What’s the difference between grief and depression?

Compare the symptoms of grief vs. depression and find out how to get help

After losing a loved one, you may experience a range of new and overwhelming emotions that lead to grief or depression — two difficult yet treatable conditions. Though some signs and symptoms overlap, recognizing the difference between grief and depression can ensure you get the right help for recovery and moving forward.

What is grief?

Grief is intense mental suffering from feelings of distress, sorrow, or regret. The process of grieving is very personal, and how you cope with grief and loss may be different from how your family, friends, and neighbors process their feelings. Most people move through the following five stages of grief but in their own way, in their own time, and in any order.

1. Denial

After loss, the brain protects you from believing a loved one is really gone. During denial, you may think things like, “This can’t be happening.”

2. Anger

Feeling rage about a loss is a normal emotion and is often easier than experiencing deep sadness. Anger is another way your body protects itself during grief.

3. Bargaining

During this stage of grief, you might try to find a way for your loved one to come back or figure out how to not feel so horrible. For example, you may think, “I’ll do anything. … I’ll never ask for anything else in my life if this bad dream can be over.”

4. Depression

Sadness can be the most difficult stage of grief to bear and may be so debilitating that it makes you unable to socialize, eat, or even get out of bed.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance means you’re able to come to terms with your loss, realizing your loved one can’t come back.

You may progress through your grief quickly or you may stay in a particular stage of grief for a while. When your feelings fade over time, this is known as “normal grief,” but if your feelings linger or worsen, this has evolved into complicated grief. The difference between normal grief and depression is easier to identify than complicated grief vs. depression.

Complicated grief: How to cope with death

What is depression?

Depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder, is a medical illness brought on by feelings of sadness that are persistent and pervasive. Depression is only one stage of the grieving process and includes symptoms such as:

  • Hopelessness, self-blame, and near-constant sadness
  • Unusual irritability, anxiety, or other personality alterations
  • Changes in sleep: either sleeping longer or less than usual
  • Loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy and resistance to being around others
  • Low energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating and making choices or memory loss
  • Physical pain, like aches
  • Thinking about self-harm or ending your life

Grief vs. depression

The difference between grief and depression may be difficult to distinguish. Both grief and depression involve feelings of sadness and lethargy that make doing things you used to enjoy challenging or even impossible. Grief is highly individual but occurs in some form after the loss of a loved one. Depression can affect you at any time, with or without a specific cause. Grief comes and goes, while depression lasts every day for at least two weeks without relief. While grieving, you may have a string of good days, then experience a few hours or days when it feels as though you haven’t made any progress. This cycle can repeat for months or years and can be triggered by reminders of your loss. In either case, loved ones need to understand that expecting you to move on before you’re ready is not reasonable or realistic. Instead, if you or someone you love is suffering, the best thing to do is get help.

How to get help

Are you experiencing any of these signs you should seek grief counseling?

  • You have suicidal thoughts.
  • You experience persistent crying, sleep, and appetite loss, or increased anxiety with or without panic attacks.
  • You struggle to accomplish normal, everyday tasks, like showering, preparing meals, or household chores.
  • You frequent — or avoid — places a lost loved one often visited.
  • You abuse drugs or alcohol or engage in addictive behavior involving sex or gambling.
  • You avoid socializing.
  • You experience post-traumatic, stress-like symptoms, like reliving the circumstances of your loss.

Many grief resources are available to help. Grief support groups work well if you’re looking for support from others who understand how you feel. Grief counselors provide one-on-one therapy to help you work through your feelings and develop effective tools to cope with ongoing challenges of living with grief. Online grief support, such as forums, are helpful if you have difficulty leaving the house. Some grief counselors will also conduct appointments via FaceTime or Skype or over the phone. Faith leaders are another resource for healing from grief.

Grief support is available in more ways than ever

Many of these resources, like support groups, are also available to help recover from depression. Psychology Today maintains a national database of credentialed therapists who provide in-person and video counseling. The Virtual Therapist Network and Better Help exclusively list practitioners who work remotely. Use either database to identify counselors who accept your insurance, take sliding scale payments, or speak your language of choice.

If you or someone in your life is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

Photo credit: iStock

Find grief support

Search for grief support resources, such as in-person groups, online forums, and phone hotlines, available in your area.


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