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Grief vs. Depression: How to Know the Difference

Young depressed african-american man sitting on bed and consider about problems

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. It’s also normal to feel depressed after losing someone or something you love. But while grief and depression share some of the same symptoms, they are distinct experiences.

It’s important to understand the differences between the two, since depression is a serious mood disorder that may require medical intervention, while grief is usually temporary.

What Is Grief?

When you lose something near and dear to you, it’s normal to feel pain and sadness over the loss. This is grief, and most people will experience it at some point.

The loss of a loved one or a beloved pet, getting divorced, and the shock of an illness are all common causes of grief.

No two people grieve the same way, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Grief can be brief and mild, or long-lasting and intense. It all depends on the circumstances surrounding the loss, your coping skills, and whether you have a strong support system.

Hear actor and activist Ben Foster discuss mental health stigma with Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, host of the Inner Space podcast.

Unfortunately, lingering stigma around grief and mental health issues mean that many people don’t get the support they need. If you struggle with emotional processing, you might bottle up your feelings after a loss or engage in unhealthy behaviors to cope.

But grief serves a purpose. It’s the body’s way of processing loss and moving forward. Acknowledging your grief and allowing time for it to work can help you feel better sooner.

If you’re not getting the support you need or don’t have a trusted confidant, seeing a grief therapist can help. Even a few visits can make a big impact, and therapy sessions are confidential.

young attractive and sad black African American woman sitting depressed at home

What Is Depression?

Depression (also called major depressive disorder) is the clinical term for a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest. Other common depression symptoms include feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, guilt, anxiety, lack of energy, sleep disturbances, and trouble thinking or concentrating.

When severe, these symptoms can interfere with daily functioning and impair your ability to work or think clearly. Some people with depression struggle with frequent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts or ideation.

If you’re struggling with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness that aren’t getting better, these are signs of depression, and it’s time to see a doctor.

Difference Between Grief and Depression

Like grief, depression can impact your physical health and interfere with daily functioning. But grief typically has a more defined beginning and end, while depression is considered a long-term condition and tends to be cyclical.

Grief and depression do share some similarities, including intense sadness, insomnia, rumination, and loss of appetite or weight loss, but there are some key differences:

  • Grief typically comes in waves, often interspersed with positive feelings or memories, while depressed mood is persistent (lasting at least 2 weeks).

  • Grief does not usually impact a person’s feelings of self-worth or self-esteem, while people with major depression commonly struggle with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing.

  • While a person in grief may have thoughts of death or even “joining” the person in death, people with major depression often think about ending their life because they feel they are unworthy or undeserving of living.

Grief and depression can also occur together. When they do, grief tends to last longer and be more severe.

Complicated Grief

Most people are able to accept a loved one’s death and find a “new normal.” For others, the grieving process stalls. This is called complicated grief, and it can look a lot like depression.

If you struggle to get through the day and it’s been more than a year since your loss, you may have complicated grief. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Intense sadness, sorrow, or rumination over the loss

  • Inability to focus on anything else but the death of a loved one

  • Difficulty carrying out daily routines

  • Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness

  • Irritability and anger

  • Trouble accepting the loss or death

  • Pervasive yearning to be with the departed person

  • Feeling of intense guilt, regret, or shame

  • Avoiding things that remind you of the departed person

  • Feeling like you’ve lost part of yourself or are “going crazy”

  • Withdrawal from friends, family members, and social activities

Without proper medical attention, complicated grief can dominate your life and interfere with daily functioning. And it can lead to anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. If you have symptoms of complicated grief, see a healthcare provider.

Getting Help

Grief can be very painful, but it’s a normal, natural process that is not generally treated with medication.

But there are exceptions. If your grief-related symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, your doctor may recommend certain medications, such as anxiety medications, sleep aids, or anti-depressants.

Psychotherapy or grief groups can also be helpful. Therapists and grief counselors use different approaches to helping people work through grief and trauma. Two of the most common include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT).

Therapy can help you accept the loss and reframe negative thoughts and beliefs that may be preventing you from coping in a healthy way.

What’s most important is that you reach out for help. Grief is not a sign of weakness, and depression is an illness like any other.

Want more great content?

Check out Inner Space, a podcast about mental health hosted by world-renowned mental health expert Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. She travels the world to talk with leaders in politics, film and television, wellness, and more about how to nurture mental health and thrive.


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