How to Tell the Difference Between Grief and Depression

by Olivia DeLong

This article was originally published in Sharecare.

Grief and depression have similar symptoms, but they are two totally distinct health events.

Understanding the differences and similarities is crucial in getting the treatment you need. Seeking treatment for depression can literally save your life, and learning how to cope with natural grieving can help you heal.

But because some of the symptoms overlap, differentiating between the two can be challenging. Here are 7 facts about depression and grief, including how to tell which is which, where to get treatment and what can happen if either condition is left untreated.

Grief is triggered by loss; depression isn’t
Grief is caused by the loss of something or a loss that is going to happen but has not yet occurred—a loved one, a pet, a job, divorce or children moving away. Grief is a natural part of life, says psychiatrist Dwarakanath Rao, MD, of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On the other hand, depression is usually related to one’s self. That means depression can be caused or worsened by a loss, but can also occur if there’s been no loss. Depression is a mental illness that may be related to genetic and psychological factors, including major life changes or stress, physical illnesses, certain medications or a family history of depression, says Dr. Rao, who is also the medical director of Outpatient Behavioral Services at Saint Joseph, and president of the American Association for Psychoanalytic Education.

Grief can turn into complicated grief
“Complicated grief is another word for grief that is turning into depression, or unresolved grief that hasn’t been dealt with,” says Rao. “What is supposed to be a normal grieving process, turns into something that becomes more intense.” Symptoms of complicated grief last longer than six months.

People experiencing complicated grief may feel an extreme amount of guilt, almost as if they’re responsible for the loss of the person. It can become impossible for them to stop thinking about the lost person, and may even have trouble accepting their death. Someone with complicated grief may also be in denial about what actually happened and the fact that their loved one is really gone. They may yearn for the deceased, get upset when thinking of memories with the deceased and experience feelings of loneliness or emptiness.

Depression is long-term
“Grief results in temporary impairment of life functioning; with depression, there is prolonged impairment,” says Rao. Grief usually lasts for up to six months, but complicated grief can last longer. Most grieving symptoms subside after about a year, but depression is a condition that will need to be monitored for much longer than that.

Additionally, grief usually comes in waves—there will be positive memories mixed with sad realizations that the person is gone. With depression, negative thoughts occupy a majority of a person’s thoughts and feelings.

Grief is universal
Almost everyone experiences some form of grief during their lives. While it’s common, there’s not necessarily a biologic component to grief like there is with depression, says Rao. Those who have depression may have a family history of depression, or maybe even a history of being depressed.

Everyone grieves differently
Some experts have described stages of grieving (some common being denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), but not everyone will experience them in that order and some may not experience them at all.

Those who are grieving may feel encouraged and upbeat one day, while sad and somber the next. Just assure your friend or family member you are there for them when they need you. And always suggest to them that talking to a mental health professional can be very beneficial when it comes to moving on.

The two conditions can coexist
While these two conditions do have differences, it’s still possible for the two conditions to go hand-in-hand. Having one condition can make the other worse, says Rao. “If a patient starts out in the grieving process, we are usually on alert. The grief could turn into depression. If there is no family history of depression, we’ll wait and give it some time and make some recommendations on how to grieve in a healthy way.”

And for someone who is depressed, a loss of a loved one can make symptoms worse.

There are some similarities
Similar symptoms can sometimes make these two experiences hard to diagnose. Some of the symptoms that overlap include:

  • Sleep problems and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mixture of emotions like anger and sadness
  • A loss of things that were once pleasurable
  • Feelings of despair or not wanting to live

If you or someone you know is experiencing grief, there are a variety of things you can do to begin the healing process.

10 ways to deal with grief
Grieving is normal and you shouldn’t feel ashamed for taking time to recover after a loss.

Here are some of the ways you can cope with losing a loved one:

  • Don’t be afraid to embrace and acknowledge your emotions or pain.
  • Be patient with yourself when you have negative thoughts.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others; everyone mourns and grieves in different ways and for different lengths of time.
  • Reach out to friends, family members or counselors for support.
  • Maintain your normal routines: avoid changes like career shifts, cross-country moves or relationship fluctuations in the first year following your loss.
  • Exercise regularly and eat a diet rich in healthy foods.
  • Avoid using drugs or drinking too much alcohol.
  • Make time for activities you enjoy.
  • Pay tribute to your loved one by making a scrapbook of memories, enjoying an activity they loved or by planting a flower or tree in their honor.
  • Join a bereavement support group to discuss your feelings and get advice. Organizations like The Compassionate FriendsAARPNational Widower’s Organization and Hello Grief are good places to start.

If it’s depression you or a loved one is dealing with, there are many different treatment options, too.

5 depression treatment options
There are many types of depression—and with that, many types of treatment. From bipolar disorder to postpartum depression, a mental health professional can help you determine what you can do to get better. Here are some of the most common ways depression is treated, and sometimes a combination of one or more treatments may be needed:

Whether you’re experiencing grief, depression or some of both, it’s important to seek treatment and take care of yourself. If left untreated, grief can become much more serious and last for years, and untreated depression can start to affect your relationships, work life, appetite, hygiene habits and can even lead to suicidal thoughts.

There are so many successful treatment options available but the first step is reaching out for help.

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