Depression or Grief? Telling the Difference to Get the Right Help

Depression or Grief? Telling the Difference to Get the Right Help

Although grief and depression have similar symptoms, it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two. It’s very common for people experiencing childhood trauma to go through a grieving period as they begin to unpack their experiences. On the other hand, someone who easily copes with death may have a depressive episode that coincides with a loved one’s passing. Knowing the differences between the two is important because treatment can differ depending on which it is.

Is it depression or grief?

Determining whether you are experiencing depression or grief can be difficult, especially when you are in the middle of it. One of the easiest ways to determine what you’re feeling is to try to pinpoint your feelings to a recent experience.

Think of the obvious ones first. Have you recently: 

  • Experience a loved one or pet passing away?
  • Worked through past trauma with a therapist? 
  • Been through a breakup, divorce, or friendship ending?
  • Lost your job, especially if you enjoyed it or it made you feel safe?
  • Experienced a severe injury or illness?

If you answered yes to any of these, you may be grieving. Otherwise, there are still a few less obvious things to consider.

  • Have you recently lost a dream or expectation? (Having children, not achieving a career or life goal, being unable to travel, etc.)
  • Are there any significant dates coming up corresponding with any of the above? (Late loved one’s birthday, date of a specific trauma, anniversary, etc.)
  • Are you experiencing any changes to your cultural norms? This can be moving away from family, out of your home country, or even forgetting your native language.
  • Have you recently had to let go of any personal beliefs, faiths, or spiritualities?

If you still answered no, but you can think of any other significant changes, losses, or adjustments you’ve experienced, you may still be grieving. It’s best to talk to a therapist about those feelings when they occur to you. A therapist can help you find connections between your experiences that you may find difficult to see from your perspective.

What are the symptoms of depression and grief?

Both issues share many symptoms, but there are some differences that can help you determine whether what you’re feeling is depression or grief, especially now that you’re able to determine a potential source of grief. The shared symptoms of both include:

  • Intense sadness
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Anger and irritability

The symptoms that make depression and grief unique include:


  • Feelings of emptiness or apathy
  • Preoccupation with worthlessness
  • Sluggishness
  • Prolonged and marked difficulty in completing daily tasks
  • Thoughts of suicide


  • Difficulty accepting that the significant event occurred
  • Excessive focus of complete avoidance of the event
  • Thoughts of “joining” the deceased
  • Feeling as though you often hear or see things related to the event (the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon)

Other ways to determine if it’s depression or grief

Tracking your mood or creating a daily journaling habit can be very helpful in identifying if you’re feeling depression or grief. Grief tends to come and go in waves, whereas depression remains persistent throughout most situations.

Additionally, grief tends not to affect self-esteem, although there may be associated feelings of guilt surrounding the significant event. Being mindful of your daily mood and the thoughts you tend to have can help you see if your feelings are constant and all-encompassing, or if there is a trend in the breaks between your feelings of sadness.

This is also why therapy can be extremely helpful. Your therapist has a birds-eye view of your life and can help you identify any patterns in your mood and behaviors. They can also ask questions about other experiences you’ve had that you may not think connect to depression or grief and help you see how those experiences influence your thoughts and feelings.

How does treatment differ?

Because chronic depression cannot be cured, it requires lifelong treatment to cope. That could be in the form of medication, adjusting your lifestyle or incorporating more self-care tasks, or seeing a therapist regularly. Although it is a lifelong condition, managing your symptoms properly and consistently can get you to a place where it is almost imperceptible.

Conversely, grief comes and goes in waves, and the time between each wave gets longer over time. You may need weekly therapy during the beginning of the grieving process that tapers off as you start to feel better. You may find a support group for your significant event to be helpful. The primary difference between treating depression and grief is that there is very little research on the efficacy of psychiatric medications on treating grief, but they may be helpful for someone who has both depression and grief.

If you are experiencing depression or grief, or if you’re unsure what you’re feeling, reach out to us today. We’ll help match you with one of our qualified therapists in Charlotte who can help you get a handle on grief and depression.

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