Harvard Mental Health Letter

Understanding grief and loss

Bereavement shares much in common with depression.

Sooner or later, everyone will grieve the loss of a close relative or friend, whether the cause is a sudden heart attack, a car accident, or the more prolonged physical ravages of disease or age. Each year, more than two million men, women, and children die in the United States, leaving behind many others who mourn them.

Although grief is nearly universal, it expresses itself in many different ways and at times resembles major depression. Frequent crying spells, depressed mood, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite are common during the bereavement process, for example. Even so, mental health professionals have typically viewed the process of grieving as a normal response to loss and not an illness to be treated.

For instance, in an essay titled "Mourning and Melancholia," Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote words that have been quoted frequently in the literature on grief: "[A]lthough mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude toward life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to a medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful."

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