My mother died when I was 14.
I’ve begun so many essays—so many introductions and conversations—that way. My mother died when I was 14. It trips off my tongue as naturally as my name and social security number. And yet I never write it or say it without flinching. Losing my mother was the determining event of my life. Her death shaped my personality, my faith, my career, and my persistent struggles with mental illness. Or so I’ve always thought.
As I read The Spiritual Child, a book by psychologist and professor Lisa Miller about new research on the inborn spirituality of children and its role in long-term mental health, I wondered if my mother’s death, while certainly a pivotal, even shattering experience, was at the root of my struggles with mental health after all. Reading Miller’s research findings about adolescent-onset depression, I wondered if what happened after her death wasn’t far more important to my later diagnoses of complex PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Miller’s book proposes that the next “big idea” in parenting is the science of “natural spirituality.” She incorporates research and clinical experience to illustrate how healthy spirituality is a core component of sound mental health and human flourishing. Despite what one reviewer called Miller’s ethereal “spookiness” (at times she attributes perhaps too much innate wisdom and goodness to babies), the scientific literature is convincing.
Miller cites studies that show children who have healthy spirituality (defined as a personal relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding, called God, nature, the universe, the Creator, or something that represents a divine presence) are 40 percent less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; 60 percent less likely to become depressed; and 80 percent less likely to have unprotected sex.
For Miller, natural spirituality is distinct from religion. Religion is learned, she says, while spirituality is biological, genetic and inborn—“an innate capacity for transcendence.” She is not anti-religion; she believes religious faith traditions, at their best, are “an embrace of this innate spiritual faculty.” But she warns that they can also be damaging when they interfere with forming relationships or deny the reality of a child’s “heart knowing” or inner spiritual “intuition.” Fostering this heart knowing, and the development of a child’s perception of the sacred, she says, is a parent’s most critical task.
Adolescent depression is “a natural aspect of the quest that is inherently developmental—and spiritual.”
Perhaps the most convincing chapters of The Spiritual Child explore what is commonly known as teen angst—what Miller calls “developmental depression.” She argues that this type of depression isn’t an illness at all, but a pivotal moment in “individuation,” the essential stage in adolescent development when a teenager develops a distinct sense of self. “Spiritual individuation,” she says, is a key part of this process, when the teen examines every aspect of their identity through a spiritual lens.
Teen angst, Miller says, has the outward appearance of a child withdrawing from experience. But that’s false. In this stage, she says, a teen is “highly attuned” and ”open” to experience, yet feels that his yearnings are “unmet.” This is also when a child begins to ask the big questions, to wonder about his place in the world and the meaning and purpose of life. Miller says this is the time for parents to lean in, not out of a child’s path: “Everything—heart and soul, literally—is on the line.”
“The response to an adolescent’s first depression experience is crucial,” Miller says. If the response of parents and other close adults is positive and engaged, the child begins to develop resilience. If the response is inadequate, a destructive process psychologists call “kindling” may start, where the teen becomes more sensitive, and new episodes of depression are more easily triggered. “If we medicate for symptoms but overlook the adolescent’s spiritual needs in the struggle for individuation, research shows that the risk is very high for a subsequent, more severe depression,” she says. “If depression is treated as a developmental opportunity, the adolescent learns to engage distressing situations and come through to the other side. But ignoring the developmental challenge not only leaves our adolescents to fall between the diagnostic cracks, but worse, abandons them on the precarious edge of a lifetime risk of depression.”
If I died today, I imagine counselors lining up at the front door to talk to my daughter. Her classmates would meet with “a trusted adult” to talk about death and the stages of grief. Today, entire communities grieve together, with concert benefits and candlelit services.
Maybe back when my mother died, in 1990, people imagined the same. They—the people in my neighborhood, my church, my school—probably assumed someone was there to help—to hug me and love me and teach me how to wash my hair and wear tampons and process my grief. Or maybe we didn’t know about processing grief back then. Pop psychology hadn’t quite taken hold, at least not in small-town Louisiana. Maybe losing a young, beautiful non-smoking mother to an aggressive lung cancer was a tragedy so horrible nobody knew what to do or say. Whatever reason, I never went to grief counseling, and no “trusted adult” reliably presented.
