Both grief and depression may involve sadness, but they’re two different emotional experiences and depression is a formal diagnosis.
Grieving is a universal human experience. Chances are that you’ve lost at least one person or pet in your life. When you lose someone or something, grief may manifest with sadness and hopelessness.
This is why some people might think grief and depression are similar or may be associated. But this isn’t always the case.
Grief and bereavement are intense emotional reactions to a significant loss. Clinical depression is a formal mental health diagnosis that involves symptoms like sadness, trouble focusing, and lack of motivation.
You can grieve many things, including a job, country, relationship, identity, or time in your life.
The five stages of grief model may serve as a reference but it isn’t a rule on how to grieve. Everyone experiences grief in a different way and may or may not relate to these stages:
- denial and shock
- intense sadness
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is diagnosed when you experience five or more of these symptoms for at least 2 weeks:
- low mood (sadness, hopelessness, irritability, or emptiness) almost all the time over a prolonged period of time
- lack of interest in activities that you used to find enjoyable
- changes in your sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little)
- changes in eating behaviors that may lead to weight gain or loss
- changes in how you move or talk (slower or quicker)
- fatigue and aches
- a sense of worthlessness or guilt
- difficulty concentrating
- frequent thoughts about death or suicide
Similarities between grief and depression
Grief and depression can look and feel similar in many ways.
For example, both grief and depression can cause deep feelings of sadness and low mood. You might find yourself crying a lot, becoming irritable, and experiencing a lot of emotional distress during grieving times or when experiencing depression.
Emotional pain is one of the main things that grief and depression have in common.
Both depression and grief can also cause changes to your appetite and sleeping patterns. You may find yourself not wanting to do much or having a difficult time getting up from bed, for example.
Anger outbursts may also be present in both grief and depression. You may feel resentful about your loss experience or find yourself short of temper when you live with depression.
In sum, low mood and its consequences are some similarities between grief and depression.
Differences between grief and depression
It can be very difficult to distinguish between grief and depression. The main difference is that depression tends to last longer and symptoms may impact all aspects of your life.
Grief is classified as an intense emotional response, while depression is a formal mental health condition that requires diagnosis and treatment.
The cause of both experiences may also differ. Grief is directly associated with loss. Depression may sometimes be linked to a significant loss but often has other complex contributing factors too, like your genes, early experiences, trauma, and environmental influences.
Grief may also come in waves, particularly after a few days have gone by. You might find yourself able to enjoy and feel pleasure some days — for example, catching yourself laughing with friends while you remember a lost loved one — and feel completely hopeless and joyless the next.
There’s no deadline for grief. Often, it may last months although the tendency is to have a lesser effect on your life as time goes back.
Depression may also manifest in waves but symptoms tend to be more persistent and intense, appear every day, and linger for 2 or more weeks. When left untreated, symptoms often worsen and impact many aspects of your life.
Prolonged grief disorder is a formal mental health diagnosis used when someone has been grieving for a long time without experiencing any improvement or relief to their emotional pain.
Symptoms are different from clinical depression and are directly linked to your loss.
Symptoms of prolonged grief disorder include:
- a persistent and severe longing for the deceased person
- being preoccupied with thoughts about the deceased person
- severe emotional pain or a sense of emptiness
- grief that interferes with functioning at work, school, home, or within relationships
- symptoms have lasted 6 months or longer
This diagnosis isn’t intended to pathologize your grief. It also doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to grieve for over 6 months. It’s simply a way for professionals to recognize when you might need some additional support to overcome your pain.
Whether you’re grieving a loved one or are experiencing depression, it’s possible to manage how you feel and find relief.
Coping with grief may involve:
- relying on others for support
- learning to live with the presence of the loss
- developing coping skills
- working with a mental health professional
The healing process is about finding meaning in continuing with your life after the loss. It isn’t about forgetting about the person or no longer feeling any emotion at all when you think about them.
You may find that your emotional pain slowly decreases with time. This may be a few days or months, but improvement is persistent.
If your grief feels too intense to handle or lasts longer than 6 months without any relief, you may have prolonged grief disorder. It’s highly advisable that you seek the support of a mental health professional if this is your case.
If you think you might have depression, a health professional can help you receive an accurate diagnosis.
Untreated depression often leads to more severe symptoms and symptoms may linger indefinitely.
Treatment options for depression include psychotherapy and, sometimes, medication. Research has shown that treatment for depression is effective.
Depression self-care strategies may also help but may not be enough to manage symptoms.
Grief and depression may feel similar sometimes but the first one is an emotional reaction to loss that often goes away on its own, while depression is a formal condition that requires treatment.
While both grief and depression may involve symptoms of low mood like sadness and hopelessness, depression often involves more complex symptoms that last longer than 6 months.
Grief is also always linked to a significant loss while causes of depression vary and may involve a combination of factors like biology and genes, early experiences, and traumatic events.
Both grief and depression can be managed and relief is possible.