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Grief and Depression

How to stop the downward spiral from grief into depression.

Depression and grief can feel a lot alike.

I know, because I have been grieving this week. My much-loved and aged former mother-in-law passed away quietly. I admired her, and her death has left my children in particular grieving for her. My much younger brother died the next day after a two-year take-over by cancer. He leaves a large family and a larger community diminished by his death. He is the epitome of a truly good man and leaves the world far better off because of his generosity in sharing his skills and his love. My kind oldest sister is perilously ill and in hospital now for weeks, with weeks to come if she is to recover.

I think about these things, and I don’t feel like doing much of anything. I want to sit and periodically break into tears. I want to eat foods that comfort me. I eyed the wine bottle in the fridge, but at my age, I know that won’t really help either.

These feelings can seem like depression. The lethargy, the wanting to bury feelings into food and drink, the wish for reality to be different. But the acute pain will wane. I know that too because of living through loss. When I was young and had losses this big, I did become depressed. Losing someone I loved was a death for me, even though he went on living without me. And losing a beloved one to death created a crisis of fear and sadness at the unfairness of it all. I am not alone in that either, because, for some people, grief devolves into depression.

Wallace Chuck at Pexels
Grief can overwhelm
Source: Wallace Chuck at Pexels

Succumbing to hopelessness can start the downward spiral.

If we let our dark thoughts take root and then isolate from others, those dark thoughts start to repeat without any argument. “I will never be happy again.” “I have lost the only thing that ever mattered.” “If good people die unfairly, how can I trust anything?” Feeling bereft – without hope and anchor-less – is a bad emotional state if one has no way to get back to the moorings of faith in oneself, faith in others, faith in God, faith in the universe. And that is where depression becomes so risky. Hope for change is what makes grieving so manageable even if so difficult. If one sinks into hopeless depression getting out again is so hard. One becomes stuck, revolving around the thoughts that life as we knew it is over, over, over. The future is void and dark, dark, dark.

Letting others help re-direct your negative thoughts is necessary.

I got out of that depression with the help of friends who reminded me that love is all around even if I did not see it at the moment. They pointed out where it existed. I got through it by using the tools of “one foot in front of the other”, and “you can decide later what, if anything, you should do about this.” I did good self care. (I am a therapist. I know not to stop walking or brushing my teeth.) I railed against unfairness in journals and I challenged the thoughts that I must be doomed to unhappiness or never getting what I deserve. (I reminded myself that many of us get undeserved good fortune and undeserved ill fortune. The rain falls on the just and on the unjust without regard to deserving.) I read the Desiderata until I shredded the paper from overuse. All that cognitive and behavioral action that gradually lifted me was encouraged and fine-tuned in therapy with a psychologist who did not tell me to stop being distraught but held out hope it would get better.

Matheus Viana at Pexels
Reach out
Source: Matheus Viana at Pexels

I am not afraid of sinking into depression today. I am older, wiser and less emotionally ragged than in my early adulthood. So I know what needs to happen to get out of my own way and let the grief move through and on. What helps is allowing the grief to build and spill over into tears. What helps is telling people I know about my loss. What helps is hearing them say they, too, feel sad. Feel sad for me, feel the loss themselves. As one friend remarked, “I know how you loved them, so I know what you have lost. And I grieve with you and for you to have this loss.” What helps is remembering that no state of being lasts forever, and I fully know that this grief too will dim, because I have had so many dark days that are only memories today in an otherwise cheerful life.

If you are grieving, reach out to as many people as you can. They won’t change reality but they might help you see that there is more than your loss waiting for you when you are done feeling it.