldest. Until then, I had never dug a grave. Now two in three months. But the hard labor was therapeutic. After a decade and half with both Mimi and Max, the least I could do was prepare a proper burial for our family’s beloved pets.

It was a big step for me in coping with the loss of my fuzzy buddies.

Religion Helps. Science Shows It.

In recent decades, many interesting studies have examined how religion and faith help us deal with stress, loss, and trauma. Events as different as 9/11, near-death experiences, and caring for someone with cancer have been studied.

The results are pretty intuitive. For those who take faith seriously, we rely on it when we face difficulties. Health researchers also see this. Several studies have shown as many as 50 percent of persons identified religion as their primary resource for coping. Other studies showed 75 percent or more of respondents used their faith (or practices like prayer) as a source for coping.

How does faith help us cope? Well, this opens up a huge area of research that is expansive and contested. We don’t really know precisely how, but somehow the combination of regular worship attendance, prayer, placing value in our faith, and many other indicators of religiosity correlate with better health outcomes. Faith also has measured benefits in responding to trauma and reacting to stress. What we don’t know empirically is the cause behind these correlations.

The research on coping has revealed positive and negative strategies. Support from clergy and our congregations, healthy connection with God, and rituals of purification and forgiveness are among the positive ones.

Spiritual struggle that results from trauma or stress is the leading cause of negative coping—which often manifests as quick fixes—including avoidance techniques and substance abuse—that may make your mental and physical health worse in the long run. This often is associated with one’s understanding of God. When God fails to intervene on our behalf, or when one’s understanding of God is not just loving but punitive, spiritual struggle often results and religious coping can be harmful.

Interestingly, how active or passive we are in addressing the source of our stress and trauma has a role. When we work alongside God and others to face the situation and tackle it head-on, we experience less distress and tend to have better outcomes. When we are passive or avoid it altogether, things generally don’t work out as well.

This research is particularly relevant to chaplaincy and mental health professionals. Of vital importance: Our health is not merely physical, our needs are not just bio-chemical. Faith matters. And pastoral ministry not only boosts the human spirit, but it very often correlates with biological markers of health and well-being.

  • In part 1 of our short series on relationships, Drew introduced us to attachment theory and its relevance for our faith
  • Wikipedia offers the most complete summary of religion and coping.
  • A brief summary of religious coping, including a bibliography of key research.
  • A Fuller Seminary prof led this study on how religion helps people cope.
  • Five questions for psychology of religion and spirituality expert Ken Pargament.
  • More from Pargament (at about 16:00) in this podcast on faith for mental health pros.
  • Pargament literally wrote the book on this topic. Here are some key takeaways.
  • A chaplaincy resource that summarizes some coping research and strategies.

The Pastoral Role

My wife, a pastor, not only has the gift of pastoral care—thanks in part to a summer of hospital chaplaincy—but she also has great foresight. Anticipating how hard it would be for me to lose Max and Mimi, several years ago for Christmas she commissioned an artist to paint their portrait.

My middle daughter, responding to my tears while digging Mimi’s grave, did something similar this year. In my office now, below the portrait, stands a Mimi-replica stuffed animal. It’s not quite the same as having Max and Mimi look up at me begging for attention, but these special gifts are reminders of God’s abundant love. And they help me cope.

I pray for you and your ministry—as you serve the body of Christ through funerals and hospital visits, supporting your flock in every sort of trauma and loss—that you can surround them with God’s abundant love and help them to cope.




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