The Difference Between Grief and Depression


To many, grief and depression feel the same. You may experience dark days and long, sleepless nights. You may cry, feel sad and have trouble eating. Life has lost its luster, and it’s hard to move forward, let alone experience joy.

So where is the line? And when is it time to seek help if grief downshifts into depression?

Grief Leads to Healing

Grief is a healthy, natural reaction to loss. It’s been described as love up against its biggest challenge. Grief generally is a progression from shock and denial through anger and depression to bargaining and eventual acceptance. Although the stages and their order may vary, they form a framework that most of us work through to get to healing, the other side of loss.

Depression is a Health Condition

Depression tends to last longer and be more pervasive than grief. It’s a clinical condition that can be diagnosed and treated by healthcare professionals.

It’s possible to experience grief and clinical depression at the same time or to shift into depression after prolonged and profound grief. When this happens, it’s considered “complicated grief” or “unresolved grief.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) about one in five bereaved individuals will develop clinical depression. People at highest risk include those who have been depressed before, those with no support system, those who have had problems with alcohol or drug abuse, or those who have other major life stresses.

Symptoms of Depression

The ACS lists the following as symptoms of clinical depression not explained by normal bereavement:

  • Constant thoughts of being worthless or hopeless

  • Ongoing thoughts of death or suicide (other than thoughts that they would be better off dead or should have died with their loved one)

  • Inability to perform day-to-day activities

  • Intense guilt over things done or not done at the time of the loved one’s death

  • Delusions (beliefs that are not true)

  • Hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there), except for “visions” in which the person briefly hears or sees the deceased

  • Slower body responses and reactions

  • Extreme weight loss

If symptoms like these last more than two months after the loss, you should seek professional help. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, call your doctor or someone you trust and get help immediately.

How to Move Forward

For many people who’ve lost someone they love, bereavement counseling and support groups light the way to healing. Your doctor or a hospice provider should be able to refer you to bereavement services.

If you’re experiencing clinical depression, you can’t climb out of it alone. You need the resources of trained mental health professionals. Depression can be treated with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. Medication can make a difference, both in managing symptoms such as sleeplessness and targeting chemical imbalances that cause the depressive condition.

Your doctor is your best contact for finding a therapist or mental health support. You’ll also find a partial list of mental health resources in Linn County here: Tell Me Where to Turn