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Depression and grief are two feelings that none of us want to have. Like pain or fear, grief and depression are normal human reactions to certain internal and external events, and they can make you feel empty, hollow, sorrowful and more. The two have overlap, but the relationship between them is actually a lot more complicated than tears and emptiness, and there’s a lot more to the grief vs depression conversation than sadness.
Depression and grief are both conditions that can get out of hand quickly. They can affect your quality of life and make work, relationships and friendships seem empty — and they can do it for very different reasons.
In some cases, people don’t even realize how deeply they’re being affected by depression until the grief has gotten bad. But while one should naturally pass with time, the other can become a permanent state of being if not treated effectively.
There are some important distinctions we need to draw to better understand the differences between grief and depression.
But before we wade into those waters, let’s establish a baseline of the shared traits between depression and grief.
Depression and grief have a fairly simple relationship because there’s a lot of overlap between them.
First and foremost, depression is one of the famous five stages of the adjustment disorder known as grief (it’s number four, right before “Acceptance”), and it’s the most commonly depicted in books, TV and film (with denial perhaps being a close second).
As a stage of grief, depression essentially works as the emotional flushing cycle — you get your feeling out of your system, and as you move through the stages into acceptance, you begin to heal.
Both grief and depression can lead to weight loss, loss of appetite, depressive episodes, feelings of sadness, decreased pleasure in activities you once enjoyed, painful feelings of emptiness or loneliness, sleep issues and more.
Unfortunately, there’s a second more difficult and less productive side of depression: the mental health disorder.
No one wants to be depressed, but like the discomfort from surgery or removing a splinter, we accept a little suffering now and then for the purpose of healing. But when who’s healing experiencing too much depression, sadness and sorrow, the depression can go from an important grieving stage to a complication for grief itself — essentially, making things worse.
There are no official schedules for going through the stages of grief, but experts say that the average person (there’s no “normal” here) typically takes about a year to return to normal emotional balance and levels of function in their daily lives.
Too much depression during the grieving process, however, can slow down the return process or prevent it indefinitely.
Sound complicated? It is. In fact, it’s called “complicated grief,” and to understand why, we need to take a look at the difference between grief and depression.
If we’re boiling it down to a single characteristic, the difference between grief and depression is the timeline. Essentially, grief should take about a year to process like we mentioned earlier.
While grief has many shared symptoms with depression, it’s different in that it has a clear trigger and lifespan.
Typically, grief or bereavement will take approximately a year or longer, with symptoms stretching beyond that point.
However, those symptoms at the end should be relatively mild, and may not include depression at all.
Depression, meanwhile, is a collection of mental disorders that includes seasonal depression, major depression and more.
Essentially, it’s a more nebulous version of a similar set of symptoms. That makes it dangerous, if only because it’ll continue affecting you until you get help.
You’re actually supposed to get depression from grief, if we’re being clear. Bereaved persons can experience bereavement-related depression and bereavement-related depressive symptoms, and it can get worse fast.
Like we said above, clinical depression or depressed mood is one of the five classic stages of grief, and while there’s some flexibility there these days, it’s a certainty that if you do process your grief, you’ll have some elements of depression in there.
Here’s the thing: when the grief is over (or has become so mild that it’s tolerable), your symptoms of depression can also fade, unless the development of depression has gotten to the level of a disorder.
If you’re still affected and unable to perform basic tasks or do your job properly, it may be time to seek help, because it’s likely the case that the depression part has taken on a lead role in your mental health.
Treating depression and grief is part self-care, part professional support and part time.
In the case of grief, as we’ve already mentioned, the symptoms tend to recede over time and eventually become tolerable (and in some cases, they can disappear altogether). There are, of course, more serious forms of grief, but those generally involve another disorder or comorbidity like depression.
A depressive disorder, on the other hand, can be a chronic and even permanent condition without treatment. If left unchecked during grief, it can emerge as a bigger threat to your mental health.
Treatment may come in the form of antidepressant medications, therapy or lifestyle changes, or all of the above.
A depressed person might be put on antidepressants by a healthcare professional. These medications are designed to help your brain regulate the levels of important chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are believed to help stabilize your moods.
Therapy, likewise, can help you learn to stabilize yourself over time, especially when you employ types of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT teaches people to recognize depressive thoughts and emotions, and deal with them before they spiral out of control. Complicated grief therapy might include this, as well.
Finally, taking better care of your body, your diet, your sleep and your exercise routine can help moderate depression symptoms for some people, and even if these changes don’t moderate your depression, they’re still great for your overall health.
If you’re grieving, give yourself a break. Normal grief is a tough and tiring but very normal process; it’s natural to feel intense sadness, emptiness. It’s okay.
What’s not okay is letting it go unaddressed when it starts to affect your life. If your grief has become a burden, if your sadness has become depression, get help. Speak to a healthcare professional.
We can help with this, by the way — our online therapy options are just a click away, and in addition to those person-to-provider resources, we also have further reading on grief, depression and depression treatments that you can use to further your understanding of what you’re up against.
Grief is hard — we can’t begin to understand how it feels to have lost someone you love. But we understand how to help. Let us get started on your behalf today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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