Grief and Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

When my 5-year-old daughter is tired it’s obvious to everyone but her. As far as she’s concerned, everything is awful.   Nothing pleases her and nothing can possibly make her feel better. Confusingly, she pushes everyone away while at the same time wants to be coddled and let me tell you, holding her when she’s cranky is like trying to snuggle a porcupine. Come back when you’re a little less prickly, kid.

Anyone who’s ever encountered a child probably knows what I’m talking about. Kids are really bad at hiding their fatigue, which is too bad for 10690022_736374536398820_1089383235513699085_nthem because there’s nothing they hate more than being told they seem tired. Grown-ups hate this too, but mostly because the subtext is ‘Yikes, you look terrible’.

Fatigue is far more difficult to spot in adults; usually it only shows on our faces or maybe in a lethargic demeanor. Many adults are just so used to feeling various levels of exhaustion that they themselves might not realize how sleep deprived they truly are.

It’s common for people to experience a change in their sleeping pattern in the days, weeks and months following the loss of a loved one. Grievers may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.  On the other end of the spectrum, grievers may find it difficult to stay awake (‘when the going gets tough, the tough goes to bed,’ I like to say).  Reasons why a griever might have difficulty sleeping after a death include…  

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Worries and anxieties about stressors that have occurred as a result of the death
  • Bad Dreams
  • Anxiety about having bad dreams
  • Trouble sleeping in the bed they shared with their partner
  • Disorders like depression, insomnia and PTSD

For some grievers lack of sleep is so pervasive that it’s impossible to ignore its impact; but for many the loss of sleep seems marginal and, when you’re dealing with more obvious and painful stressors, it’s easy to overlook the impact fatigue might have on your emotional outlook. Unfortunately, if you aren’t cognizant of the importance of a good night’s sleep, then you’re far less likely to see it as necessary in your grief.

Research shows that long-term sleep deficits can lead to accelerated skin aging, increased risk of stroke, decreased bone density, increased risk of obesity, increased risk for heart disease, and increased risk for cancer and premature death. Not only that, but the effects felt after even a night or two of poor sleep can turn an otherwise reasonable adult into a cranky 5 year old.  For grievers, this puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with the complicated emotions of grief.  Lack of sleep may lead to…

  • Low tolerance for frustration
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Irritably
  • Angry
  • Hostile
  • Feeling more depressed
  • Greater emotional reactivity
  • Less friendly
  • Less elated
  • Less emphatic
  • Negative
  • Hungrier and apt to eat more
  • Weaker immune response

Although what constitutes a full night of sleep varies from person to person, 7-8 hours are typically considered sufficient.  If you find you hover around 6 or fewer hours of sleep a night, for whatever reason, you may want to consider making a few changes.  Although it sometimes seems like grief and sleep cannot co-exist, adequate sleep for the grieving is essential.

Litsa and I have put together a few practical and basic suggestions for sleeping better, but we are by no means sleep experts.  If you’ve already tried everything we’ve compiled here and you’re still having difficulty sleeping, you may want to speak with your doctor or therapist. This is not a subtle suggestion to take sleep medication, but a recommendation to speak with a professional who might suggest interventions you haven’t tried or refer you to a sleep specialist in your area.

Sleep Environment:

Having an environment conducive to sleep is an important part of getting the rest you need.  Off the top of my head I can identify several things in my own bedroom that contribute to poor sleep – buzzing phones, the bright street lights outside, children sleeping in my bed – I’m doing it all wrong.  It’s a good idea to eliminate elements that contribute to wakefulness and arrange your sleeping quarters in a way that is actually focused on sleeping.  This means you might want to do the following…

  • Block out as much light as possible at night.
  • Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask if necessary.
  • Leave your phone in the other room so you don’t wake up every time you receive an e-mail and furthermore so you aren’t tempted to check your email at 1am.
  • Sleep in a well ventilated room.  Aim for a temperature between 60-68 degrees.
  • If nighttime typically leads to a battles over the blanket, consider having a blanket for each person in the bed.  Sharing a blanket often makes you more aware of your sleep mate’s every move and can increase heat.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable – this means a good mattress, pillows and bedding.  Check out this guide for more on the bed.
  • If you don’t have one already, find a source for white noise.  Those of you who grew up without air conditioning know that once you get used to the whir of a box fan, you can never sleep without white noise again.  White noise blocks out sudden variations in sound which many are hardwired to attend to during sleep (like mothers of newborns).
  • Avoid doing anything stimulating, frustrating, or anxiety provoking in the bed or bedroom.  You want your brain and body to associate the bed and bedroom with sleep.
  • Check out this the ideal bedroom guide for sleep.

