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Sometimes, life sucks. You receive an unexpected bill or get into a stressful argument with a coworker. But you buckle down and pay up—in money or apologies—and then you move on. At other times, however, life isn’t that simple. And it more than sucks, it’s completely excruciating. You lose your job of 15 years or a loved one passes out of the blue. And you can’t just buckle down, make amends, and then move on. Instead, you’re left with grief and at risk of succumbing to the darkness of depression.

Just Grieving or Clinically Depressed?

Though the two often blur together, there is a difference between grieving and being clinically depressed. Sara Stanizai, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Prospect Therapy, is here to explain that difference and clarify when you should be concerned about the latter:

“Technically speaking, bereavement is allowed to last 6 months before it turns into diagnoseable depression. But as anyone who has experienced a tough loss—not just bereavement of a loved one, but the grief that can accompany any major loss, such as divorce, sudden unemployment, a cross-country move—can tell you, it often lasts much longer than 6 months. In many cases, you’re not the same person you were before the loss, and signs of depression can start to show themselves.

As we figure out how to cope with our new reality, learning how to go through the day can be confusing, overwhelming, frustrating, and painful. We might try to distract ourselves or disconnect from others. We may overcompensate and indulge in certain habits like over-eating, shopping, or not being able to spend time alone. We have trouble sleeping, or our schedule gets backwards and we sleep all day. These are the feelings and behaviors often associated with depression.

A major loss can exacerbate an existing, low-level depression that someone was generally coping with. But now that they’re taxing their emotional state, even little problems start to feel like insurmountable obstacles. If you find yourself not able to get some semblance of your routine back together, you might be experiencing more than simply grief. You may be in a depressive episode.”

4 Guidelines for Coping with a Tough Loss

Sometimes depression strikes without a moment’s notice. But if you’re dealing with a difficult loss—say you’ve lost your job or a loved one has passed—you’re in graver danger of falling victim to this disease. Fortunately, you can take action to prevent your grief from progressing into a clinical depression. First, “allow yourself to feel it and really go through the process,” Stanizai recommends. “There is the common analogy of grief as a wave—if you try to fight it, you’ll get pulled under. But by letting it carry you and trusting that you’ll touch back down eventually, the process can be resolved more easily.”

Also, be kind to yourself and trust that these difficult feelings won’t last forever. Furthermore, know when it’s time to reach out to loved ones for support or maybe even seek professional help. “Getting professional help can be a good idea when friends and family are not able to help,” Stanizai explains. “Experienced therapists will be able to assess for the difference between grief and depression and will get you the help that you need.” If you follow this advice, you can trust that you’ll heal properly and take good care of your mental health during this tough time. Now, to further ensure you’re equipped to do so, let’s break down this advice and identify a few guidelines for coping effectively:

    1) Feel to heal.
    The first guideline, in accordance with Stanizai’s advice, is to really feel your emotions. In order to truly heal, you must surrender to the pain. Don’t try to avoid or refute your feelings—welcome them instead. I know it’s tough to do, but you’ll be so glad you did later because it’ll get you a huge step closer to being your happy self again.

    2) Be extra kind to yourself.
    Remember when you were younger, how you’d get a lollipop after a shot at the doctor’s? The purpose of this simple treat was to make you feel better. Well, you might not get excited about lollipops anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself. Stanizai says you should be extra kind to yourself when you’re dealing with a difficult loss, just like when you had a rough day as a kid.

    3) Don’t shy away from support.
    Another of Stanizai’s tips is to lean on your loved ones. Don’t shy away from their support, and don’t think of yourself as a burden. Find the courage to say, “I need help;” to tell your friend you could really use someone to talk to (and a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream on the side.) And then watch as all of the support comes flooding in.

    4) Seek professional help.
    And finally, know when your loved ones can’t give you the help that you need. And to get that professional help if you think you need it or if you think you might benefit even the slightest bit. Remember, there is no shame in taking control of your life and prioritizing your wellbeing.

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