Is it Grief or Depression?

by Nelly Uhlenkott on November 1, 2011

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Grief and depression have a lot in common. Both may be experienced as deep sadness or numbness and go hand-in-hand with a bleak outlook and changes in appetite and sleep. For some people, grief can trigger an episode of major depression.

After someone experiences a loss, it can be hard to know whether they are grieving or depressed. Different people go through the grieving process at different rates, meaning the amount of time that’s elapsed since their loss isn’t always a reliable indicator of whether they’re experiencing grief or depression.

What’s the difference between grief and depression?


When someone is grieving, they may still have a positive sense of themselves despite the negative emotions they’re experiencing. When someone is depressed, they are likely to have a very low self-esteem and self-worth. A person experiencing depression may see themselves as bad, worthless, or at fault for their loss. They may also feel anger toward themselves.

In grief the world might feel like a empty and dark place, whereas in depression both the world and oneself seem empty and dark.


It’s common for people to experience guilt as part of the grieving process. However, that guilt is often transient and is focused on some specific aspect of the loss. When someone is depressed, their guilt may be very generalised and all-encompassing. The guilt associated with depression is also likely to linger for a longer period of time.

Thoughts of death

After experiencing a loss, it’s natural to be thinking about death. People in the grieving process may wonder about whether they should have died along with who they lost, or whether they would be better off dead themselves. However, when people are experiencing depression those thoughts may become more all-consuming and they may become pre-occupied with death as a subject matter. They may begin considering suicide as well.

Physical symptoms

Symptoms such as changes in sleep and appetite, energy levels, and tension in the body are common in both grief and depression. People may also appear to be slowed down significantly as if they are moving underwater and their thinking may feel foggy and thick, especially if they’re experiencing depression. In instances of depression, those changes are likely to be quite noticeable and prolonged.


The world may feel cold and unwelcoming after a loss. Negative feelings and a pessimistic outlook may come in waves during the grieving process. People who are experiencing depression tend to evaluation the world, themselves, and the future negatively. They may feel overcome with a sense of hopelessness. The negativity and hopelessness of depression tend to linger beyond the grim outlook associated with grief and may even grow over time.


People who are grieving often have brief moments when they seem to see or hear their deceased loved one. Those experiences are common but often take people by surprise. In episodes of depression, additional visual or auditory hallucinations may start to occur and could indicate that their grief has transitioned into depression.

Have you or someone you cared about experienced a loss? Wondering whether you’re going through grief or depression? The team at Paul the Counsellor offers supportive, confidential, non-judgemental counselling and psychotherapy for grief and depression in the Melbourne CBD.

0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

tash November 1, 2011 at 7:30 PM

this is really helpful, thank you. i think most of us believe grieving after loss to be a short and sharp experience – maybe that’s because it can sometimes be portrayed that way in the media. so when you still feel signs of it many months or years down the track, it’s hard to understand what the feelings are. to know that it is grief and that it continues helps to make me more tolerant of my own self.


Paul Cullen, Ph.D. November 1, 2011 at 7:34 PM

Thanks for the comment Tash. It’s one of those things that when we know where the feelings are coming from it makes it easier to deal with. It’s sometimes confusing even for a therapist to distinguish grief from depression. There is such an overlap in terms of the experience of both.


Ruby Starheart November 29, 2011 at 1:57 AM

This is a great article, Paul. Many thanks for sharing this insight. My personal experience with grief and depression is that if the feelings of grief are not resolved then the depression stage of the grieving process can turn into long term depression. When I went through this I was only a child and did not know that I was depressed until many years afterwards. Depression is so tricky because it can sneak up on you without realising, so having these pointers to show the shift from grief into depression is really helpful. I wrote a little about my personal experience of this as a teenager a few days ago on my website: if you’re interested.
Many thanks


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