Grief vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?

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Grief is a normal response to a loss that resolves independently, while depression can last a lifetime. Although many overlapping symptoms make it challenging to distinguish grief from depression, there are marked differences.

A suffering individual can experience both simultaneously without telling one from the other. Whenever depression is present, grief is more profound and prolonged. Recognizing the distinctions between grief and depression is vital in getting the needed help and support. 

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The association between grief and depression in a bereaved individual often complicates the grieving process. Some common responses to loss, such as feeling sad and withdrawn, are also critical indicators of depression. In grief, these feelings come in waves, fluctuating between moments of sadness, joy, and happiness. With depression, there's typically no break from feelings of hopelessness and despair. 

Overview: Grief vs. Depression

Suffering through loss challenges a person's emotional wellbeing. They can feel sad and depressed after the triggering event and generally experience some setbacks. This process can take several months and up to two years before they can move forward from the trauma. While a bereaved individual can benefit from grief counseling, normal grief usually doesn't require professional intervention.

Some of the more readily distinguishable characteristics of grief are as follows:

  • Identifiable loss 
  • Fluctuating physical, cognitive, and emotional responses
  • Need for social support
  • Guilty feelings over the loss
  • Self-esteem is intact
  • Thoughts of death unrelated to depression

Depression, although it can look and feel similar to grieving, is more intricate. Distinguishing depression from grief can be challenging when a person's experiencing both simultaneously. Depression is ongoing and doesn't resolve on its own as grief does.

A person who's depressed will experience sadness mixed in with feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Any thoughts of death generally relate to the belief of being unworthy and undeserving. These ideas can also stem from the inability to cope with pain and suffering.

This is what depression can look like:

  • No identifiable loss
  • Inability to find pleasure and enjoyment in life
  • Unable to function cognitively, mentally, or physically
  • Desire to be alone
  • Unresolved feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and self-loathing

Grief vs. Depression: Causes

The causes of grief and depression vary like the individuals experiencing them. Depression doesn’t always have a significant event that triggers the emotional and psychological changes in a person’s mental wellbeing. Individuals struggling with depression often can’t name a particular time when they can pinpoint the start of their depression. Instead, genetics, life changes, and illness can explain how depression manifests in specific individuals. 

Depression is a severe mental health and mood disorder that typically lasts two years or longer and is often difficult to overcome. Individuals who experience clinical depression can look for contributing causes such as past traumas stemming from their childhoods or more recent traumatic events that later show up as depression. 

People who’ve witnessed tragedies or suffered significant life-changing events are also more prone to depression later in life. Depression can sit dormant for years, even decades, before showing up when least expected. Other contributing causes to this mental disorder include certain medications, illnesses, the death of a close loved one, and substance abuse. 

Grief is a temporary response to loss caused by the emotional, psychological, and physical reactions to pain and suffering. Although a person can experience the stages of grief well beyond the typical time it takes for grief to resolve, the chemical reactions resulting from loss are temporary. 

The more common causes of grief are experiencing the death of a close loved one or suffering through an equally devastating loss or setback. However, many types of losses other than the death of a loved one can cause grief. For example, a person whose pet recently died might suffer the same as someone who lost a close loved one. Other non-death-related causes include the loss of relationships through divorce or separation and the loss of a home to fire, destruction, or foreclosure. 

The causes of both grief and depression are endless. Everyone suffers loss uniquely, and their personal experiences, genetic makeups, and resiliency to loss contribute to whether they suffer temporary emotional setbacks or more severe forms of depression. 

Grief vs. Depression: Symptoms

Symptoms of grief and depression often mirror one another and can be hard to tell apart. Some profoundly grieving people may begin to wonder if their sadness has turned to depression.

Grief is a reaction to a significant loss. And typically, once a few weeks have passed, the symptoms of grief begin to lift. A person will no longer feel the gripping heartache they did when first getting the news of their loss after enough time has passed for them to come to terms with the event. 

Part of grieving includes social, cognitive, emotional, and physical changes that can affect a person from six to twelve months during the normal grieving process. It isn’t unusual for a bereaved person to cry uncontrollably during the first few days and weeks after a loss or not feel like eating or sleeping due to their grief.