Nor did I talk to my priest. My spiritual life quickly became as confusing as my home life. My dad left the Catholic Church. A few months after my mom’s death, he introduced the woman who would be my stepmother, an aggressively anti-Catholic Pentecostal. They openly scorned and ridiculed my church. Priests were worse than Pharisees; they were mouthpieces of evil. My dad equated praying the rosary and going to Mass with devil worship.
I interpreted his remarriage to someone from a different faith tradition, a different worldview—someone who I saw as the polar opposite of my mother—as a rejection of me, of our life together up to that point, of everything I’d been raised to believe was true and good, from the Catholic Church to Led Zeppelin (now also anathema). I’d gone to Catholic school my whole life, to the same church, with the same priest and the same friends, since I was born. My home had become unrecognizable without my mother, but at least Our Lady of Lourdes had stayed reassuringly the same. By the time he remarried, I’d not only lost any sense of unconditional love, I’d lost my whole world. I no longer recognized my reality.
In MRI studies, religious practice and spirituality were shown to be “neuroprotective” against depression.
“For the child,” according to Lisa Miller, “inner spirituality and what they learn in religion classes are often thought to be the same thing (even if all the while the child has spiritual experience that may or may not be discussed within the family religion). They do not cognitively reflect upon their own internal spiritual life as separate from what others teach them about religion or God or spirituality as the road to spiritual growth.”
Miller also writes that at 14 years old, the largest impact on a teen’s spirituality comes from her family. She says a child’s sense of parental love and transcendent love are entangled, and that a loving relationship with a parent often translates to a loving relationship with a higher power. Had my dad realized just how entangled my love of my mother and my love of God were, and how they were both wrapped up in my love for the church, and that this was both developmentally appropriate and totally normal—might he have tread more lightly on my childhood faith?
In a chapter titled “The Nod,” on how parents transmit spirituality in subtle ways, Miller cites a study conducted at the College of William and Mary that explored the parent’s ability to shape a child’s transcendent relationship. “They found that children literally take the attributes of their parents and stamp them on the face of their higher power,” Miller writes. “In a child’s brain, parental love and God’s love speak the same language…. An unconditionally loving and reliable parent—mother or father—was associated with a strongly felt sense of an always present, accepting, and loving God. The nature of an individual’s daily lived relationship with their higher power, particularly the way they understand, struggle with, and resolve suffering, was strongly affected by the parenting they received.”
My mother’s love, extravagant and unconditional, might have been enough—even after her death—to protect me against the depression that runs in my family. Miller argues that the joint effect of parenting and spirituality is “the most profoundly protective factor in relation to depression ever to be found in the clinical sciences.” I was an anxious, sensitive, and melancholic child before her illness, but those characteristics don’t necessarily translate to the onset of major depression. Neither, surprisingly, does the death of a parent. But a lack of support and validation during the years of individuation—puberty and adolescence—often does. The denial of a teen’s reality, of their capacity for “heart-knowing,” as Miller terms it, is reliably destructive.
If we medicate for symptoms but overlook the adolescent’s spiritual needs, research shows the risk is very high for a subsequent, more severe depression
The College of William and Mary study also found that in cases of the absence of parental love, “such as a dead parent or a severely mentally disturbed, hostile parent,” a child sometimes turns to a higher power to fulfill the needs that aren’t being met by the parent. Researchers call this “compensation.” Miller writes: “The child could fill the empty bucket of parental love with transcendent love. When there is no human to provide that constancy, he can get that rock-solid sense of security and safety from his higher power.”
In a chapter titled “The Science of the Spiritual Brain,” Miller describes the findings from a study she conducted that compared the brain during engagement with the transcendent relationship—i.e. during some sort of spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation—versus a state of stress. The MRI showed that during stress, brain activity increases in regions associated with craving—the insula and the striatum. “For centuries, world religions have said much about craving and attachment as underlying suffering,” she concludes. When participants in the MRI study shifted their minds to the transcendent relationship, there was a cessation of blood flow in the same regions. “Neurologically speaking,” Miller concludes, when we have a strong spirituality “we are set free” from craving.
