Confused by your sadness? It may be grief.
In 2017, I left my job as a palliative care social worker to start my therapy practice. I really liked my job, but was ready for something new. As my final day approached, I was sad to say goodbye. My excitement about a new career path seemed to eclipse it.
So when, a few weeks later, I began to feel heavy, fatigued and tearful, I experienced confusion. I was doing what I wanted, enjoying meeting new clients, and eager to apply my clinical skills in a different way. What did I have to be sad about? Then I realized what was happening: I was grieving.
Full disclosure: I am a grief therapist.
And yet, here I was. I was caught off guard by feelings of loss that would naturally come with leaving my job, my team, and the patients. This experience was a reminder that grief can sometimes hide in plain sight, its symptoms felt before its identity is known.
Grief can be hard to identify, and accept
I find that being unaware of grief is not that uncommon. As a therapist, I often meet people as they’re going through big life transitions. They too are puzzled by the heaviness, melancholy, and lethargy they are feeling. Sometimes when I suggest what they might be experiencing it, a light bulb goes on. But just as frequently, that suggestion causes confusion or is dismissed.
Grief is a healthy, natural reaction to loss of any kind. We most often associate it with the feelings we experience when a loved one dies. However, grief can accompany any kind of loss. It comes with divorce, sending a child off to college, moving to a new city, and even becoming a parent. It can be experienced during periods of joy, or, as in my case, even when the transition was actively sought.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by many dimensions of grief. The virus has claimed more than 4 million people worldwide, many of whom died in hospitals without loved ones present. It has denied us the customary rituals of mourning–such as burials, funerals, and memorial services – that help us process our loss.
There has also been a collective grief that extends beyond the pandemic death toll, resulting from the disruption of daily routines and social interactions that many of us depend on to help us feel rooted in our lives.
“Grief is pretty much an undercurrent of everything we’re experiencing right now,” says Darcy Harris, a grief counsellor and associate professor of thanatology at King’s University College at Western University in London, Ontario. “We grieve the loss of living our lives and the way our lives have been.”
Depression and Grief: Similar but Different
People often confuse grief and depression, in part because the symptoms of both can be very similar: sadness, fatigue, insomnia, loss of interest in activities, numbness, irritability, and loss of appetite, to name a few.
In general, grief tends to decrease over time and the pain we feel when reminded of our loss becomes less intense. It’s important to note that there is no one way to grieve and its course is different for each person. In addition, the nature of the loss may result in a prolonged grief that can last for years.
Pal Kristensen, a clinical psychologist and researcher in Denmark, explains that depression is different from grief in that the emotions tend to be “more free-floating and generalized and less associated with a loss itself.” Depression is also often accompanied by feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.
Depression and grief can occur at the same time, and grief over time can turn into depression.
If you’re finding it hard to cope with grief or depression, or you are feeling intense emotions you can’t explain, please contact our Client Specialist at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about ways we can help.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”