Teenagers who lose a religious mother to an untimely death are less likely to attend church as young adults, while teens who lose a non-religious mom are more likely to seek the comfort of spiritual practices, especially prayer.
Researcher Renae Wilkinson, sociologist and doctoral candidate at Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, said a mother’s death during childhood is “an off-time death, when our norms break down.”
“A child may wonder why God chose to take the mother away so soon and could turn away from God, or turn toward God as a compensatory figure.”
The findings are complex, however, as overall, teens in the study who experienced a mother’s death were less likely to attend church, but were still more likely to say that religion is important in their lives as young adults.
“These findings suggest that there is a complex relationship between mother loss and religiosity, and it is one that may depend on maternal religiousness,” said Wilkinson.
“For children dealing with a mother’s death, the loss is not only distressing, but also likely to violate beliefs about the timing of life transitions and to challenge ideas about the fairness of the world,” Wilkinson said.
“This is a disruptive event at an already disruptive time of life — the transition from adolescence to young adulthood involves role changes related to education, family and romantic relationships that experiencing the death of one’s mother may complicate.”
Previous research has shown that in general, children tend to mirror their parents in matters of faith over time, whether that be religiosity or atheism. And a study from the Pew Research Center suggests mothers have more influence on their children’s religious upbringings than fathers, especially in families with parents of mixed religious backgrounds.
For the new study, Wilkinson looked at data from two waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The first was conducted in 1994 and 1995 with in-depth interviews of a nationally representative sample of American adolescents in grades 7-12.
The next wave was conducted in 2008, when participants were young adults ages 24 to 34. The final sample was limited to 10,748 of the initial participants, allowing comparison of those whose mothers were alive and those whose mothers were dead.
The study looked at four aspects of both mothers’ and children’s religiosity: affiliation with a religious tradition, attendance at religious services, prayer and how important religion was to an individual. (To assess mother’s religiosity, prayer was not included because it is considered private and likely to be less observable to children.)
“This study is an initial contribution to an understudied topic,” Wilkinson said. She said that future research could compare the impact of the loss of a mother to the loss of a father and how those results might differ by the gender of the bereaved child.
In addition, the research would need to examine other outcomes after experiencing a parental death throughout the transition to adulthood, such as psychological well-being and physical health.
The study is published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Source: Baylor University