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How Do I Differentiate between Grief and Depression?

by Linda Burhans, Caregiving Expert
March 28, 2013

Question: We recently found out that my husband is suffering from lung cancer. This news has been devastating for me and I am overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Am I experiencing grief or am I depressed?

Answer: Depression is a common problem for those living with lung cancer and their families as well. Many patients may blame themselves for developing lung cancer and feel stigmatized. Even lung cancer patients who have never smoked often feel that they are being blamed for their disease by friends, loved ones and even health care professionals.
 The first step is to understand the difference between grief and depression. It is perfectly normal and expected that you will experience sadness following a diagnosis of lung cancer. This disease is devastating, and it is important to go through the grieving process. Those who are grieving still find it possible to cope with daily life during cancer treatment. With clinical depression however, a sense of feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and even thoughts of suicide can interfere with your ability to cope.

Studies suggest that physicians do not screen adequately for depression in cancer patients and may not consider the caregiver at all, so it is important to be aware of some of the more common symptoms listed below:

  • persistent feelings of sadness
  • feelings  of guilt, helplessness, or worthlessness
  • loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • decreased energy
  • changes  in sleep habits — difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • feeling agitated or restless
  • loss of appetite
  • thoughts of death or suicide

If any of the above feelings  persist  or keep you  from functioning day to day, or get worse, it's time to seek help for the depression.

There are several ways to deal with depression related to lung cancer.

Anti-depressants can be very effective, but patients shouldn't rely solely on medication. Instead, they should deal with feelings and fears.

If you try to protect your family and loved ones from the cancer and all it entails, it could make the depression worse. When cancer comes into an individual's life, it also impacts their family.

As family members struggle with their own feelings about this disease, the patient may try to shield them from his own fears, and may not talk as openly with them.
That's where a support group for people with cancer and their loved ones can be particularly valuable. Joining a support group allows individuals dealing with the impact of cancer to connect with people who are on similar journeys. They can share their experience with others unedited and find support.

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Caregiver Advocate, Linda Burhans is the author of Good Night and God Bless, that talks about the emotional, rewarding and frustrating journey of her mother, during the final 18 months of her life. Good Night and God Bless offers inspirational messages of unconditional love, loss, joy, sorrow and humor for those caring for aging parents. Linda is sought after for speaking engagements and workshops for family caregivers, senior home health care and assisted living facilities.

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