Not-So-Goodnight? Why Grief Is Leaving You Sleep-Deprived

05/07/2017 08:25 pm ET Updated May 08, 2017
Sleep disruption is common when you’re experiencing grief. Here’s what you can do about it.
The Grief Girl
Sleep disruption is common when you’re experiencing grief. Here’s what you can do about it.

C.S. Lewis said, “And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief.”

You’re tired. You’re exhausted. You can’t sleep. You can’t function. Your energy is gone. Your grief isn’t just in your head; it’s in your body, in your muscles and in your ability to keep going every day. Grief manifests itself in all of us differently, but most people suffering from grief experience disruption of their sleep habits. Whether you’re suffering from insomnia or simply find yourself tired all the time, your ability to heal is greatly impacted by sleep.

The link between sleep and grief

You’ve never been an insomniac before, but now you’re up all hours of the night. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not abnormal. A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that sleep disturbances were common in bereavement – both for those widowed late in life as well as those suffering from “complicated grief” (also referred to as prolonged grief disorder or traumatic grief). Additionally, the study found that treating sleep disturbances can help people recover from their bereavement.

In other words, grief causes sleep problems, and those sleep problems in turn exacerbate the grief. Of course, we already know that a lack of sleep can also contribute to other problems, like weight gain, depression, a compromised immune system and accidents to name a few. Breaking the cycle can seem daunting, but it’s something I work on with all my clients. Sleep is crucial for healing – both emotionally and physically, and it’s important to remember that grief can be as physically debilitating as it is emotionally.

How to sleep when you’re grieving

Sleeping might seem like second nature – after all, you were born able to sleep. But as you grieve, sleeping can feel anything but natural, as your mind and emotions take over. That’s why it’s critical to “learn” again how to fall asleep and stay asleep. In my book, What I Wish I’d Known: Finding Your Way Through the Tunnel of Grief, I outline in detail how to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep while you’re grieving. My top tips include:

  • Prepare the bedroom for sleep by making sure it’s cool and dark. You might consider getting a new bed if yours is uncomfortable. Invest in good bedding.

  • Talk to your doctor and get a complete blood panel. This may pinpoint any deficiencies that could be causing sleep problems.

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and wake-time routine.

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine in the evening.

  • Practice relaxation exercises before bed, including yoga, breathing exercises or meditation.

  • Limit daytime naps.

  • Repeat thought anchors (more on that in my book).

What worked for me

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you already know my husband, Bill, completed suicide. After his death, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep, and my life reflected it. I was in a fog, and even tiny decisions were impossible for me to make. Eventually I realized that getting stressed out about my sleep problems was just exacerbating the problem. I started to consciously shift my negative associations with sleep to positive thoughts. I also saw my doctor and realized I was deficient in magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium is essential to good sleep, so I now take supplements to help.

Now, I only go to bed when I’m truly exhausted. And if I haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes I get up, read, meditate or speak thought anchors out loud. I don’t turn on the TV or look at my phone. My bed is my sanctuary and I associate it with positive thoughts.

If you’re grieving, it might seem impossible to think you’ll ever function “normally” again – including getting regular, quality sleep. But sleep has never been more essential than in bereavement, when you need strength to heal.

Remember, as E. Joseph Lossman said, “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

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