When Depression Might Not Be Depression After All

woman-watching-sunsetWhen we lose something important to us, it is natural to feel something similar to depression that is normal grief. It can be intense sadness, and may include low energy, an inability to imagine things feeling good again, loss of pleasure, longing for what is lost, and less ability to function in thinking, sleeping, eating, sexuality, and working. The main difference between depression and normal grief after a loss is the person’s ability to resolve the pain and recover as time passes.

Philosophical and spiritual people debate why some people experience more loss than others in similar circumstances, but losses are inevitable for all of us. Loss is such a common and complex part of our lives that people often don’t consciously realize many of their losses. Often, what seems like a single loss is actually several losses, and what isn’t what we think of as a loss at all most definitely is.

When people think of grieving a loss, they generally think about losing a person to death. Not only are there many other losses aside from people, there are many other ways to lose people. We lose people to relationships ending, including friendships. We lose people to mental illness, chemical and other addictions, disability, and occasionally cults. We lose aspects of our children repeatedly as they grow from a developmental stage, never to return to it—from birth throughout their lives. This includes what are often especially painful times, such as when they first go to school, become adolescents, leave home, form a long-term relationship, and move away. When we lose people completely, we usually lose multiple aspects of them—almost like losing more than one person. A lost wife, for example, can be a lost companion, lover, cook, caretaker, co-parent, and more.

Losing pets can be every bit as painful as losing people. People underestimate the grief some feel when they lose a pet. The fact many people don’t take this seriously adds to the pain by isolating the mourning person further and sometimes adding shame to the grief.

Significant losses we grieve often include loss of intangible but deeply significant treasures such as dreams or hopes, identity, youth, belief in one’s immortality, faith, status, or life purpose. Losing other things, such as jobs, opportunities, contests, physical abilities, objects, and people carry these intangibles with them as additional losses. For example, losing a job, business, or career can also take away one’s identity, life purpose, and dreams. These intangible losses can significantly add to the pain of concrete losses.

Losing physical abilities of course means damaging one’s body or developing a chronic illness, but it can also include intangible losses such as finding out one is infertile. While there never was a baby involved, discovering infertility for someone who badly wanted to conceive children is similar to losing a baby—it is a death of the dream of the baby, and of the identity of someone who could have children, and possibly of what it meant to be a man or a woman. Similarly, losing a baby to miscarriage or even abortion can be a huge loss, even though the baby never developed and the parents may not have even wanted it.

In order to thrive in the face of losses, we have to heal through grieving. Grief isn’t just a painful, unfortunate outcome of loss—it’s our essential, inborn source of recovery from loss.

In order to thrive in the face of losses, we have to heal through grieving. Grief isn’t just a painful, unfortunate outcome of loss—it’s our essential, inborn source of recovery from loss. Grief generally involves expressing sadness and anger in response to the loss. Going over and over the memories of the lost one is also usually an important part of grieving.

Knowing about their intangible losses helps people grieve and heal from them, just like the tangible ones. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the entire scope of losses that might be involved when people are sad or depressed. When there isn’t a tangible loss and people feel depressed, it’s important to search for losses that may not be obvious but may be causing a grief reaction. Being unaware of these less obvious losses can bring people to the conclusion that they are depressed for no reason, when in fact they just need to grieve. Being unaware of losses may even prevent grieving, and unexpressed grief can cause depression.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hector

    Hector

    February 11th, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    Grief is an essential ingredient to healing. Many people shy away from grieving or do not completely express themselves when it comes to grief. They think they would lose being STRONG or whatever. but they hardly if ever realize they are harming themselves by not letting in the loss. the loss has occurred, maybe there is nothing you can do to prevent or reverse it, but accepting it is a good way of coming to peace. not facing it is going to cause problems.

  • Donita k

    Donita k

    February 12th, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    Do you think that there is a time for some people where they could heal themselves of their depression? And if so then how would you have been able to tell the difference between an episode of intense but normal grief instead of a depressive episode? I happen to feel that there are some people for whom depression is a very real thing, but that they are eventually able to will themselves out of feeling that sadness that comes with being depressed. It still could have been triggered by an episode that caused them a great deal of pain in their lives, and it could really have been depression, but somehow they are one of those strong people that is able to come to terms with the loss on their own and work their way out of being depressed. Could this be the case in certain instances?

  • Jane Hudson

    Jane Hudson

    February 13th, 2013 at 6:56 AM

    Reactive depression which can occur as a result of a loss is normal. With any loss there are stages a person will need to work through in order to come out the other side and carry on. Sometimes people can get stuck in one of the stages and may just need people to be there and wait for them to work through this stage; sometimes help through therapy may help the person. There are no time limits for how long someone may feel depression from loss, as everyone will react differently. However, there is always the possibility that reactive depression can turn into clinical depression when, medically, the depression lasts more than 12 months the person may have become clinically depressed and need help from the GP or through talking therapy. If anyone is struggling whether it has been because of grief or things aren’t feeling right, seeking therapy can help clarify things and help someone work through their issues and come our the other side feeling empowered and able to work through their own issues in the future.

  • r n

    r n

    February 13th, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    grief may not be depression but it can easily transform into it!now I know a lot of events in life bring grief and not all grief turns to depression. but some people are just not as good at handling that grief as others. it can be bad news for them. grief if not addressed or rather accepted thoroughly can lead to depression and that is a fact none of us can deny.

  • Gray

    Gray

    February 13th, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    We are so quick to want to place a label on everything, for everything to have a name and a reason and blahblahblah. If you are sad then be sad. It doesn’t have to “be” anything more than that

  • lewis

    lewis

    February 14th, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    we all do this at sometime don’t we?a sad episode that is slightly elongated we call it being depressed.not only is it wrong but also on a mental level it pulls us down.look at things positively.a sad feeling is just that-a sad feeling-it will go away soon.be sure about that,you don’t have to suffer by calling it depression.

  • Howard Tonkin

    Howard Tonkin

    February 19th, 2013 at 1:21 AM

    Thank you for sharing.

    ‘Grief is the love we have for all that is no longer and Love is grief for that which is yet to leave us’. Stephen Richardson.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    February 20th, 2013 at 2:21 AM

    Donita,

    I think some people come out of depression spontaneously some come out because of a physiological shift, some come out of it because they change their thinking, some because they express their feelings to someone who hears them with empathy. I don’t think people can just will themselves out of depression, unless something in my list above could be considered willing their way out. Each person with each episode of depression needs their own unique way out–no treatment works for everyone. Even if there is someone somewhere who can will their way out, most people can’t, and I don’t think anyone should assume this is a possibility for most depressed people. That would just set people up for failure, shame and disconnection from the people around them–feelings a depressed person doesn’t need! However, I understand that people who aren’t depressed can sometimes feel frustrated with the depressed person, and want to believe the person could will their way to happiness.

  • Samantha

    Samantha

    June 23rd, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    Disenfranchised grief can also be a part of “depression” that is misdiagnosed. Adopted people are expected to be grateful and loyal to their adoptive families and stuff the incredible loss they live with of identity, original family, etc.

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