Spiritual beliefs and existential meaning in later life: the experience of older bereaved spouses

Project lead: Professor Peter Coleman

Research team

  • Professor Peter Coleman

  • Dr Fionnuala McKiernan

  • Dr Marie Mills

  • Reverend Prebendary Peter Speck


January 2000 - June 2001


Professor Peter Coleman
Department of Psychology
University of Southampton
Southampton SO17 1BJ

Tel: +44 (0)23 8079 6131
Email: pgc@soton.ac.uk


This research focuses on the quality of life which is constituted by purposeful and meaningful living, in particular the meaning people attribute to their personal existence. The dual loss of role and function which accompanies ageing can lead to failure of existential meaning. In the past, durable meaning has been encouraged by the profession of a religious faith and the supportive influence of a faith community. However, British society has seen the decline of traditional religious practices and an increase of diversity of belief in regard to sources of existential meaning. It is difficult to apply lessons from North American research which reflects a society where religious influences remain strong. Yet, to date, there has been little British research on the subject of spiritual beliefs and ageing.

It is our expectation that this project will enlarge discussion about quality of later life. Better understanding is required of the various forms of spiritual and non-spiritual beliefs influencing existential meaning perceived by the British older population. Our research takes a broader approach to the identification of spiritual beliefs and eschews a narrowly religious path.

Aims and objectives

The principal aim of this study is to investigate the relationship between spiritual and non-spiritual beliefs with regard to existential meaning and the long-term well-being of older people following the bereavement of their spouse.

The study has two principal objectives:

  • To investigate the associations between beliefs concerning existential meaning, social support for these beliefs, quality of life and adjustment to bereavement in a sample of bereaved spouses.

  • To examine the influence of internal factors, key experiences and thought processes mediating the relationship between belief and well-being in the same sample.

  • The study has two subsidiary objectives:

  • To assess the person's needs for particular forms of counselling, including pastoral care.

  • To explore the basis for a more substantial longitudinal study in which to investigate the influence of beliefs concerning existential meaning on adjustment to loss in later life.

Study design

A series of longitudinal case studies will be carried out on a total sample of 20 men and 20 women, drawn from lists of GP practices and Funeral Directors. Each participant will be interviewed three times, the first shortly after the the first anniversary of the bereavement, then six months later, and finally after the second anniversary of the death. Anniversaries are important times in the re-activation of grief, and the time period from the first to the second anniversary is a key period in the process of adjustment.

We shall employ validated questionnaires to assess the character and strength of religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs concerning existential meaning, as well as self-esteem, health and well-being, and adjustment to bereavement. But the main feature of the data collection will be the description of significant experiences in the inner and outer lives of participants since the bereavement. These accounts will be recorded and analysed using qualitative methods of narrative analysis.

Particular attention will be paid to the dialogues of questioning and answering in which the person engages, both in terms of internal thought processes (the dialogical self), and external conversation with significant others, relating to the deceased person, his or her meaning for the person's own life, and the continued purpose and significance of living.

Policy implications

This study will contribute towards the greater integration of pastoral care within British gerontology and social policy for older people. Our sense of pastoral care is broad, going beyond specifically religious concerns to include a more sophisticated consideration of spiritual beliefs and other sources of existential meaning. The identification of spiritual needs is now recognised to be an important part of health and social care assessment, and we would hope that our research will contribute to the development of improved training of assessors and the use of more sophisticated procedures in practice. We intend to disseminate our findings to various professional and user groups. Although the study focuses on bereaved spouses, we believe its findings will have application to the wider field of maintenance of elders' integrity in the face of loss.