Even though everyone processes grief in a unique way, it is understood by most professional counselors that there are characteristics or stages that most people go through as they process the loss of a loved one. Identifying stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – helps guide to an understanding of grief. Such structure in turn assists in formulating ways to cope with the grief. Some will go through each stage almost chronologically. Others may skip a stage. Some may go through the stages but in a different order.

During the fourth stage, depression, the grieving person comes to the certainty and reality of death. The person almost becomes frozen in their tracks. Up to this point, sadness reigns, but the individual is able to muster the energy to maneuver – to deny, to have anger, or to bargain. In stage four, there appears to be nothing that can be done to alter the inevitable outcome. The person grieving doesn’t have the energy to fight anymore.

What Feelings Can Be Expected?

Emptiness begins to roll across life like a dense fog crawling across a lake. Grief enters every moment, every thought with a vengeance. The depression may feel as if it will last forever. It is important to understand that this is not a sign of a mental illness; rather it is a very natural response to circumstances beyond control that will end in death.

For the person grieving, the sadness forms the question, “Is there any point in going through life alone?” The individual will probably become silent, spending hours on end reflecting and crying. They may refuse visitors to their home. They may change normal patterns of life that would put them into contact with others. For the one dying, the question is a piercing, “Is this all there is? I am going to die; what is the point?” The person will also retreat – and may even become harsh, bitter or biting to loved ones. This is a natural part of the grieving process which allows the one dying to become less emotionally attached to those who are closest.

Is Depression a Natural Part of Grief?

Depression is often viewed as an unnatural state. Family members hope that it is something the loved one will “snap out of.” They want to do something positive that will “fix” the sad feelings by making them go away. The overwhelming sadness is a very appropriate response to an overpowering loss.

When trying to help a loved one going through depression, ask yourself a very simple question. “Is the circumstance genuinely a depressing one?” The loss of a very close loved one, the inevitability of personal death, and even some personal losses certainly warrant that deep of a response.

When loss finally sets in, depression is a natural phase to prepare one for acceptance. If grieving is a process, depression is a necessary step that begins to allow one to detach emotionally from the situation.

How Long Will the Depression Last?

It is natural to want to know how long the stage of depression will last. Is there an end to the pain and sadness in sight? There is no set time-table for recovering from the depression stage of the grief process. Several factors will influence the amount of time necessary to begin normal functions and feelings.

First, the relationship with the deceased will play a major role in recovery time. The closer the relationship the more difficult it will be to move through the sadness and pain of the loss. The time and circumstances of the death will also be a factor. Sudden deaths, death by suicide, or a death around a special holiday may be some of the most difficult to process.

Another factor in the time needed for grieving is our own personality. How we respond to change and loss will influence how long the grieving process will take.

Will Professional Assistance Be Needed?

The American Psychiatric Association has long recommended that doctors refrain from diagnosing depression in individuals who have recently lost a loved one. Though the symptoms of grief mirror some aspects of clinical depression, grieving was seen as a legitimate explanation for the difficult expressions of behavior.

Advances in medicine and treatments allow many people with terminal illnesses to live years after the diagnosis. During this time patients and their families are able to resolve family differences, make arrangements for the death and burial, and follow a path of living up to the time of death. This time allows families to “prepare” for the coming death, and often minimizes the shock and chaos that often occurs with a sudden death.

During this time, the family and friends often form a tight-knit support group. They are able to keep the memory of the loved one prominent while beginning to function in a more normal way.

A key difference with depression is isolation rather than support. People suffering from clinical depression generally feel disconnected from others. They stay away from support groups, assistance or counsel. The grieving individual who avoids contact with family and friends, who stays away from support structures, may be at greater risk for clinical depression. Family and friends should encourage this individual to seek professional guidance.