Grief and Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

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. She pushes everyone away, while at the same time wanting 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.

sleeping child

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 them 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.

Grief and Fatigue

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:

  • Ruminating about intrusive thoughts
  • Worries and anxieties about stressors that have occurred as a result of the death
  • Bad dreams, or anxiety about having bad dreams
  • Trouble sleeping in the bed they shared with their partner
  • Disorders such as depression, insomnia, and/or 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 suggests 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 a person to feel:

  • More easily frustrated
  • More easily overwhelmed
  • Irritable
  • Angry
  • Hostile
  • Depressed
  • Emotionally reactive
  • Less friendly
  • Less elated
  • Less empathetic
  • More negative
  • Hungrier and apt to eat more
  • More likely to get sick (i.e., weakens 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, 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.

Tips for a Good Night's Sleep

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. Seriously, 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.
  • 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 email.
  • Sleep in a well-ventilated room.
  • Aim for a temperature between 60-68°.
  • If nighttime typically leads to a battle over the blanket, consider having a blanket for each person in the bed. Sharing a blanket can actually make 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.
  • 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.

When There's An Empty 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 emotions. 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. That said, 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. It can also help to stick to a generally consistent bedtime and try to get up around the same time each day.

The Dos and Don'ts of a Good Night's Sleep



  • Take naps late in the day. In fact, you might want to avoid them altogether.
  • Use the bed for anything other than sleep *wink*wink*.
  • Drink caffeinated beverages in the evening or even in the afternoon. Read about how caffeine affects sleep here and here.
  • Smoke before bed (or at all). Nicotine is a stimulant that can lead to sleep disturbances.
  • Drink alcohol before bed. Sure, that glass of wine might relax you enough to fall asleep, but your sleep cycle suffers as the body works to break down the alcohol and you end up having a restless night of sleep.
  • Expose yourself to harsh light from bright indoor lights and electronics 1-2 hours before bedtime.  These bright lights can trick the brain into thinking it's earlier in the day and lead it to suppress melatonin (the body's natural sleep chemical).

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.
  • When you can't stop your mind from racing or if you struggle with negative intrusive thoughts, try thinking of something cerebral or calming. For example, try counting backward from 1000 by 3's or thinking of a girl's 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.  

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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24 Comments on "Grief and Getting a Good Night's Sleep"

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  1. Nell T  September 15, 2022 at 7:17 am Reply

    I havent fully slept a night in the last few months since my mother died. I had been sleeping in her room in order to assist her if she needed it. I spent so many nights getting up with her or even talking together in the middle of the night when she’d wake. I think I was so used to being alert every night, I wake out of the habit of checking on her. I know that I will finally adjust but, right now, I’m just tired. I’ll take on these suggestions and hope they will help.

  2. Juanita Sanchez  May 15, 2022 at 11:24 am Reply

    It’s been 8 months first 4 1/2 months no sleep then slept ok for 2 months now it’s stared up again struggling for sleep so tired will I ever get my sleep back. I lost mom, dad n brother n I AM 73 how much can I take at their age it’s so scary. I pray n pray n that is all I can do

  3. Curtis  October 1, 2021 at 11:40 am Reply

    I am a Grief Transition Specialist. Some other helpful hints when sleep is evasive. Approximately 2 hours prior to be take a shower as hot as you can stand and then gradually turn it down to be a cool but not cold shower. Dry off and put on your pajamas. Another thing that works for many is to eat the carbiest meal of the day later in the day or eat a bowl of cereal but not sugar cereal shortly before bed. Carbs help your body know it is time for sleep. In addition to all electronics out of the bedroom that should include the alarm clock too. Don’t look at the time during the night either as that can make one anxious as well about sleep.

  4. Angela Waterford  April 20, 2021 at 7:28 pm Reply

    Thanks for reminding me that the lack of sleep can cause many different health problems such as an increase in the risk of obesity, and getting a stroke. My aunt confided in me last night that she has been having trouble sleeping ever since her husband died. This article will definitely be helpful for her so I’ll forward this to her and maybe advise her to also check in with a doctor for possible medication recommendations to help her sleep.

  5. Olivia Ava  October 27, 2020 at 1:56 pm Reply

    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

  6. Christine Lea  June 28, 2020 at 5:50 am Reply

    Hi everyone, I guess I’m not alone. It’s 5:23 am. Another sleepless night. Exactly one month ago today, I lost both my Father and Husband, 3 hours apart due to separate circumstances. It’s too much to bear, losing the 2 most important men in mine, my mother and daughter’s lives. I keep asking Why ? Why both ? Why ? Why why ? I’ve always had sleep problems due to PTSD. Just intensified now. Now 3-4 days no sleep. I was “googling” if it’s normal not to be able to sleep after a death and found this article & comment section. Thank You for making me feel “normal” at a time when nothing is normal anymore. Thank you for sharing your personal stories as well. We all have something in common, we are grieving and our world has been turned upside down. I never, in a million years, thought my Dad wouldn’t be here, he was in his early 70’s. My husband was in his early 50’s. So much living left to do for both of them. So many plans still undone….Now my mom, daughter and I must all find the strength, courage and determination to move forward. I know we can. We must. As hard as it will be. I wish you all comfort, peace, sleep and healing- Christine

  7. Dira  January 15, 2020 at 9:28 am Reply

    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. ?

  8. Sisie  November 22, 2019 at 2:36 am Reply

    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

  9. Stranger  March 27, 2019 at 3:21 pm Reply

    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.

  10. My  January 11, 2019 at 7:28 am Reply

    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.

  11. Liz DeVree  August 17, 2018 at 10:19 am Reply

    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.

  12. Brianna  July 21, 2018 at 7:30 am Reply

    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…

  13. Denise Morett  February 13, 2018 at 6:52 am Reply

    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.

  14. Denise Morett  February 13, 2018 at 6:52 am Reply

    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.

  15. LYKID  August 15, 2017 at 10:34 pm Reply

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

  16.  May 16, 2017 at 6:30 pm Reply

    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

  17. Jane  September 28, 2016 at 1:48 pm Reply

    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

    • Eleanor  September 28, 2016 at 7:35 pm Reply

      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.

  18. Olivier Poirier-Leroy  January 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm Reply

    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.


    • Yam Kahol  August 1, 2016 at 4:54 pm Reply

      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.

  19. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)  November 4, 2014 at 6:07 pm Reply

    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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