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Is Grief the Same as Depression?

Grief and depression are not the same, although symptoms may overlap . Learn how to distinguish one from the other, as well as how to recognize and treat prolonged grief disorder.

Grief, depression, and how they are different

Grief is a complex experience that many people misunderstand. As the human response to loss, grief is not an emotion but rather a process that is different for each person and each loss. It may be very intense or quite mild, or both, depending on the day or the hour. It can involve many different emotions ranging from sadness and guilt to anger, numbness, and even excitement and joy. It can persist for very different lengths of time, but it generally gets less intrusive and debilitating as time goes on.

While grief is different for everyone, some of the more common negative grief experiences are very similar to symptoms of depression. Like those suffering from depression, grievers often experience loss of appetite, changes in sleep patterns, fatigue, loss of interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness, and the like. It is thus not uncommon for people to think that grief and depression are the same thing, or that grief is a specific kind of depression.

However, grief and depression are not the same thing. Depression is a clinical condition that generally requires treatment. Grief, on the other hand, is a normal reaction to loss, not a pathological disorder. In the majority of cases, grief does not necessarily require treatment and tends to diminish over time. Many people find comfort and help from talk therapy while in grief, of course, but it is not a necessary course of treatment.

How to tell grief and depression apart

While they share many features, grief and depression also have some significant differences. Grief is ever changing, shifting from one day to the next, while the symptoms of depression are generally prolonged and persistent. Depressed people tend to isolate themselves socially and feel distressed in the presence of others, whereas grievers usually find comfort in having friends and family around.

Most importantly, in grief the individual’s focus is on the loss itself and on the person (or pet/possession/opportunity/etc.) that is gone, whereas in depression one typically focuses inward. Thus, a feeling of personal worthlessness is a common symptom of depression but is not usually an aspect of grief. Similarly, suicidal thoughts are not a significant element of grief, or if they are, they usually have to do with the idea of being reunited with the loved one.

Facing grief and depression at the same time

As with everything related to human emotions and mental health, it isn’t quite so simple. Grief and depression may be separate conditions, but they can occur at the same time. In fact, for those prone to depression, stressful experiences like loss or grief itself can bring on a depressive episode.

Thus, it isn’t uncommon for grief and depression to coexist, which poses a challenge to therapists and anyone else treating the sufferer. There is always the danger that depression may be mistaken for grief and so improperly or insufficiently treated. A clinician may need to be quite careful to observe the various symptoms and how they manifest.

Understanding complicated grief

Further complicating the situation, psychologists also recognize a condition known as complicated grief, or prolonged grief disorder. Unlike regular grief, which may be helped along by therapy but does not require it, prolonged grief disorder goes on for an extended period and shows relatively little sign of waning over time, and thus is considered a clinical condition that requires treatment. 

People with complicated grief tend to have a fixation on their loss, to the extent that it interferes with their ability to function, even months or years later. In addition, the likelihood of complicated grief is higher in certain situations, such as violent death, the loss of a child, or suicide.

Although prolonged grief disorder is not the same as depression, it has more similarity to depression than regular grief and is often treated in similar ways.

The relationships between depression, grief, and complicated grief are thus quite complex, and we are still learning about the various ways they intersect. If you or someone you love is experiencing debilitating symptoms, whether or not they recently experienced loss, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional who can help with these challenging issues.

Finding professional help

If you feel comfortable, ask friends and family for recommendations of therapists or counselors they have worked with. Working with a therapist or counselor is an intimate process, and personality matters—so a personal referral is often the best way to find someone with whom you’ll be compatible. If they have treated someone you know for grief, even better.

Sometimes it is not a match for logistical reasons: Perhaps tthe therapist is not taking new patients, or doesn’t take your insurance, or is out of your price range. If this happens, the therapist can often recommend a colleague who would be better suited to work with you.

If your friends and family do not have any counselors or therapists to recommend, there are other ways to connect with a highly skilled professional. There are a number of online resources that can help you. For example, try searching websites like Alma or Psychology Today, which are dedicated to connecting people with therapists, or check out a site like Zocdoc, which offers medical provider information, searchable by specialty.

Giving yourself time to heal

Living with grief and living with depression are challenging in their own ways. A professional counselor or therapist can be invaluable, especially if you are dealing with both at the same time.

But it is also helpful to remember that everyone grieves differently, and the journey is not always predictable. The pain of losing a loved one can be expressed through several emotions: anger, guilt, numbness, anxiety, and, of course, sadness.

No matter what you’re experiencing, it is important to make space for any emotion you are feeling. Particularly with grief, there is no timeline, and the journey is rarely linear. Show yourself compassion when you can, and give yourself extra care during what may feel like an unfathomably dark time.

Guest written by Empathy