Grief and Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
by Eleanor Haley
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.
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
- 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)
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.
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
- Go to bed when you feel sleepy.
- Get some form of moderate exercise during the day. However, you should avoid exercise in the hours before bed.
- Work a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea into your before bed ritual.
- Meditate! You can find simple tutorials on YouTube.
- Perform calm and relaxing activities in the hour before bed.
- 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 sleepfoundation.org.
- Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
- Talk to your doctor.