Grief vs. Depression: Understanding How They Differ

Differences between grief and depression

Although they appear similar on the surface, depression and grief are two very different states. The two are sometimes confused because of overlapping symptoms or because it can be difficult to define when a period of grief really begins or ends. For this reason, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes that the two conditions are often linked. In some cases, grief can lead to clinical depression. In addition, people with depression may experience grief. However, it is crucial to identify the differences between grief and depression and what can help identify when professional help is needed. 

What is grief?

The Mayo Clinic defines grief as marked or overwhelming sadness that typically stems from a significant sense of loss. This can result from the death of a loved one, the occurrence of a serious illness or injury, the loss of a job, or the end of an important personal relationship. Although it can last months or even years (it's different for everyone), grief is considered a temporary condition. There are several identifiable stages that usually occur as part of grief and are recognized as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each phase is significantly involved in the healing process.

What is depression?

While grief is said to have a more defined beginning and ending, depression is a clinical, long-term disorder with no clear periodic boundaries. While it can be cyclical in nature, depression itself is a long-term condition. The Mayo Clinic defines this condition as a severe mood disorder characterized by persistent sadness, anger, and/or hopelessness. Similar to grief, depression can affect people of all ages and affect physical health or interfere with normal daily activities. 

Separating Symptoms

Grief and depression share many symptoms, and an anticipated period of grief can certainly progress into a longer-term depressed state. However, recognizing the similarities and differences can be crucial in knowing when to seek outside help. Both conditions are characterized by acute sadness and are often associated with irritability, anger, and an inability to overcome the initial trauma. Each can lead to symptoms such as insomnia or weight loss, and in extreme cases, encourage thoughts or efforts at self-harm. However, there are several factors that put depression into its own category. A person does not necessarily experience depression because of a specific life event. It's a persistent emotional state often characterized by illogical feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and disinterest in normal daily activities. Depression can also manifest itself physically in the form of fatigue, aggression, or delusions and does not usually go away without some form of intervention. A person with depression will focus inward on themselves. You will experience negative feelings such as worthlessness and self-doubt. On the other hand, someone experiencing grief focuses on their loss or an external circumstance. 

Searching for help

When talking about grief vs. depression, it's crucial to emphasize the need for understanding. For the suffering individual, any distinction is purely semantic; The ramifications are equally challenging and the impact on one's life is undeniable. Support from friends and family remains invaluable, regardless of a specific diagnosis.