Are you depressed, or do you have transitional grief?
By: Lindsay Baish-Flynn, Masters Level Intern
When we talk about grief, we usually think about death. That’s because grief describes the specific sadness that we feel when someone dies. But actually, grief is the complicated set of feelings we have when we lose something that matters to us.
Because our lives are constantly changing, we experience loss regularly. We move out of old homes filled with warm memories. We change jobs and leave behind familiar faces. We end relationships with people that matter to us. Generally, we make choices that force us to end one chapter in our lives and move on to a new one.
Sometimes, the losses we face aren’t the result of conscious choices – they are the losses we experience due to life moving forward. For example, our relationships with our friends may change or even disappear as we get older and prioritize our families or jobs. Or maybe you used to have a hobby you loved, but due to the pressures of adulthood it has been years since you made time for it. That may seem like a small deal, but when we get disconnected from things that shape our identity, we may have thoughts like, “I really miss who I used to be”.
Whether the losses you experience are due to your choices or to the natural ebbs and flows of life, you may still feel the sting of missing what you once had. This is known as transitional grief. Transitional grief is the complex mix of feelings we have over the losses incurred when we transition through life’s milestones.
Loss is stitched into the human experience, and yet we often barely register – let alone take seriously – our natural reactions to that loss. We don’t even realize that we may be grieving. I have met with clients who say things like, “My life is going pretty well. I have no reason to be unhappy, but I feel really ‘blah’. I feel kind of sad and I don’t know why. Could I be depressed?”
Depression is always a possibility when someone feels continuously down. But before we slap label on, it’s important to understand the kinds of changes and losses a person is experiencing in their current life. A person may be grieving and not realize it. Grief and depression can look deceivingly similar, after all.
So how can someone tell if they in the throes of transitional grief? And if they are, what can they do about it? Here are some steps to consider:
- Take an honest inventory of losses – Give yourself a quiet moment to reflect on your life. What has changed for you? What people, places, things, feelings, or parts of your identity have you lost that you may miss? This reflection may bring up hard feelings. Pay attention to what those feelings are.
- Reserve self-judgment – You may be tempted to feel “silly” about grieving something like a job you quit or your kid going to college. Ask the judging part of you to take a step back. You’re allowed to feel sad about your losses – especially if what you lost matters a lot to you.
- Make space to mourn – Mourning is often confused with grieving, but mourning is the specific expression of sorrow connected to loss. This can take on many forms, including public acknowledgement – all the way to performing a ritual to commemorate who or what was lost. Consider what you lost and mourn in a way that feels commensurate with your grief.
- Make meaning from your grief – According to psychologist William Worden, there are four key tasks of grief. Experts have recently come to believe there is an additional task: making meaning from your loss. Transitional grief is painful, but it’s also an opportunity for growth. Think about what you have learned through change. How will this affect your choices and values moving forward? Is there anything you will do differently that honors what you learned through the loss?
Even if you take these steps, you may still find that it’s difficult processing transitional grief, which can sometimes lead to depression when left unexamined. When that happens, consider reaching out to your support network or a licensed counselor to help you navigate your loss.