Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Religion in Times of Loss

Interview with Dr. Rivi Frei-Landau on the impact of faith on bereavement.

Rivi Frei-Landau, used with permission
Source: Rivi Frei-Landau, used with permission

During COVID-19, millions worldwide are experiencing incredible loss. Whether it is a loss of relationships, loss of work, loss of health, or loss of life, each person has experienced bereavement in particular ways. One factor that affects this grieving is religious faith.

Rivi Frei-Landau, Ph.D., is a psychologist and lecturer at the Open University and at Achva Academic College, both in the School of Education and in the School of Psychology in the Culturally-sensitive Clinical Psychology program. She specializes in the study of loss and rehabilitation with a focus on multicultural and religion-based perspectives.

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?

RFL: Loss is a universal experience, one that is clearly evident in the current global battle against the COVID-19 virus. Although humankind has always had to deal with loss, there is a growing understanding that supporting individuals' coping with loss is of the utmost importance.

My initial interest in exploring the way people cope with loss stemmed from my own experience. Seven years before I conducted the research, I went through a stillbirth. It was my second pregnancy and it occurred so suddenly and unexpectedly that I found myself completely overwhelmed. As a religious woman, I started to wonder whether religiosity has an impact on people's grieving process, and if so, how.

After reviewing scientific literature on the subject, I realized that although religion is considered to be a resource in coping with loss and stressful life events, for some individuals, it may also cause stress and bring about hardships. These individuals may experience a religious struggle as a result of their loss, including negative thoughts and emotions about religion and God (or Higher Power). As a psychologist, I was curious about the differences between people's use of religion when coping with loss. Why do some bereaved people experience religion as comforting while others struggle with it? This was the beginning of my academic journey.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

RFL: My study focused on parents' relationship with God as a factor in their adjustment to child loss. Attachment to God (ATG)—one's emotional relationship with God—is typically characterized by two aspects: avoidance from emotional closeness with God and anxiety about His abandonment. Generally, people who demonstrate low levels of these aspects are considered to have a secure relationship with God (which is associated with psychological well-being), whereas high levels represent an insecure relationship with God.

Considering that ATG is manifested differently among people from different religious denominations, I wondered whether ATG's impact in the context of loss varies according to these differences. Thus, the key issue discussed in my research was whether people's ATG is a factor in the relationship between their religious affiliation and adjustment to child loss.

The focus of the study was on bereaved Jewish parents who lost their children due to various causes (e.g. disease, car accidents, terrorist attacks, and military service). The study's participants belonged to various Jewish denominations (ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, traditional, and secular).

In order to examine my questions, I contacted parents via advertisements on social media (inviting bereaved parents to participate), as well as by the help of various Israeli nonprofit organizations (including Zichron Menachem, Or Lamishpachot, and One Family), and provided the parents with questionnaires examining their adjustment to bereavement (the TTBQ, a well-established questionnaire developed by Prof. Simon Rubin) and a few religion-based measures, including one that assesses their ATG.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

RFL: Prior research has suggested that peoples' religious affiliation, as measured by external characteristics (i.e., religious denomination, levels of religious observance, etc.), is related to their adjustment to loss. My study discovered that this relationship is mediated by individuals' attachment to God— which represents ones' internal emotional experience with God. For instance, higher levels of attachment-avoidance to God were found to be related to greater difficulty in adjusting to loss, regardless of one's religious affiliation.

In other words, in the context of loss, two individuals who belong to the same religious denomination may differ in their emotional relationship with God and therefore, may exhibit different styles or levels of adjustment.

These findings highlight the fact that viewing ones' religiosity solely on the basis of external characteristics when examining religion’s role in adjustment to loss would be lacking, as ones' internal mechanisms, such as ATG, also play an important role in the adjustment.

This may promote awareness for the importance of implementing culturally sensitive interventions, with an emphasis on internal factors, as part of spiritually informed psychotherapy when working with bereaved parents of all faiths.

Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?

RFL: One way to apply the findings in our everyday life is by becoming more aware of the judgments and assumptions we make about people's behavior based on their external characteristics. The findings of the study support the well-known saying "don't judge a book by its cover"; what people show externally doesn't necessarily represent how they feel internally. And how people feel internally can have a meaningful impact on their behavior in general, and, as shown by my research, on their adjustment to loss in particular. Therefore, when trying to provide support to others, we must listen wholeheartedly to their experiences and emotions, with no regard to what they are wearing or how many religious rules they observe.

Another way to apply the findings has to do with those who believe in God and consider themselves to have some kind of spiritual relationship. As discussed in my research, those who have a secure relationship with God are able to use it for support when dealing with loss.

Therefore, in order to prepare one's self for future coping with loss or other stressful situations, one might want to work on his or her relationship with God. Furthermore, if one is in the midst of dealing with loss, attention should also be given to his or her relationship with God, as the loss may have given rise to struggles with this relationship as well. Talking about these struggles—should they arise—may provide bereaved people with relief and allow them to cope better with the loss.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?

RFL: Some people may unconsciously assume that the more religious a person is, the easier it will be for him or her to cope with bereavement, as he or she has religion to lean on for support. However, most people define how religious others are by external characteristics—such as dress code, or general observance of the religious rules. My study shows that the most significant factor in determining how one will cope is not the external characteristics of one's religiosity, but rather the internal mechanisms, such as one's attachment to God.

Thus, when attempting to help bereaved parents, society should provide support to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation (as determined by external characteristics) and should not expect individuals to demonstrate certain behaviors based on said affiliation.

Moreover, I believe that merely presenting an experience of religious struggle as legitimate and common among people affiliated with different religious denominations may provide people relief and a feeling of togetherness within their own struggle.

One should enable bereaved parents to share their complex emotions, not only about bereavement but also about their spiritual struggles. The more the environment accepts that bereaved parents may struggle with their own faith and religion, the easier it would be for them to share these feelings and cope with them.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

RFL: I am currently working on several projects regarding the multicultural aspects of the experience of loss. One of these projects includes interviews with bereaved Muslim parents in addition to bereaved Jewish parents, thus allowing observation of the coping process through a multicultural lens. Another project involves ultra-Orthodox women's experience of pregnancy loss.

I conduct these projects together with my research students, whom I mentor in the Culturally-sensitive Clinical Psychology program at Achva Academic College. This program was designed to train psychologists using a multicultural perspective and includes students from various minority groups in Israel, such as Bedouins, Ethiopians, and ultra-orthodox Jews. These minority groups all lack representation within the profession of psychology, a fact that prevents people from these groups from seeking therapy, as they would frequently only feel comfortable doing so with a psychologist from their own community or background.

In addition, I am interested in the ways teachers engage students who experience loss, and the most effective and innovative methods of training them to deal with it.


For more information, follow Achva Academic College on Facebook and Instagram.

Frei-Landau, R., Tuval-Mashiach, R., Silberg, T., & Hasson-Ohayon, I. (2020). Attachment to God as a mediator of the relationship between religious affiliation and adjustment to child loss. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(2), 165–174.

This study was funded by The Israel Foundation Trustee.

More from Jamie D. Aten Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today