When we wrote about why, for some, grief feels worse in the morning, we knew that we would immediately have some people telling us their grief is worse at night. We did. And then, no surprise, we had some saying their grief is worse in the morning AND at night. Like so much in grief, there are no universals. A huge part of grief is figuring our your own grief and your own coping. So if you happen to be one of the people who find their grief to be worse at night, read on. If you’re not, don’t worry, you’re normal too.
As to why grief is worse at night for some people, there is no single answer. We have our ideas. We asked this WYG social community, you all had ideas. We’ve checked the research, even more ideas. We can’t cover them all, but here are some of the most common themes.
(Oh, and if grief makes the thought of reading feel like an insurmountable barrier, just watch the video below. It gives a full summary of this post).
Reasons Grief Can Feel Worse At Night
- Insomia or other sleep disturbances. This is pretty obvious – grief impacts sleep for many people. Whether it is having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep, when your sleep is disrupted it can create anxiety, time for rumination, and just general discomfort. Grief is physically and emotionally draining, so this inability to sleep can then cause extreme frustration and distress at night. This study of 815 bereaved college students found that they were far more likely to experience insomnia than their non-bereaved counterparts.
- There are no distractions. During the day, work and errand might keep your brain consumed and busy. It certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t being impacted by grief during the day. It just means you might experience breaks while your brain is forced to focus on other things. The night, for many, brings long hours of empty or unstructured time for your brain to focus on the thoughts and emotions of grief.
- You’ve lost a nighttime companion. Be it a spouse, child, roommate, parent, or anyone else who lived with you, if you lost a person who you often spent your evenings with, evenings and nights might make you especially aware of their absence. When they aren’t there to cook a meal together or to watch a favorite show or talk about your day or fill the spot on the other side of the bed, it can create a pit of nighttime loneliness that feels bottomless.
- It’s dark. I know, this sounds dumb. But it is real. For many people, darkness has an impact on mood and motivation to do things. At times of year when it gets dark earlier in the evening, it can zap motivation to participate in evening activities and it can lower overall mood.
- Rumination. Never heard of it? It is when our brains go over and over things going on in our lives. The brain tries to make sense of them, often obsessing. Now, don’t get me wrong, rumination can happen at any time. It just happens to be especially common at night. Often when people get into bed, their brain starts ruminating over their loss and just can’t stop. With no one and nothing around to break up the rumination, it can continue to cycle.
- You’re spent by the end of the day. Often people grieving have spent a lot of time and energy holding it together. By the time night rolls around, there just isn’t any more energy.
So, the million-dollar question: what do you do if your grief feels worse at night?
Tips if your grief is worse at night
- Plan some evening and nighttime activities. This doesn’t have to mean going out and being social if you aren’t up to it or ready. It might mean some crafts, house projects, video games, books, puzzles, art, or other activities to busy your brain in the evenings. We don’t suggest avoiding and distracting all the time, but your brain needs breaks (one of our favorite grief theories, The Dual Process Model of Grief, talks all about that). Whether it be in or out of the house, having some things to break up your time and distract your brain can help.
- Follow the tenants of good sleep hygiene. We have a whole post on grief and getting a good night’s sleep here, so check it out for more details. But some quick reminders:
- Try to go to bed and get up at the same time.
- No screens in your bedroom.
- No screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
- Create a bedtime routine, so your brain knows you are winding down.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Don’t go to bed too early. The reality in grief is that sometimes people start sleeping to much. It is a nice way to avoid all those difficult feelings that come with loss. If you find yourself trying to sleep your evenings away, just to avoid the pain of loss, this can develop into a risky cycle. Set a regular bedtime and keep check on how many hours you’re sleeping. We don’t want you to suffer with insomnia, but we also don’t want you sleeping 14 hours a day. Sleeping too much can actually make you feel worse over time, and when we sleep to avoid we don’t learn how to cope with and manage our grief in healthier ways.
- Keep your substance use in check. While we’re on the topic of avoidance, let’s keep an eye on substances too. If you aren’t sleeping to avoid, you might be using alcohol or another drug to numb some of those difficult feelings. If you are, this can feel good in the short term, but can quickly make you feel worse in the long term. We have a post about keeping substance use in check while grieving here.
- Remove stress from your evenings. If you are feeling depleted by the energy you are using all day to just survive, try to increase your relaxation time at night. If people have asked how they can help, take them up on it. Ask them to run kids to sports or help out with a meal. It can be hard to ask for help, we get it. But often people truly want to help us, and something that is small for them can feel huge for you. If cooking meals feels like it is creating too much stress after a draining day, consider a meal delivery service or meal-prepping for the week.
- Do some writing. Journaling in the evenings has been shown to help people sleep and reduce. In this study, even just 5 minutes a night helped people feel better able to sleep at night. There are tons of benefits of journaling in grief you can read here. If you need some help and direction with your journaling, you can take our self-paced journaling ecourse to get you started. It includes thirty grief journaling prompts, along with educational lessons to better help you explore your grief.
- Enlist friends. If you used to talk with your loved one regularly in the evenings and now you have no one to talk with, reach out to others. This is never going to replace talking with your loved one, but it can be nice to have someone to catch up with and process the highs and lows of your day. Having a little connection with someone you care about in the evenings can make them feel a little easier.
- Assess your evening social media use. Social media can be the best and the worst. If you find a connection in online spaces at night, they might be a good support (as long as you still quit that screen-time an hour or two before bed). But if you realize that social media is triggering you in the evenings, you might want to save it to use as a morning or lunchtime activity. Often checking social has become a mindless habit, so try to be aware of how it is impacting your mood.
- Consider counseling. If thoughts like guilt and regret, or anxiety about the future, are keeping you up at night, counseling can help. A good therapist can help you process some of those emotions and also learn tools to better manage those tricky thoughts and feelings that might have you stuck or ruminating at night.
- Make an evening commitment. If you wish you were getting out in the evenings, sometimes commitment helps. Sign up for or commit to with a friend can be the boost you need. Sign up for a weekly class. Join a book club, rec sports team, volunteer job, or find an accountability buddy to go to the gym with. You don’t want to keep so busy that you are avoiding. But having a confirmed activity a couple of nights a week can offer some distraction if nights are tough.
Share your suggestions! We know you probably have tips too, so leave a comment to share your experience and what works for you.