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Navigating the complex emotional landscape of grief and depression can be challenging. To provide clarity, we’ve gathered five insightful perspectives from CEOs and Certified Psychology Experts1. From understanding grief’s transience versus depression’s weight to recognizing how physical symptoms differentiate depression from grief, this article offers a comprehensive guide to distinguishing between these two profound experiences.
- Distinguishing Grief’s Transience from Depression’s Weight
- Intermittent Joy as a Marker of Grief Over Depression
- Depression’s Weight and Professional Intervention
- Depression’s Duration and Intensity Calls for Professional Help
- Physical Symptoms Differentiate Depression from Grief
Distinguishing Grief’s Transience from Depression’s Weight
In practice, I’ve observed that grief, while deeply painful, typically ebbs and flows with moments of relief or reflection. Depression, however, feels more like a constant weight, often bringing a pervasive sense of hopelessness or disinterest in life.
Grief usually ties directly to a loss and gradually integrates into one’s life, but depression can arise without a clear cause and persistently disrupts daily functioning. It’s important to remember that these experiences can often overlap. The key is noticing when grief begins altering your basic ability to function over a prolonged period—that’s when it might be leaning towards depression.
Intermittent Joy as a Marker of Grief Over Depression
With grief, you will still see flashes of happiness in a person. Because grief is generally transitory and not a person’s natural state, you will see flashes of the person being happy from time to time. It’s kind of like when the clouds part and the sun shines through for a couple of minutes during a storm.
With depression, however, you don’t get intermittent joy. Depression becomes the baseline, and it’s more about what degree of unhappiness that person expresses day to day. At least, this has been my experience with the two conditions.
Depression’s Weight and Professional Intervention
My story of losing my husband to cancer and losing a twin to stillbirth within months left me having to raise our other baby and toddler.
Having just given birth, I wasn’t sure if it was postpartum depression with the fallout of hormones hitting me at the same time, but my doctor confirmed it was clinical depression2.
I initially experienced preemptive grief, already mourning my husband during the seven months he declined from the point of his terminal cancer3 diagnosis.
But what I experienced was a deep depression; I felt physically incapable of moving, with a weight bearing down on me, and it just wouldn’t go away. I knew it was more than grief, but often it is difficult to distinguish as grief and depression can go hand in hand.
What I learned was that grief tends to lessen over time, and depression requires professional assessment and intervention. Thankfully, over the years that followed, I received the support I needed from my doctors.
Depression’s Duration and Intensity Calls for Professional Help
Distinguishing between natural grief and depression can be challenging, as they share common symptoms. However, a key difference often lies in the duration and intensity of these symptoms.
Grief, while intense, usually ebbs 4and flows and gradually lessens over time. Depression tends to be more persistent and pervasive, affecting various aspects of life. If feelings of sadness or loss are debilitating and last for an extended period, it may be depression. It’s always advisable to seek professional help for an accurate assessment.
Physical Symptoms Differentiate Depression from Grief
Besides emotional aspects, assessing physical symptoms can help differentiate between natural grief and depression. While both conditions may involve symptoms like fatigue5, changes in appetite, and sleep disturbances, depression tends to exhibit more severe, persistent, and diverse physical symptoms.
For example, someone with depression may experience chronic fatigue, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, and other somatic complaints. These physical manifestations, when occurring alongside emotional symptoms, can indicate depression rather than natural grief.
- Cruickshank, Andrew, Amanda Martindale, and Dave Collins. “Raising our game: The necessity and progression of expertise-based training in applied sport psychology.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 32.3 (2020): 237-255. ↩︎
- Pitsillou, Eleni, et al. “The cellular and molecular basis of major depressive disorder: towards a unified model for understanding clinical depression.” Molecular biology reports 47 (2020): 753-770. ↩︎
- Feng, Lu, et al. “Dual‐target inhibitors of bromodomain and extra‐terminal proteins in cancer: A review from medicinal chemistry perspectives.” Medicinal research reviews 42.2 (2022): 710-743. ↩︎
- Mateo, Joaquin, et al. “Olaparib in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer with DNA repair gene aberrations (TOPARP-B): a multicentre, open-label, randomised, phase 2 trial.” The lancet oncology 21.1 (2020): 162-174. ↩︎
- Ceban, Felicia, et al. “Fatigue and cognitive impairment in Post-COVID-19 Syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 101 (2022): 93-135. ↩︎