There are many beautiful and uplifting things in life, but there is also loss. Losing a loved one can trigger intense feelings of grief. For some people, this grief can lead to depression or make underlying depression worse.
You can expect to grieve and feel sad after a loss, but prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness could mean that you have depression. Whether you’re experiencing grief or depression or both, there are many approaches that can help you heal with time.
Grief vs. depression
Everyone grieves differently. Some people may have symptoms that are very similar to depression, such as withdrawal from social settings and intense feelings of sadness. However, there are very important differences between depression and grief.
Symptom duration. People with depression feel depressed almost all the time. Grieving people often have symptoms that fluctuate, or come in waves.
Acceptance of support. People with depression often begin to isolate themselves and may even shun others. People who are grieving may avoid vibrant social settings, but they often accept some support from loved ones.
Ability to function. Someone who is grieving may still be able to go to work or school. They may even feel that participating in these activities will help occupy their mind. However, if you’re clinically depressed, you may experience symptoms so severe that you’re unable to go to work or do other important tasks.
Grief can be a trigger for depression, but not everyone who grieves will experience depression.
Grief is a normal, expected set of emotions that can occur after the loss of a loved one. However, some people experience a more significant and longer-lasting level of grief. This is known as complicated grief.
Complicated grief may share many of the same symptoms of depression. It can also lead to depression, or worsen depression in someone who already experiences it.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- trouble thinking about anything other than your loved one’s death
- lasting longing for your deceased loved one
- difficulty accepting that your loved one is gone
- long-lasting bitterness over the loss
- feeling as if your life no longer has meaning
- trouble trusting others
- difficulty remembering positive memories of your loved one
- grieving that gets worse instead of better
What you can do
Taking care of yourself is not a selfish action when you’re experiencing grief. Instead, it can be a part of the process that helps you feel better mentally and physically.
Some ways to care for yourself include:
- exercising regularly, such as going on a walk, riding a bicycle, using an elliptical machine, or taking an exercise class (always consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program)
- getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night
- exploring a new skill, such as taking a cooking class, joining a book club, or enrolling in a seminar at your local college
- calling or seeing friends or loved ones who can offer support
- joining a support group for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one
Just as some approaches can help, others may not. Turning to drugs or alcohol to escape your thoughts is not productive behavior, and can actually make you feel worse over time.
When you come to an important date related to your loved one, such as an anniversary or birthday, you don’t have to pretend the date isn’t significant to you. Acknowledge the day. Celebrate your loved one’s memory or spend time with loved ones who can help you feel better.
When to see a doctor
The loss of a loved one is life-changing and can leave a profound hole in your life. Call your doctor if this loss causes you to experience the following symptoms:
- difficulty performing everyday activities
- feeling guilty or blaming yourself for your loved one’s death
- feeling as if you have no purpose in life
- losing the desire to engage in social activities
- wishing you had died as well
- feeling as if your life isn’t worth living if you don’t have your loved one
Your doctor may recommend that you see a mental health provider who specializes in grief. This therapist could suggest several treatment options, such as talk therapy, medication, or both. These treatments could help you process your loss and manage your grief.
Note: If you have thoughts of suicide or harming yourself, call 911 or have someone take you to an emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Losing a loved one doesn’t mean your life is over, but it does mean things will be different. Seeking help and support can help you feel better. With time, you can find healing that will help you move forward with life while also celebrating your loved one’s memory.