But my religion—which had been dismissed as inauthentic at best, evil at worst—was now little more than an act of rebellion. I would sit in those pews in Our Lady of Lourdes no matter what my father and his new wife said. I would pray to Mary and every saint I could find. I would run away and hide in the chapel at 3 a.m. to pray before the host in a monstrance on the altar. And I would find someone to witness my pain. Except the one I found wasn’t a higher power. It was a 15-year-old boy. Instead of reaching for the transcendent love that Miller’s research says might have fulfilled my needs, I got a boyfriend.
Miller’s research shows that puberty and adolescence bring a surge in both fertility and in spiritual capacity, that “teens are propelled like clockwork into an accentuated hunger for transcendence, a search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and the desire for unitive connection.” She goes on: “Puberty is a unified developmental path for both fertility and spirituality. The development of spirituality occurs in tandem with other forms of maturation, including sexual, cognitive, social, and emotional development.”
What might have been a natural surge in my capacity for transcendent experience—a need for “escape and connection” that Miller deems “inherently good and important” for teens, was utterly confused by my intense, suppressed grief and regular old hormones. My relationship with this boy—who was, significantly, also abused and neglected—quickly eclipsed any blossoming spiritual longings. It also eclipsed what might have been a healthy experience of grief.
I was in pain, desperate for connection, hunting for the love and safety that I’d lost, but I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol or reckless behavior, as many troubled teens do. Neither did I rely on a strong sense of personal faith or relationship with a higher power, as Miller’s research suggests many healthy teens do. Instead, I turned to a boy, and for a while, he filled the roles of mother, father, brother, soulmate, and savior. In fact, this first love was so emotionally and physically overwhelming that I remember the year after my mother’s death as one of the happiest of my life. I found in him—and in my sexual experiences with him—the shortcut to escape and transcendence that Miller says teenagers inherently desire.
“In a child’s brain, parental love and God’s love speak the same language…”
Miller posits that the right kind of parental influence during the tandem hormonal and spiritual “surge” can “make or break the development of adolescent spirituality and can influence the child’s lifelong physical and mental health.”
But there was no strong parental influence in my life at this time. My mother was dead. My father was neglectful at best and emotionally abusive at worst. Combine that with the onset of puberty and the intoxicating rush of first love—which generates an abundance of the feel-good brain chemicals that trauma depletes—and you have the recipe for a lethal cocktail that I nursed well past adolescence. For years, my relationship with this boy, and later, man, was my addiction. Long after it turned toxic, I confused it with a “safe” place to return in moments of desperation, an escape hatch from the pain and grief that haunted me.
My depression began in earnest around the time of our first breakup. It manifested as stomach aches that felt like being flayed with a hot sword. My dad took me to the emergency room the first time, and they sent me home with a prescription for Pepcid. It didn’t help. I was in and out of the hospital for months. I had upper and lower GIs, an endoscopy. When they couldn’t find a reason for the pain, the doctor put me on Prozac. But we still didn’t talk about depression or grief. I still didn’t see a counselor. I’ve been on and off some kind of an antidepressant ever since.
The pain in my stomach was so frequent, so intense, and so embarrassing that I began to withdraw, even from the boy I loved so much. After we broke up, I sat on my bedroom floor with a razor blade and traced it along the inside of my arms. But I knew I couldn’t go any further. I wanted more than anything to be where my mother was. But I also believed in hell, and if there was a place that felt worse than where I was, I didn’t want to go there.
I’ve joked that a fear of hell isn’t all bad. It was all that remained of my spirituality at the time, and it saved my life.
Miller’s research suggests that my belief in Catholic teaching about hell, as dark as it was at the time, might have been a neurological boon. In MRI studies, “the same region of the brain to show cortical thinness in families at risk for depression instead showed thickness if there was a sustained personal sense of spirituality and religion being highly important over the past five years.” Religious practice and spirituality, she says, are “neuroprotective.”
