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 earplugs 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 1 am.
  • Sleep in a well-ventilated room.  Aim for a temperature between 60-68 degrees.
  • If nighttime typically leads to a battle 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 meantime, 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. Additionally, I have heard some widows and widowers say that actually sleeping on their late partner’s side of the bad can bring them a sense of closeness.

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.



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 backward 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
  • 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.  

June 17, 2019

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

  1. I put my hubbys pyjamas on his pillow. Some days its comfort, others angry he isn’t here. I met him at 15, wed at 17 & now 63, so almost 47 total. I never been alone in my life. ours waslifelong obsession. STILLobsessed. Grief can start before they die .he had cancer so I was sleeping with enemy I could not defeat. I didn’t try hard enough. I had a breakdown but still had work full time while nursing him & got in trouble for poor performance! 3 wks before he died I got cancer and weeks later our grandson, 3, died. (They in same coffin). Besides cancer, hubby & grandson, 4 more died in 9 mnth. I went thru surgery and radiotherapy etc alone, seeing couples hug. 14 mths on just lost job. Point is life involves you like it or not, but u WON’T GET more sympathy if you get multiple crises. they think ur lying or they get fed up. They think counselling fixes it! For some ‘getting it off ur chest’ works, for me its reliving it & makes it worse. Tablets stop you crying but took my character away. With these two things a fat NO, even Doctor says nothing left to help. What does sometimes help is LISTENING to others like on here. Thanks guys.

  2. I have always taken a long while to fall asleep. So I used to read and soon would be asleep. But now my brain can’t focus on reading. Other widows have told me the same thing. Finally discovered that Apps like Calm work for me. It reads you a very detailed story to shut off your brain from other thoughts. I now fall asleep before the end of the story. I let my cat sleep on my bed since hubby died. The company is nice but she starts meowing at 06 for breakfast. 😝

  3. My dad passed away a month ago and all I do is cry and greif over this I don’t know what to do he was very much loved he had amonia that wouldn’t go away I can’t sleep at night I try so hard to sleep

  4. This article is actually great. You will learn a lot.

  5. My father has a last stage cancer and I think he has few months left. But I still can’t believe the fact that he won’t be there for long. And I just can’t do anything for him but sit helplessly and watch him in pain. I am very bad at sharing my emotions and all of a sudden it starts feeling like a burden around my heart. I was a heavy and happy sleeping person but all of a sudden my sleep is gone. It’s just like it vanished out of no where. I haven’t been sleeping almost since a month and I really don’t just what’s wrong with me. I try very hard to sleep, I also tried meditation and sleep music but I am still in my bed with open eyes at 5 o’clock in the morning. I am all stressed up and I want to sleep but I just can’t. I really don’t know what to do because I am not crazy but this thing is driving me crazy.

  6. This is really interesting, thanks

  7. My husband past away almost a year ago and haven’t been able to sleep right ever since. I be so tired through out the day but once it’s time for bed I can’t fall asleep. I know it’s not healthy for me I’m starting to get wrinkles around my eyes and forehead. I really wish there was something to help me sleep. it’s 4:27 AM right now this is my everyday life since my husband passed.

  8. My daughter got me this little thing called Dodow. It puts out a blue dot onto the ceiling that expands and contracts and you match your breathing to it. Concentrating on syncing your breathing and the light serves to block unwanted thoughts and the machine moves you into sleeping breathing rhythm. When you’re tired you just close your eyes and sleep- you can choose an 8 or a 20 min cycle and repeat it as many times throughout the night as you need. I’ve found it very helpful and love that it’s drug free.

  9. My mom unexpectedly passed away 2-1/2 weeks ago at the age of 46 from CHF she had no underlying conditions nothing. She passed away in her sleep and ever since then I’ve gotten one good night of sleep. I’m scared to go to sleep now bc it’s how she died.. what do I do to help me. I just need some guidance because I’m so lost. I’m 23 and don’t know what to do without my mama. I just need to get some rest…

  10. Lavender oil on pillow; Netflix in bed (despite it being poor sleep “hygiene”, it distracts my mind especially while in deep grief or trauma), magnesium, melatonin and cbd oil.

  11. Babywearing, flu, heartburn, and now sleep…if I didn’t know better, all these recent posts would make me think you were expecting!

  12. 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

  13. 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

    • 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.

  14. 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.


    • 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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,

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