The loss of a family member or any loved one can be a tragic experience. With that, many emotions combine within an individual which usually results in emotional turmoil. Some people may call it grief while others might refer to it as depression.
There is always an interchange between these two concepts. However, it is crucial to know the difference between depression and complicated grief so that the person can get the appropriate clinical treatment and support needed for their condition. As Karla Helbert, LPC, E-RYT, C-IAYT explains, “In grief and trauma, we find ourselves in many moments where, try as we might, we cannot alleviate our own discomfort and pain. This can cause us to feel worse about ourselves.” And she’s right with that.
Complicated grief (CG), also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is stronger and more severe than normal grief. Anyone can feel CG as a natural response to the loss of a loved one. However, many people with this condition undergo the stages of grieving for months—even years.
CG does not correlate with any biological causes. But there is an association with the environment, genetic composition, personality, and body chemistry of a person. Although grieving is a normal process, experiencing CG for a long time can cause several severe symptoms which may worsen the quality of life of an individual. Some of these symptoms include the following:
- Inability to have fun and smile
- Loss of motivation or purpose to do anything
- Feeling a wide range of emotions
- Heightened reminiscing of the lost loved one
- Powerful pain when thinking about the loss
- Loss of trust in the people around you
- Neglect of proper hygiene
Depression, on the other hand, is a type of clinical condition which can be a source of death if untreated. Experiencing this might not have a particular source. In addition, some symptoms might be present in some days and absent in other days. “Depression is a serious and tricky illness. Unfortunately, it can also go unrecognized for a long period of time” Dr. Kurt Smith, LMFT, LPCC, AFC adds.
A professional will diagnose a person with depression if he or she shows a combination of symptoms, with each one of them present almost every day. The following symptoms are the criteria for diagnosis:
- Constant feeling of irritability
- Significant weight loss because of loss in appetite
- Sleeping too much or sleeping too little
- A sense of guilt and worthlessness
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Constant thoughts of suicide and death
- Sluggish movements
What Sets Them Apart
There is a huge overlap between depression and complicated grief. Several symptoms in CG are the same with those of depression. Some examples of these include intense sadness, constant irritability, and excessive focus on the feeling of sadness.
The major difference between these two is that in CG, the individual can point out what prompted the grief. In most cases, this stems from the loss of a loved one. In depression, however, a person might not be able to point out what caused his or her sadness. They might not even be able to determine the exact time when they felt these waves of gloom.
Those with depression have more thoughts of committing suicide. Although the same twisted ideas usually visit people with CG, it will not occur as often as compared to those experiencing depression. In addition, people with depression think of dying as a way to escape the pain and sadness they feel while those with CG usually have thoughts of death since they want to reunite with their deceased loved one.
Lastly, CG results in a wide range of complicated emotions. However, those with depression usually feel stuck and have the same persisting feelings.
Professionals usually recommend therapy, specifically complicated grief therapy (CGT), to treat CG. CGT requires the individual to tell stories of his or her loved one’s death repeatedly for the emotions to cope with reality and pain. This treatment also guides an individual on how to rebuild his or her relationships and reach his or her goals.
“Therapy is often necessary to help those left behind understand why their loved one took this action. It can be difficult to resolve feelings of grief and anger without professional help.” Dr. Chantal Gagnon PhD LMHC said. But despite the availability of therapies, most people who have experienced CG do not recommend seeking treatment instantly. Rather, these bereaved people should try to look first for individual and group supports to help him or her cope with their complicated grief. If this strategy does not pan out in a month or two, that is the time one should ask the help of a professional.
On the other hand, those with depression should undergo either psychotherapy or medication—even both. It is even more helpful to take antidepressants should the patient meet the necessary diagnostic criteria and the assigned doctor prescribe it. Antidepressants can relieve the hormone imbalances in the brain which might be contributing to the depression.
Distinguishing whether an individual is experiencing complicated grief or depression is crucial. It is critical to know for sure which kind of treatment strategy one should engage in. Seeking the help of a professional is best so that a licensed expert can properly diagnose the mental health status of an individual. There might be further complications if the diagnosis is wrong.