Grief vs. Depression: Which Is It?

It's important to sort out the differences

grief vs. depression

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

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Grief and depression share similar symptoms, but each is a distinct experience, and making the distinction is important for several reasons. With depression, getting a diagnosis and seeking treatment can be literally life-saving. At the same time, experiencing grief due to a significant loss is not only normal but can ultimately be very healing.

Clinical Perspectives

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) removed a "bereavement exclusion" from the diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD). In the DSM-IV, the "bereavement exclusion" stated that someone who was in the first few weeks after the death of a loved one should not be diagnosed with MDD.

However, the DSM-5 recognizes that while grief and MDD are distinct, they can also coexist. What's more, grief can sometimes trigger a major depressive episode, just as with other stressful experiences.

Studies have shown that the extreme stress associated with grief can also trigger medical illnesses—such as heart disease, cancer, and the common cold—as well as psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.


Given this overlap, there are times when it may be tricky to distinguish between grief and depression. A better understanding of their similarities and differences can help.


Grief has several symptoms in common with the symptoms of major depressive disorder, including:

  • Intense sadness
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss

Grief can also develop into complicated grief, which, unlike uncomplicated grief, does not seem to dissipate with time and can look a lot like depression. In extreme cases, someone with complicated grief may engage in self-destructive behaviors or even contemplate or attempt suicide. It is likely due to these symptoms that the DSM no longer includes the bereavement exclusion from the diagnosis of major depression.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


Where grief and depression differ is that grief tends to decrease over time and occurs in waves that are triggered by thoughts or reminders of its cause. In other words, the person may feel relatively better while in certain situations, such as when friends and family are around to support them. But triggers like the birthday of a deceased loved one or going to a wedding after having finalized a divorce could cause the feelings to resurface more strongly.

Depression, on the other hand, tends to be more persistent and pervasive. An exception to this would be atypical depression, in which positive events can bring about an improvement in mood. A person with atypical depression, however, tends to exhibit symptoms that are the opposite of those commonly experienced with grief, such as sleeping excessively, eating more, and gaining weight.

Complicated Grief
  • Intense sadness

  • Anger

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty accepting that whatever caused the grief occurred

  • Excessive focus on the episode of grief or avoidance of it altogether

  •  Thoughts of "joining" the deceased

  • Sensation of hearing or seeing things

  • Feelings of guilt not related to grief

  • Morbid preoccupation with worthlessness

  • Sluggishness or hesitant and confused speech

  • Prolonged and marked difficulty in carrying out day-to-day activities

  • Thoughts of suicide

  • Hallucinations and delusions


While grief can be extremely painful, there is generally no medical indication to treat it. Some exceptions include:

  • If grief-related anxiety is so severe that it interferes with daily life, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful.
  • If the person is experiencing sleep problems, short-term use of prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids may be helpful.
  • If you meet the diagnostic criteria for MDD, antidepressants may be prescribed.

In both cases, psychotherapy can be greatly beneficial in helping you process what you are feeling and learn strategies that can help you cope.

A Word From Verywell

If you are wondering if you are experiencing grief or depression, it's important to talk to your doctor and/or therapist who can help you make the distinction. If your symptoms are related to normal grieving of a loss, they will probably improve in time. Grief is our body's way of working through difficult and traumatic experiences.

Every person grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Talk openly with a therapist or someone you trust, and remember that grief is not a sign of weakness.

Likewise, depression is an illness like any other. Reaching out for help when you experience depression symptoms is a sign of strength and can help get you on the road to effective treatment.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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