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 Michael Coombes

Michael Coombes

Research student

Hi. My name is Michael Coombes.I am a PhD student at Cardiff University in the SHARE school, doing  doctoral research in Religious and Theological Studies.

My particular area of study is researching how primary school children learn about death and the afterlife - known in theology as eschatology - from their Religious Education and other sources, and whether and how this affects their grief when they experience a bereavement. My focus is on causes as opposed to the more commonly researched effects of loss.

I came to this subject - and to this degree - after two decades of bereavmeent counselling when I often witnessed distress and confusion in people struggling with their understanding of the afterlife, and failing to gain comfort from any religious- or spiritual beliefs to help them cope with their grief. This phenomenon is known as Complicated Spiritual Grief (‘CSG’), an area of significant contemporary research. With one possible reason ("cause") for this being young minds’ misunderstanding of what they have learned in Religious Education, this study explores:

‘What do children today understand about concepts of death and the afterlife?’ - at the crossroads of hope and despair.

My research seeks to contribute ultimately to the improvement of bereavement counselling through the exploration of any contribution made by what children understand about death and the afterlife, to CSG.

Research interests


I took a Masters in Counselling and Psychology on the subject of "Does belief in the afterlife help or hinder the grieving process?" One of the major findings in the research for my Masters was that the participants' understanding (or lack of understanding) of the afterlife was a major component of their difficulty in coping with their loss. This led me to my doctoral research examining one possible cause for this. My research is titled

‘What do children today understand about concepts of death and the afterlife?’ - at the crossroads of hope and despair.

Aim of the research

The research will conclude with consideration of how it may contribute to the ultimate aim of improved bereavement counselling.


My research is comprised of four studies:

Study 1:     What do children understand and how is their knowledge acquired?

Study 2:     What do church leaders and policy makers want taught?

Study 2:     What is delivered through formal Religious Education?

Study 3:      What is the outcome of what has been taught?   

The data collected from the first study will be used as a basis for the research of the other three studies, which are intended to identify any discrepancy between what children know and understand, and what is actually delivered through formal Religious Education.


Three qualitative research methodologies will be used:

Moderated Focus Groups will collect data which will be analysed using grounded theory to establish children’s understanding of concepts of the afterlife;

Qualitative Research Interviews will be used to analyse faith leaders’, policy makers’, and teachers’ understanding of what is taught.

Finally, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis will be used to explore the outcome of what has been taught.


Religious education




Complicated spiritual grief



What do children today understand about the concepts of death and the afterlife? At the crosdroads of hope and despair

Thesis summary


Religious education




Primary education

Complicated spiritual grief

Funding source


Mark Griffiths

Technical Demonstrator

Clare Griffiths

Professor Clare Griffiths

Professor of Modern History, Director of Postgraduate Studies

Areas of expertise