That's the conclusion of a new study, appearing in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.
British researchers found those who truly believe in a "higher power," regardless of what religion they followed, were able to recover from the death of a loved one faster than people with lower levels of spirituality, and they fared much better than people with no spirituality.
"We found that people with no religious or spiritual beliefs did the worst," says study author Dr. Michael King. King, who heads the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, says "they didn't recover at all over the study period."
For the study, the researchers recruited friends or family members of hospice patients before the patient's death. Of the 129 volunteers, 43 percent reported having strong spiritual beliefs, 16 percent said they had none, and 41 percent said they had "low-intensity" spiritual beliefs.
King says the researchers tried to measure spiritual belief without including religion. So, in this study, strong spirituality simply meant a belief in a higher power.
The researchers interviewed the volunteers at one month, nine months and 14 months after the death of their loved one. The volunteers completed five standardized tests to assess the strength of their spiritual beliefs and to see how they were coping with their loss.
King and his colleagues also tried to control the data for sex, age, depression and social connections.
The people with the strongest beliefs got steadily better throughout the study period. Those with a lower level of spirituality didn't do as well for the first nine months, but by the end of the study had caught up to the strong belief group. The group without spiritual beliefs seemed to recover slightly by nine months, according to King. However, by the end of the study, they were as bereaved as they had been just after the death.
According to Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, these findings are consistent with other studies.
And, he adds, that's just common sense.
"If someone doesn't believe in a higher power or in an afterlife, then the loved one is just gone," Koenig says. "They are forever separated. The idea that you'll never ever see them again or experience any connection with them is very disheartening."
On the other hand, for people who do strongly believe in a higher power, Koenig says, "Religion is very comforting to people. It buffers the shock that the loved one is gone. Believing there's still a connection is tremendously comforting."
While he doesn't believe death is something you "get over" or recover from, the Rev. Paul Steinke, director of the chaplaincy program at the New York University Medical Center, says religion helps the bereaved in many ways.
"Death demands some formality, and religion has always supplied rituals," which can help mourners cope with their loss, he says. Also, most religions offer a sense of community, and he says the community is there to support the bereaved.
King says these findings could be especially useful for hospice workers. If they know someone doesn't have strong spiritual beliefs, they might offer extra counseling after the death knowing that person will probably have a more difficult bereavement period.
Koenig says it would also be helpful for physicians to have this information so they could offer extra assistance to the people who might need extra help.
That doesn't, however, mean that King is suggesting a spiritual intervention. "You either have a belief or you don't," he says.
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