Comparing Bereavement and Medical Depression

Everyone experiences sadness or low mood at some point in their lives. This can be caused by a variety of life experience, or even just a small change in the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain.

There are two types of extended low mood, which many people can confuse: grief and major depression. Our article will explain the difference between grief and depression, their symptoms, and the importance of accessing help for yourself or a loved one.

What Are Grief and Bereavement?

When someone experiences a loss or significant life change, they often experience an emotional response called grief. Grief is the feeling of sadness, numbness, and/or anger that follows a major life change or loss. Grief and mourning are normal reactions to losing something or someone important.

The experience of grief is different for everyone, although there are a few stages of grief that appear to be common in many people. These stages or symptoms do not occur in a specific order and can appear concurrently, may reoccur, and aren’t all necessarily experienced. The stages of grief are:

  • Denial, numbness, or disbelief.
  • Anger or blame (of self, others, or both).
  • Bargaining.
  • Sadness, crying, loneliness, or low mood (temporary depression).
  • Acceptance or coming to terms with the loss.

Grief can manifest itself into more specific physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.

Physical symptoms of grief include:

  • Nausea or upset stomach, sometimes in the “pit of stomach.”
  • Tightness in chest or throat, as if breathing is difficult.
  • Oversensitivity to noise.
  • Surreal or dissociated feelings.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Lack of energy, fatigue, or increased need for sleep.

Mental symptoms of grief can include:

  • Confusion.
  • Preoccupation or being easily distracted.
  • Feeling like the person is still there.
  • Disbelief.

Emotional grief symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety or fear.
  • Blaming oneself or others for the loss.
  • Loneliness.
  • Helplessness.
  • Shock.
  • Anger.
  • Numbness.
  • Yearning.

Grief vs Bereavement

People experience bereavement as a result of the loss of a loved one due to death, specifically. In the case of bereavement specifically, the experience of a loved one’s death can be influenced by whether the person died suddenly or if their death was expected due to chronic illness. Since

Bereavement is a type of grief — and the symptoms are very similar, although during the most intense moments of the mourning period they can appear similar to symptoms of major depression. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Insomnia.
  • Prolonged periods of sadness.

In some instances, bereavement and grief can trigger or contribute to major depression.

What Is Major Depression?

In contrast to grief and bereavement, where symptoms typically ease over time, major depression is defined as sadness, loss of interest, and fatigue that cyclically appear and disappear, or that so not lessen much with time. Major depression can be treated with medication, therapy, or both; however, all people experiencing this condition typically need professional help. Major depression is sometimes also referred to as clinical or medical depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 21 million Americans live with depression, and between 20 and 25 percent of adults suffer an episode of clinical depression as some point in their lives — which can sometimes be related to grief or bereavement. Almost twice as many women receive diagnoses of major depression compared to men.

There are several potential symptoms of major depression. To meet diagnostic criteria, a person must experience at least five of the following symptoms nearly every day for about two weeks.

  • Depressed mood (sadness, emptiness, numbness, or feeling tearful or irritated; in children, persistent irritability).
  • Loss of interest in, or inability to feel pleasure from, normal activities or hobbies.
  • Weight loss or gain due to changes in appetite.
  • Insomnia, an increased need for sleep, or changes to sleep schedule.
  • Slowed behavior or feeling restless.
  • Loss of energy.
  • Feeling worthless or guilty for no or little reason.
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  • Recurrent suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.

When Grief Becomes Major Depression

There are many potential root causes of major depression, including genetics, environment, and history of trauma. However, major depression is typically considered to begin when neurotransmitters in the brain become imbalanced, affecting the individual’s sleeping, eating, and work and personal habits.

Typical distinguishing aspects between grief and major depression include:

  • Feelings of grief typically occur in waves, for a few weeks, and then begin to decrease in frequency and intensity over months or years. Grief can be mixed with positive memories. Major depression is a consistent feeling of sadness, numbness, worthlessness, and lack of interest in activities for two weeks or more.
  • While in mourning, a person may feel sad, lonely, fatigued, or numb, but retain their sense of self-worth. While struggling with major depression, however, the individual’s self-esteem suffers.

Grief and bereavement can also be caused by trauma. The loss of a loved one is a major life event that can trigger shifts in neurotransmitters that can lead to depression.

Symptoms that grief has become major depression include:

  • Feeling like life is not worth living.
  • Feeling worthless due to the loss of a loved one.
  • Self-blame for their loved one’s loss.
  • Feeling numb and disconnected from life and others for more than a few weeks.
  • Difficulty performing daily activities for more than a few weeks.
  • Auditory or visual hallucinations of the loved one, which can trigger sadness or numbness.

Getting Help for Major Depression and Prolonged Grief

Many people feel that they can handle grief or bereavement on their own. However, if prolonged grief or depression aren’t addressed and are left untreated, they can lead to other co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety — or substance use disorder. Emotional and physical pain are common occurrences in people who struggle with major depression, and the individual may self-medicate in order to overcome these experiences, which can lead to dependence on narcotic painkillers, benzodiazepines for anxiety or insomnia, or alcohol.

If you think you need help with co-occurring disorders, like depression and addiction — or love someone who does — contact our helpful and knowledgeable admissions navigators at to learn more about the different levels of care that we offer at our inpatient rehab in Lafayette, NJ. Our team of treatment specialists use evidence-based integrated treatment to help individuals struggling with co-occurring disorders.

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