Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Loss causes pain. Losses may be both actual and symbolic.
Actual loss is the death of a person we love and the deprivation of intimacy that flowed from our relationship with him or her. We lose companionship, laughter, sharing, and hugs.
Symbolic loss includes life events that are not yet and never will be: high school graduations, weddings, and births.
Pain may be experienced from both actual and symbolic loss; the latter may cause pain several years after a loved one has died.
Grief is our personal experience of loss. Grief is multifaceted and can literally affect all areas of our life: spiritual, psychological, behavioral, social, and physical. In grieving, we come to terms with what has changed our life and how our life has changed. Grieving is tough, and we must work to get through it. Doing that work is painful, but absolutely essential, because grief has correctly been described as the anguish that permits hope.
All grief is not alike. When we lose someone we dearly love, and with whom we have shared a good life, deep pain results. Although it hurts tremendously, this type of pain is actually the best type to experience when someone dies, because it reflects the immense role that person played in our life and the huge hole left by his or her absence. Of this, author C.S. Lewis, who lost his wife to breast cancer, said, "Always remember, the pain now is part of the joy then."
We may feel another type of pain upon the death of a loved one -- the pain of opportunity now lost forever. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, "The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."
Sometimes pain is not the predominant emotion in grief. When someone we love dies after a long and painful illness, we may primarily be thankful that his or her suffering has ended, although we are in pain.
Finally, while death always entails loss, that loss does not always result in pain. Of death coming at the "right time," Julie Burchell observes that "tears are sometimes an inappropriate response to death. When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully, or just completely, the correct response to death's perfect punctuation mark is a smile."
Mourning is a public expression of our grief. It is the societal process by which we adapt to loss. Examples of mourning include funeral and memorial services, flying flags at half-staff, temporarily closing a place of business in honor of the person who has died, and many other rituals that help us feel
that we are doing something to recognize our loss.
Bereavement is the period after a loss during which mourning occurs (usually a relatively brief time) and grief is experienced (often for a much longer time).