Emotional and Mental

Can Grief Morph into Depression

There is a fine line between grief and depression. Although they are quite different, they look surprisingly alike. With both grief and depression, people cry. They feel depressed. They’re having trouble sleeping. They may not have an appetite. They may not feel like doing anything. They may not take pleasure in anything.

Prolonged grief

Just as dying is an inevitable part of the cycle of life, bereavement is a necessary aspect of living. There is no timeline for grief. In addition, cultural and circumstantial factors contribute to how people cope.

Today, advances in medicine allow many people with terminal illnesses to live years after diagnosis, as opposed to the days, weeks, or months of previous decades. The grieving process in these situations is often referred to as “the new grief” because there is time for patients and their families to get their affairs in order, resolve family issues, and choose how to live during whatever time may remain. This type of grief differs from the sudden shock and chaos that often accompanies a sudden death. Sudden death often leaves “loose ends” and unfinished business.

During a prolonged illness, or after a death, a community of family, friends, and co-workers often unites to provide ongoing support to those who are grieving. Supporters (professional, friends, spiritual advisers, family) can help those who are grieving resume functioning and gradually move on with their lives while maintaining the memory of the lost one. That is one key difference with depression. People suffering from major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others and may shun such support and assistance. People who don’t get such support, or who avoid it, may be at greater risk for slipping into clinical depression during the grieving process.

Bereavement never really ends. It ebbs after a while, but can then emerge on birthdays and anniversaries, in certain places, or be triggered by something like a special song.

If you are in the process of coping with the sudden death of a loved one, or the lengthy grieving process associated with a terminal illness, here are a few suggestions:

  • Expect to feel depressed. Loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and sadness are all part of the normal grief process and are best not interfered with.
  • Expect grief to wax and wane over time. You may feel “fine” one day, only to slip back into deep grief the next day.
  • Build and lean on a support network. Grieving individuals need others to talk to and to care for them not just for a few days, but over an extended period of time. This is especially true for those who are primary caretakers for a terminally ill loved one.

If you experience thoughts of suicide, serious weight loss, or are unable to perform daily functions such as getting out of bed or going to work for more than an occasional day, consider seeking additional professional help.

For more information about grief and depression, please contact your Best Care EAP.

To schedule your confidential appointment, call (402) 354-8000 or (800) 801-4182, or send an email.

*Barbara Okun, Ph.D., is a professor of counseling psychology at Northeastern University, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a clinical psychologist and family therapist. Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with more than 20 years experience working with individuals and families. Their have published a book,  Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss.