Depression or Grief: How Do I Know?

“Are My Feelings Normal?”

As a professional counselor, I hear this question many times per week. People in a variety of situations, heartaches and struggles just want to know “Do others feel similar to me when they go through comparable circumstances?” And their second question follows closely on the heels of the first,

“How can I stop the pain?”

This question has personal and professional importance to me. When my mom died in 1996, I was officially diagnosed for the first time with depression. I was not a counselor at the time, but looking back I was extremely sad and hopeless.  I struggled every day to get myself and my small children ready for the day, was always tired and uninterested in most activities. After months in this zombie-like state, I finally drug myself to counseling and within months was back on track with life. With the loss of my dad this past year I
came face-to-face with the fear of the “black dog of depression” enveloping me again and taking over my life. This time I was better equipped with an understanding of grief and specific tools for keeping the depression on the distant horizon.  For a great overview of depression take a moment and watch “I had a black dog, his name was depression” on YouTube.

The following are some differences between grief and depression:

Bereavement/Grief includes:

  • Losing something or someone significant to you. (i.e. a loved one, job, home)
  • Experiencing painful emotions felt in waves intertwined with positive feelings and memories of what was lost.
  • Maintaining good self-esteem with the feelings of loss and emptiness directed at what is missed.

Major Depression is different in that:

  • It can be either triggered by an event like a death (or any another traumatic event) or it can be spontaneous and happen without any warning.
  • Moods and thoughts are predominately negative most of the day every day.
  • The experience of low self-worth and a self-critical inward focus rather than the outward focus on missing someone.

The experience of grief varies for different people. It is stressful and can last up to 1 – 2 years but it does not automatically lead to depression. While it may be difficult to discern between mild depression and grief, for many people an exact diagnosis is unnecessary. It has been shown that 40% of all depressive symptoms start to lift within 4 months without any treatment and many of the interventions shown to help relieve grief also work effectively with mild depression.

So to the second question, “How can I stop the pain?”

I would encourage you to ask a different question—if you can.

Instead of asking to be rid of the pain, ask:

How can I live well in the midst of pain?

Take Personal Responsibility for Feeling Better

Probably the biggest difference for me between the last time I dealt with a parent’s death and this time is the realization that I am responsible for caring well for me. I can invite others to help but I no longer expect my spouse, kids or friends to make me happy. I am happy when I am with them—well, most of the time :-)—but they are NOT responsible for me feeling better.  My heart, my job!

Be social

The last thing I wanted to do after my dad’s death was to be with other people. Those awkward moments when people don’t know what to say are difficult; however, often just being around others and listening to their conversations helps you know that life will eventually return to “normal”. Some other options: Attend church. Volunteer. Do things for others. Attend a grief class.


I believe managing mild depression or grief with exercise is a double win! You get in better shape and you start to refill the happy chemicals in your brain. (Severe depression is different and usually needs an anti-depressant to enhance good therapy.) Walking is great. Finding an online workout has been very helpful personally.  Join a gym if you need the motivation of a trainer and classes. Find something you like so you will be motivated to continue. Three times a week, 30 minutes a time has been shown to be successful in lifting mild depression!

Give yourself time. Don’t rush. Remember the good times

Journaling can provide a container for the grief when it threatens to overwhelm you. Get those sad thoughts out on paper where they can be cared for effectively. My mom’s 85th birthday would have been this past week. I journaled about all the things I loved about her and yes, I teared up. But it helps to keep bringing healing to my soul and joyful memories to my brain—releasing happy chemicals! It’s a win, win!

Think about your thoughts

Talking with a friend, spouse or counselor can help you process the thoughts of grief, sadness and at times regret. Our thoughts determine our feelings which lead to our eventual behavior. For example, if I start to think “The pain of losing my dad will always be unbearable,” it leads to feelings of hopelessness and discouragement which lead to actions of staying in bed or isolating from others. It is extremely valuable to examine our thoughts with someone who can help us identify better thoughts which can lead to different feelings and more helpful actions. Instead, I might choose to think “I miss my dad but I was so blessed to have a great dad,” leading to feelings of gratefulness and writing a card to someone telling them why I am thankful for them today.

Sit with the Ultimate Comforter

Prayer and sitting with Jesus gave me hope when losing my parents seemed dark and hopeless. There is NO substitute for God in the walking of the grief journey. His word states, “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 2:3b-4 (NLT). If you are not a believer or are REALLY mad at God over the death of your loved one, I understand. I was there. Talk to him about your anger and your loss, He cares that you are hurting.

If you have recently lost a loved one, I am so sorry. IT IS DIFFICULT. There is no quick healing or solution. I would be honored to journey beside you as you process this grief. Maybe you have a great friend to encourage you, if so you are blessed! Ask them if they will walk this grief journey with you. I encourage you, don’t walk it alone. God intends for us to heal in community. Praying for you today![/vc_column_text]

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