The death of a close family member can be devastating and feelings of depression are among the most common reactions. Distinguishing between the depression phase of a normal grieving process and the onset of clinical depression can be complicated. According to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Counseling Center, factors such as the quality of the relationship, the amount of “unfinished business” and feelings of guilt, as well as the personality of the bereaved can lead to different ways of coping with grief. It is important to recognize the difference between normal grieving and depression so that the bereaved person can know when to seek professional assistance.
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Loss of Hope
When the sadness that accompanies a loss turns into clinical depression, the bereaved person may start to feel that there is no hope of experiencing joy again or of returning to a normal life. The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide states that hopelessness may be accompanied by a sense of worthlessness. The loss of hope and self-worth can set up a downward emotional spiral, which leads to a deepening of the depression and increases the need for treatment and counseling.
Preoccupation with Death
The Harvard Medical School Guide also suggests that persistent thoughts of death and suicide following the loss of a close family member indicate that the bereaved person might be suffering from clinical depression. While it is normal to miss the loved one intensely, the feeling that life is no longer worth living and that death would provide welcome relief from the emotional suffering make seeking professional help imperative.
Crying is a normal and healthy part of everyday life. Shawn (Yifei) Xie writes in "Why Do We Cry?" in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science that several stress hormones, such as prolactin and leucine encephalin, are released from the body via emotional tears. This cleansing response is especially helpful for persons who are dealing with the stresses of grief and loss. However, ongoing and uncontrollable crying signal that the bereaved person could be clinically depressed.
Brief flights of fancy, daydreaming and indulging in memories of happier times are all normal coping mechanisms in times of extreme stress or grief, providing temporary breaks from the deep pain of loss. But according to the American Cancer Society in "Coping With the Loss of a Loved One," when a grief-stricken person begins to believe things that are not true (delusions) and possibly even experiences hallucinations, the line between healthy grieving and clinical depression has been crossed and professional help is in order.
Along with psychological and emotional symptoms, several physical symptoms point toward the presence of clinical depression. According to the Harvard Medical School Guide, signs that the grieving process has transitioned into a full-fledged depression include persistent headaches, heart palpitations, dizziness, digestive upsets and even chest pain. It is important to note that a professional evaluation is necessary to determine the exact cause of any serious physical symptoms and to decide on the proper course of treatment and follow-up care.