A note on the other side of the bed:  Sadly for those whose partner has died the emptiness of the other side of the bed can trigger painful memories and difficult emotion.  Obviously you can try and rearrange the room, get a new bed, or sleep in another room of the house.  This might help for some, but for many the sense of sleeping beside someone transcends their bedding and the arrangement of the objects in their room.  Sleeping alone is just one of the many things those who’ve lost a partner must learn to live with.  In the mean time, maybe let the dog sleep on the bed if he promises not to slobber or get a body pillow.  I know that sounds silly, but comfort can be found in the strangest of places.

Routine and Ritual:

I personally detest routine so I try to pretend this isn’t a thing, but 10 out of 10 experts agree establishing a bedtime routine is an effective way to tell the brain it’s time to wind down and get ready to sleep.

Rituals might include things like setting the lights down low an hour before bed, reading a chapter in a book, snuggling with your mate or furry friend, taking a warm bath, journaling listening to soothing music, meditating and do whatever it is you do to stay beautiful.  Stick to a generally consistent bedtime and try to get up around the same time each day.

Don’t:

Do:

When you can’t sleep:

  • Try a relaxation exercise.
  • Get out of bed and go to a darkened room for 30-60 minutes.  Read a book or try journaling about whatever you’re feeling or struggling with.
  • You know the old ‘never go to bed mad’ adage? Well there may be a grain of truth in working to resolve the conflicts that keep you awake at night.  For many it’s the things they’ve yet to do, fix or settle that tend to occupy their thoughts as they lay in bed.
  • Are you having nightmares or are worried about having them?  Consider the level of anxiety, fear, worry and trauma you’re dealing with.  As you cope with the loss some of this will ease, but if you continue to have nightmares you may want to talk to a counselor or check out this book on Grief Dreams.
  • When you can’t stop your mind from racing or if you struggle with negative intrusive thoughts, try thinking of something cerebral or calming like counting backwards from 1000 by 3’s or thinking of a girls name for every letter of the alphabet.  Here’s a completely unsubstantiated tip that works for me every time; when I can’t sleep I make up a day-dream type of story in my head that is so far fetched it doesn’t intersect with any areas of worry, stress or excitement in my real life.  I just imagine that I, at the age of 33, have finally become a broadway star and before I make it to the opening act I find I’m drifting off to sleep.  I know that sounds really silly, but honestly a lot of coping is.
  • Check out the website sleepfoundation.org.
  • Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  • Talk to your doctor.

Have a tip for helping us sleep?  Share it in the comments below.  We are going to dive into posts about the holidays over the next few weeks so don’t forget to subscribe to receive posts to your inbox.  

March 28, 2017

8 responses on "Grief and Getting a Good Night's Sleep"

  1. [email protected]May 16, 2017 at 6:30 pmReply

    My mom past away a month ago and since then my sleep is very poor I work at night and get off at 5am I have tried teas and medication still nothing I’m so scary if lossing everything what can I do

  2. My mum just passed away ten hours ago and I cannot sleep. It’s 3:46. I have put lavender oil on my hear bag and am trying to just relax. I am due to give birth in 7 weeks with my first child. please help me

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Ohhhh Jane I’m so sorry. I’m sure that your brain and your body are working in overdrive. I truly wish there was something I could do to help. I will say that getting fixated on not sleeping usually makes the problem worse. As the article states, sometimes the best thing you can do is get up and go read in a dark room and then try again later. I know that feeling of being awake in the middle of the night while everyone else is sleeping can drive you mad. I hope that you’ve found some rest by now, or that you do soon.

  3. Olivier Poirier-LeroyJanuary 21, 2016 at 1:45 pmReply

    Great list.

    I would add using a gratitude journal or creating a gratitude list if you find that your mind is still racing at the end of the day.

    -Olivier

    • Yes! I whole-heartedly agree with you. I created a gratitude jar in which I put now and then pieces of paper where I write what I’m grateful for. All those pieces of paper are also there for me to read and be reminded of, when I dont feel like writing or am having a moment when I can think of my blessings.

  4. Wonderful, insightful piece! Electronics definitely do play a part on why more and more people have sleeping problems nowadays, as well as stress. It’s definitely a great idea to identify the problem to be able to fix it. http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ted-levin/5-questions-personal-trainers-shoul%E2%80%A6

  5. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)November 4, 2014 at 6:07 pmReply

    Having written on this topic myself, Eleanor, I really appreciate your noticing and pointing out the similarities between an exhausted mourner and an over-tired child, both of whom can fail to recognize their need for sleep. I’ve shared your post and added a link to it beneath my own, Tips for Coping with Sleeplessness in Grief, http://bit.ly/hkoXnZ

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