Understanding How Grief and Depression Affect Your Well-Being

Older Woman Grieving

I believe grief is not something we “get over,” but something we learn to live with. My belief stems from my personal experience with sorrow, and its impact on my life.

My dealings with grief began the day doctors diagnosed my husband Brian with mesothelioma. Flashes of that moment remain with me to this day — almost thirteen years after his death.

Thankfully, that grief has not dominated my life. My feelings of sadness are not as intense as they were after Brian’s death. But during those dark days, I grieved deeply and felt that part of me had died along with him.

In a way this was true: Brian’s death meant the death of our marriage and the lifestyle I had known and loved for 37 years. Without Brian by my side, my life was a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing.

Fortunately, thinking positively and writing my feelings in a journal (a habit I picked up during Brian’s illness to cope with my anticipatory grief) continued to help, and I eventually found the strength to move on with my life.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

I now am married to a wonderful man who lost his first wife to cancer. We share an amazing bond through our understanding of the grief we suffered, and are truly grateful for the second chance of love and happiness we found in each other.

Despite that newfound happiness, Brian’s essence remains with me. There is no denying that after all this time I still miss him and the life we shared. Memories are like hidden gifts, waiting around every corner. I welcome them —even the ones that sadden me.

They help me acknowledge my loss and not repress it. This is a good thing. Feelings of sadness sparked by memories of Brian are fleeting. I learned long ago to focus on the memories that make me smile.

My ability to think positively ensured that I never suffered from depression. Some people believe grief and depression is the same thing. They are not.

The American Cancer Society explains that it is common for people to be in a depressed mood when mourning the loss of a loved one. In this state of mind, people may experience pain, anger, sadness and frequent bouts of crying. These are all normal responses to the grieving process, but these emotions can develop into clinical depression, a far more serious problem.

One in five bereaved people will develop clinical depression, according to the American Cancer Society.

Difference Between Grief and Depression

Normal grief is a natural response to loss, not a serious mental health disorder.

People who are grieving usually stay in contact with others, periodically allowing themselves to feel pleasure. They continue to function and rebuild their lives without the need for medical attention.

However, some who are grieving become depressed. They become reclusive and do not allow themselves to find pleasure in any aspect of their life. This condition is serious, and sufferers will likely need medical assistance to help them recover.

The symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • Ongoing thoughts of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Inability to perform daily activities
  • Withheld guilt
  • Imagining things that are not there (delusions)
  • Extreme weight loss

The American Cancer Society advises anyone experiencing these symptoms for more than two months after a loved one has died to seek medical assistance.

Complicated Grief

Although the majority of people begin to grieve after a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness (anticipatory grief) or immediately following their death (bereavement), some repress their emotions completely. This can lead to a condition called complicated grief, or unresolved grief.

Symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • Refusing to accept the death
  • Carrying on a conversation with the deceased as if they were still alive
  • Unresolved anger
  • Deep depression
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Strange behavior

Unfortunately, no one is immune to grief. The important thing to remember is that grief is a personal journey that no two people will experience in exactly the same way.

If you are experiencing grief from the anticipated death of your loved one or from mourning a loved one’s passing, remember to take care of yourself. Find a way to express your emotions, and if you are struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

  1. American Cancer Society. (2012, December 14). Major Depression and Complicated Grief. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/emotionalsideeffects/griefandloss/coping-with-the-loss-of-a-loved-one-depression-and-complicated-grief
  2. Pies, R. (2011). The Two Worlds of Grief and Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/02/23/the-two-worlds-of-grief-and-depression/
  3. California State University, Fullerton. (n.d.). The Difference between Normal Grief and Clinical Depression. Retrieved from http://www.fullerton.edu/universityblues/depression/depression_grievance.htm
  4. Ferszt, G. & Leveillee, M. (2009, June). Psych Review: Telling the Difference between Grief and Depression. Retrieved from http://www.nursingcenter.com/lnc/journalarticle?Article_ID=861093

Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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