Grief vs. Depression—What Is (or Is There) a Difference?

In the past, psychologists and laymen alike have made clear distinctions between grief and depression. Grief is a state of sadness and pain that is triggered by an event that is a loss, such as a death in the family. It is a kind of depression but it is not the same as depression. Depression, on the other hand, can arise at any time and is characterized by hopelessness, the inescapable feeling of drowning in a pit of despair.  However, the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is trying to change all that and wants to categorize grief as major depression right away even if someone is in the initial stages of grieving the death of a loved one.  Some people concur and some are outraged.

The DSM-5’s justification for the rapid characterization of grief as major depression has raised some eyebrows and some are worried that this change plays right into the hands of pharmaceutical companies who currently make a major profit on medicating the clinically depressed. However, it may be that people who experience a loss spiral into a pit of depression right away, one that they can never come back from. We are really treading in murky water here; how does on distinguish grief from depression?

Grief is a universal experience in mammals especially humans. We grieve as a result of the strong bonding and attachments we form with other humans. All cultures have a space for grief after loss, even if this space manifests differently. When we lose someone it hurts and sometimes we feel as though we don’t want to go on living. We become depressed, but most grief experts say that this period of sadness and hopelessness will eventually lift once we process what has happened and learn to resiliently accept the loss and move on. Depression, on the other hand, can be a life-long state triggered by mere biology alone. It is not dependent on a specific loss.

The true problem at the heart of this grief vs. depression debate may be that it illustrates our increasing cultural impatience. We live in a world of instant gratification, a world in which time is highly regulated and simultaneously lacking; everything needs to be done as fast as possible. Putting a timeframe on grief can be a dangerous thing because healing from loss is a process that cannot be boxed up and timed with a stop watch—it takes time and the healing process is different for each individual.

Grief and depression are both states of sadness, hopelessness and despair. There is a fine line between them but it is a line nonetheless: grief is triggered by a specific loss and depression can occur at any time. We shouldn’t speed up the grief process just because we want to categorize it as depression. It takes time to heal and process loss—time we should continue to allow ourselves in a time-strapped world.