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When does grief become depression?

Grief and depression have similar symptoms, but each is a distinct experience, and making the distinction is important for several reasons. With depression, getting a diagnosis and seeking treatment can actually be life-saving. And experiencing grief due to a significant loss is not only normal but can ultimately be very healing.

Studies have shown that the extreme stress associated with grief can also trigger medical illnesses—such as cancer, heart disease, and even the common cold because of a low immune system.

The similarities

Because of these similarities, there are times when it may be more difficult to distinguish between grief and depression. It can be useful therefore, to understand the differences and similarities.

Some of the symptoms of grief may include:

  • Lethargy/exhaustion

  • Insomnia

  • Crying

  • Weight loss/weight increase

  • Withdrawal

  • Confusion/forgetfulness

  • Restlessness

  • Muscle tension/aches and pains

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Anxiety attacks

Differences/Complicated Grief 

There is a wealth of well-researched papers in the psychiatric medical field that demonstrate that unresolved grief is the root of 15% of all mental health referrals. Alcohol and drug addiction are often in the background of people who have complicated grief.

During the first few months after a loss, many signs and symptoms of normal grief are the same as those of complicated grief, although for the latter, they linger and worsen. Complicated grief is a chronic, heightened state of mourning. Its symptoms can include:

  • Problems accepting the death and talking about it incessantly (even years later)

  • Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one

  • Carrying an excessive burden of guilt that they could have done more

  • Numbness or detachment

  • Preoccupation with their sorrow

  • Bitterness about life and an inability to enjoy anything

  • Intense sadness

  • Difficulty carrying out normal day-to-day routines

  • Isolating oneself and withdrawing from others for long periods/experiencing agoraphobia

  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose and feeling worthless

  • Irritability/agitation/anger at others

  • Lack of trust in others

  • Delusions and/or hallucinations; however, some people experiencing grief may have the sensation of seeing or hearing things

Where grief and depression differ is that grief tends to decrease over time and occurs in waves that are triggered by thoughts or reminders of the loss. So the person may find themself sometimes coping better, eg. wanting to start socializing and restarting some of the activities they enjoyed before, but triggers such as a deceased one’s birthday, may bring back all their sadness again which, of course, is a normal reaction.

Depression, on the other hand, tends to be much more all-consuming for someone.


While grief can be extremely painful, there isn’t generally any medical treatment for it. Some exceptions include:

  • If grief-related anxiety is so sever that it interferes with daily life, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication

  • If the person is experiencing sleep problems, short-term use of prescription sleeping tablets may be helpful but there are lots of high quality herbal products available to buy online or from a health food which I would recommend to try first of all

  • You may feel that a course of anti-depressants would help to function better (however, many people say that these can be quite numbing which is not ideal for long-term use as it can prevent the grief healing process)

In either of the above, counselling or any of the talking therapies can be greatly beneficial in helping you to process what you are feeling and to learn strategies that can help you cope.

When you are unsure of symptoms ….

If you are not sure whether you are experiencing grief or depression, it is important to talk to your doctor and/or therapist who can help you make the distinction.

If your symptoms are related to the normal process of grief (as above), they will probably improve over time. Grief is the most natural way of working through a difficult and painful loss. Each person grieves differently and that makes it a unique experience for each of us. Talk openly with a therapist or someone you trust, and remember that grief is not a sign of weakness.

Likewise, depression is a mental illness like any other that needs treatment. Seeking help when you experience depression symptoms is a sign of strength and can be a first step to get you on your road to recovery. Support is out there so no one should suffer alone.

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