Depression is a feeling of sadness or a low persistent mood, lasting for some time. Grief is an emotional response to the loss of a loved one. Both have overlapping symptoms, but depression is a clinical disorder often resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Grief and depression are separate experiences, but both have symptoms of extreme sadness and can affect a person mentally and physically. Someone with grief may feel like their sadness is depression, but depression can result without any external catalyst.

Research has shown that grief or social loss, can lead to major depressive disorder and other physiological conditions linking to depression. Theories indicate that the grief neurological pathway can cause neurotransmitters to halt the reward system in the brain, resulting in depression.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 adults will have depression at some point in their lifetime, with various potential causes such as environmental, situational, genetic, biological, or psychological.

Grief, resulting from losing someone or something close to a person, can result in symptoms that feel like deep sadness, or depression. Complicated grief (CG) or prolonged grief disorder can occur when such feelings do not fade over time.

It is important to remember that both grief and depression are complex feelings for each person, and do not need to fit neatly under labels.

This article explains the differences and similarities between depression and grief. It will also detail ways to cope with both.

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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states depression is a severe mood disorder, affecting how a person feels, thinks, or acts. The exact cause of depression is unknown, but it can result from issues with mood regulation in the brain, stressful life situations, genetics, and the environment.

Grief, however, has an identifiable cause. The meaning of grief is intense sorrow over the loss of a loved one, which may include a person or a pet. Grief may feel, or even result in depression, but the roots of either can differ. Grief can occur in many situations where loss is present. This can include:

  • a relationship ending or divorce
  • losing a job
  • receiving a diagnosis of a chronic or severe illness

Grief is a natural human response to loss, and a result of the emotions a person feels when someone or something that is loved is no longer there. Grief usually moves in stages, resulting in acceptance and a person eventually feeling better. Depression, however, may have no identifiable cause and can last indefinitely.

The main differences include:

has an identifiable cause or roothas no identifiable cause or root
painful emotions come in waves but also contain happy memories of the loved onehas consistently negative emotions
self-esteem is not affectedhas feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem
is a natural process and an emotional responseis a diagnosable condition
can still feel pleasureinability to feel pleasure
feelings subside after some time but may return in waves as time passescan last for a long time with symptoms becoming more intense

Read more about the stages of grief here.

Grief and mental health

Previously, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) stated that clinicians should avoid diagnosing someone with major depressive disorder within the first 2 months of the death of a loved one. However, this bereavement exclusion is now removed, so as not to overlook the role of major depression during bereavement, or remove the chance of correct treatment.

Prolonged grief disorder occurs when the natural grieving process persists for more than 1 year and interferes with a person’s daily life. According to the American Psychiatry Association (APA), symptoms include:

  • feeling as though a part of oneself is dead, known as identity disruption
  • avoiding reminders about the deceased loved one
  • feeling intense emotions such as anger or deep sorrow
  • difficulties living life as usual, such as spending time with other family or friends, or going to work
  • inability to feel emotions, numbness
  • extreme loneliness or detachment from others

Up to 10% of adults will experience prolonged grief disorder. Those with a previous history of depression or other conditions such as bipolar disorder are more likely to experience prolonged grief disorder.

Having prolonged grief disorder in the DSM allows clinicians to differentiate between standard grief and the type of grief that is persistent and ultimately disabling.

The main similarity between grief and depression is the feeling of emotional pain and deep sadness. Other similarities may include:

  • crying often
  • feeling emotional distress
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in sleeping habits such as sleeping too much or too little
  • having angry outbursts

The consequences of grief and depression are also similar. Having either may result in a person becoming withdrawn from loved ones, doing little things that give them pleasure, or finding themselves unable to live daily life.

Often, a person may experience grief so intense that they feel symptoms of depression. Treatment or coping methods for depression can include medications, but it is up to the patient and doctor to decide whether treating grief with medications is right.

The APA says coping with grief can involve:

  • partaking in self-care
  • talking openly about the loved one, celebrating their life
  • accepting the feelings and understanding how they may return in waves
  • talking with a licensed professional about emotions
  • helping others cope with their grief also
  • psychotherapy, which can help a person understand their emotions and find ways to manage them

Depression treatment can also include psychotherapy, but other treatments include:

Learn more about ways to cope with grief here.

Grief and depression share similar symptoms, such as emotional pain. However, grief is a natural human response to loss, and depression is a clinical condition. Someone with grief may experience it so intensely that they feel depressed, along with it lasting longer than 2 months. This may be prolonged grief disorder.

Coping with grief can involve accepting feelings and talking with loved ones. Depression treatment may also include medications such as antidepressants.

Both grief and depression are complex states, and each person will experience them differently. Getting support when a person feels they need it, is important for both.