“EEG data on the same highly spiritual participants who have recovered from depression showed the same wavelength of high-amplitude alpha (associated with meditative states) as found by other labs in studies on people who recovered from depression through SSRIs like Prozac.” It seems a strong sense of spirituality can be as effective as pharmaceuticals.
Miller concludes from these studies that “16 year olds… who struggled through depression and arrived into a strong personal spirituality had a greater likelihood of a lifetime of resilience.”
Over time, I developed a strong faith that isn’t so reliant on fear or rebellion. Yes, I have struggled with depression ever since, but as mentally unhealthy as I’ve been, I couldn’t help thinking, reading Miller’s studies, that I might have been far worse. I might have been dead.
Western medicine treats depression as an illness: a chemical imbalance, a psychological dysfunction or deficit, but Miller says the science shows that adolescent depression is “something more: a natural aspect of the quest that is inherently developmental—and spiritual.”
If we see depression as an opportunity, not necessarily an illness, if we see that “a descent into pain or depression holds the potential for new growth and opportunity,” as Miller says, “that understanding alone can be the first step toward firmer ground of resilience and recovery.”
But left unresolved in adolescence, developmental depression increases the risk of major depression in the years ahead. When the quest for meaning, purpose, and transcendent connection is unmet in adolescence, Miller says, “the core is not built,” and leaving that developmental task incomplete can cause lifelong anxiety and depression. It can lead to waking up at 38, as I did, to the “unfinished business of individuation.”
Miller is directing her advice to a skeptical, non-religious audience—parents between the ages of 25 and 50 who have grown up with little or no faith.
So as parents, what can we do for our teens when they enter this first, developmental dark night of the soul? Miller says that “religious practice and (nonreligious) mindfulness practice both contributed equally—in different ways—to teens’ spiritual development.” Her research suggests that being both spiritual and religious are the most effective guards against long-term depression. Belief in a higher power and church-going, i.e. religious communal prayer and ritual (which research shows triggers mirror neurons and makes a group experience of transcendence possible), are neuroprotective. So are non-religious mindfulness practices and yoga. But more important than any of these, perhaps, is her advice to lean into your child’s path during the critical teen years, to be willing to ask and answer tough questions about faith, and to invite conversation about your child’s personal spirituality.
Maybe for parents of strong religious faith, Miller’s advice will seem like common sense. Science is merely confirming what we already intuitively know—having a relationship with God is essential to human flourishing. But Miller is directing her advice to a more skeptical, non-religious audience—the generation of parents between the ages of 25 and 50 who have grown up with little or no faith. They are engaged mothers and fathers who may obsess about their children’s report cards, diets, and screen time but give short shrift to their souls. But her research can also help devout parents understand how important it is to ground religious belief in a personal relationship with God. And how during a child’s teen years, as they go through spiritual individuation, we must accept that their struggle and questioning of religious truth may be necessary for them to arrive at a truly healthy and mature spirituality.
I offer my own testimony here as a case study of someone who grew up in a rigidly religious household. When my mother died, I needed presence. I needed to be consulted in matters that affected my future. I needed to know that I was still loved, no matter what. I needed a parent to protect me as I embarked on my first emotional and physical relationship. And I badly needed grief counseling. But according to Miller’s findings, the short-circuiting of my spiritual development—through the tandem loss of mother and church—may have robbed me of a neurological safeguard, extending what might have been normal stages of grief and depression into a lifetime struggle.
I needed to know that if I couldn’t feel God’s presence the same way my dad and my stepmother could, that didn’t mean I was bad or evil or cut off from them and from God. It meant I was a normal teenager struggling on the path of individuation under a mountain of grief. I needed someone, anyone, really, to stand by my side, to say “I’m not leaving,” to say “I see your suffering”—and our loving God sees your suffering. To say, as Miller says, “your pain is real—I know it.”
“It’s all in the science,” she concludes. “I do not proselytize; my intention is to thoroughly inform.”
©Copyright 2015, Jessica Mesman Griffith. All rights reserved.