Sadness, Grief, and Depression: There is a Difference

By Guest Blogger Gray Moulton, LMFT, CST Therapist

There has been much discussion in the media and in our social groups lately about depression. There is a constant need to spread awareness about mental health for the sake of our loved ones, our children, and those who struggle alone. One topic that seems to be coming up over and over again is the difference between being “sad” and being depressed. We reached out to long-time TMoM reader and licensed therapist, Gray Moulton, for her input on this topic. We hope it helps many of you as you discuss mental health within your families and as you educate your children. 

Clients often ask about sadness, grief and depression.  “Aren’t they really the same things?” It’s a common question with a more complicated answer. The simple response would be no. Sadness is an emotion we feel. Grief is actually a reaction to that feeling, and depression is a tangible mental health condition that potentially stems from grief and sadness. Let me explain:

Sadness is something we all have felt. It is a normal reaction – a healthy emotion experienced with minor disappointments or losses. Let’s say you have to go on vacation and leave your pet behind. You may feel sad about this.  This type of emotion can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. You likely won’t think about him/her your entire vacation, so when you do, the thoughts are fleeting and won’t keep you from having a great time. While thinking about your pet may be disagreeable, the kind of sadness the thoughts bring won’t keep you cuddled in the corner under a blanket the entire time.

Grief, on the other hand, is an intense and often distressing reaction that people experience. Grief isn’t limited to a few – it’s a normal reaction felt by anyone who has experienced a major loss, such as the death of the pet you left while on vacation, or the loss of your home, your marriage, or a loved one. Grief usually ends up wreaking havoc on the lives of the grief stricken and can result in long-drawn-out periods of sadness, loneliness, and mourning. Experiences of grief can last anywhere from a few months to several years. In fact, it is normal for grieving to last a very long time as we tend to not get over feelings of loss and brokenness easily. Grief is tremendously agonizing, but it is not mental illness.

When someone grieves, they feel loss and sadness, yet there are also moments of happiness and potentially peace. A grieving person may be able to meet friends for lunch and laugh at a joke or funny television sitcom.  They may be able to experience happiness and appreciation for a nice meal, a long walk or a good glass of wine. Even while grieving, despite a good deal of anguish, there can be times of contentment and satisfaction – a grieving person can experience true happiness. This is the major difference between grief and depression.

Depression affects all aspects of a life. Not only do the depressed not experience brief moments of happiness, they also lose feelings of security and self esteem. The depressed person often questions life, has significant sleep disturbances, has diminished interest/enjoyment in routine activities and has feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. Life no longer seems as meaningful to someone with depression. Many depressed clients talk about avoiding people, places and things that used to bring them happiness because they would prefer to isolate themselves away from anyone or anything that doesn’t feel as poorly as they do. These are the people that report preferring to stay under the blanket in the corner where they can ruminate on their feelings of sadness and loss.

To pull this all together – I might feel sad about leaving my pet behind on vacation. Initially I will think about her several times throughout the day, but I will be more excited about my trip. Should she die, I would move into grief. This reaction to death would be strong in the beginning and gradually decline as time passes. I could find happiness in life still. Should my sleep patterns change and I choose to begin to isolate myself and cry all of the time, there is a good chance that my grief will turn to depression. Asking for professional help may become a need.


2 thoughts on “Sadness, Grief, and Depression: There is a Difference

  1. Linda Knott

    Very helpful and just what I needed to read. I lost my husband March of 2014 and then my house was foreclosed on and we had to move. I have reason to be very depressed but I am just mildly depressed but mainly still grieving. Now I know when to be concerned, and I already talk weekly to a counselor. He helps a lot. Thanks for the info!

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