Other symptoms of distress include feeling angry or irritable, inability to concentrate, and experiencing changes to sleeping and eating patterns. Grief also manifests physically, such as joint and stomach pain, headaches, and inflammation. 

Sadness, tearfulness, and insomnia brought on by grief can be a part of depression. However, in depression, those symptoms are much more severe and difficult to manage. Sadness can look like profound despair with thoughts of ending one’s life.

Tearfulness in depression can show up as uncontrollable crying with no triggering event. Insomnia in depression can mirror grief where a person may have trouble falling or staying asleep. The lack of sleep in specific individuals may contribute to more severe types of depression when left untreated. 

Grief vs. Depression: Example Scenarios

Most people who suffer from ordinary grief are not at high risk for developing clinical depression. Although the pain of grief may seem unbearable to some bereaved individuals, those feelings generally will start easing after some time. You can feel temporarily depressed as you grieve without your symptoms getting worse. 

An example of how grief shows up in a person who’s overwhelmed with pain and sorrow might look like the inability to get out of bed for several days or weeks following the death of a close loved one. These types of grief reactions are typical, especially after the death of a parent, spouse, or child. Having trouble getting out of bed for a few days afterward doesn’t signal grief has turned into depression. 

Alternatively, staying in bed may signal a more critical mental health issue when a person has trouble functioning in their daily lives and can’t get the energy to get out of bed without having experienced a recent triggering event.

People with depressive disorder may want to stay in bed for days because they don’t have the physical and emotional energy to get up. They typically feel hopeless and unable to talk themselves out of feeling bad. People with mental health struggles battling depression have to fight to feel better, and many times they can’t win control over the negative thoughts in their heads.

Whether you can get out of bed and function normally isn't the only indicator of depression resembling grief. Individuals grieving significant losses sometimes withdraw from the people they know and love because they need time alone to process their grief-related feelings.

Sometimes they stay away from others because they feel sad and depressed. Withdrawing is a way of protecting themselves from further pain after the death of a close loved one. They may distance themselves from those closest to them, falsely believing they won't suffer their death or the end of the relationship. 

Depressed individuals often suffer from social withdrawal because their mental illness causes them to lose interest in the people and activities they once enjoyed. Even when depressed people want to interact with others, their condition creates cycles of social withdrawal that they have trouble breaking.

For example, a person might think that they want to venture out and grab a cup of coffee with friends today. But then the negative thoughts in their head cause them to think of why their friends wouldn't want to meet them at the coffee shop, creating anxiety and overwhelm. When they think of every possible scenario, they talk themselves out of going, so they stay home feeling lonely and isolated. 

Grief vs. Depression: Getting Help and Counseling

Although loss-related grief resolves on its own for most people who experience it, some days may be more challenging than others to overcome. Friends and family may not know or understand how to recognize when their grieving loved one needs extra comfort and support, leaving them to handle their grief independently.

Professional grief counselors and therapists can step in and guide you through your depression after the death of a loved one or another type of major loss. They help you pinpoint the specific grief triggers leading you to feel sad or hopeless. 

Sometimes, sadness over a recent loss isn’t the only experience triggering your depression. Many people suffer from repressed grief over events they went through several years back, but they don’t realize they still carry that grief. Trained counselors can help uncover these past negative experiences to help you adequately address them and heal from that pain and your most recent losses. 

Clinical depression requires treatment most of the time because the effects of major depression can lead to more severe consequences beyond feeling sad and lonely. Doctors and scientists don’t know what causes depression exactly, but they have linked specific experiences and genetic dispositions to affecting who’s expected to suffer from it.

Major depression causes chemical imbalances in the brain that respond well to treatment in many cases. Some common treatments for depression include prescribing antidepressant medication along with cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy.

Recognizing Depression in Bereavement

Learning to distinguish between sadness and depression is vital to seeking appropriate treatment for yourself or someone you love. The nuances can often be subtle, making it challenging to know when it’s the right time to seek help.

Pay attention to the signs and triggers to help you distinguish depression from ordinary grief. Only a mental health professional can help some sufferers understand what’s happening in their head. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater the chances for success in getting better and preventing relapses. 

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