Grief and Sleep
Author: Heather Stang
7 Tips to Cope with Insomnia After Loss
Coping with grief isn’t easy. In addition to the emotional toll, there are a myriad of physical side effects. Sleeplessness is perhaps one of the most frustrating symptoms – when you are sleepy and can’t sleep it just adds insult to injury. While insomnia is considered a common grief reaction, sleeplessness should not be ignored, but tended to mindfully.
When we don’t get enough sleep it impacts our immune system, our mood, and our ability to handle our day-to-day tasks. Simply put, a lack of sleep can make us feel worse.
If you are experiencing grief and sleep loss, there are many possible causes. If you have lost a spouse, your empty bed will no doubt be a reminder of your loss. In addition to losing your loved one, there are many secondary losses that contribute to additional stress, such as the loss of income, that can also keep you up at night. Even if your loved one did not share a bed with you, the loss can still impact your sleep.
Grief and Sleep Tips
Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to improve your “sleep hygiene” and invite slumber. It may take some time for restful sleep to return, but the actions below will get you there quicker. Your sleep is important to your healing, not only physically but emotionally too.
1. Exercise During the Day
Exercise can help with sleep disturbances. Your body may be tired, so choose an exercise that will not push your body pass its edge. Yoga for grief can help your body find its way back into equilibrium. A walk or hike will expose you to natural light, which will contribute to a healthy sleep cycle. Do not engage in vigorous exercise after 7 p,m.
2. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol After 3:00 p.m.
The National Sleep Foundation points out that even though alcohol can act as a sleep aid shortly after consumed, it disrupts the second half of sleep once your body begins to metabolize the alcohol. Caffeine, of course, is the antidote to sleep. Try increasing your water intake during the day, but avoid it an hour before bed.
3. Receive Massage or Bodywork
Therapeutic bodywork, such as massage, reiki, acupuncture or Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, can help your body relax and bring your system back into balance which will in turn help you sleep better. Some people can feel the Relaxation Response kick in while receiving bodywork, and even report feeling like falling asleep on the table or mat. If you do schedule an appointment outside of your home, ask a friend to drive you to and from your appointment so you can relax completely.
4. Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Sleep experts agree that the bedroom should only be used for sleeping and sex. Always avoid watching television or using electronic devices in your bedroom. If possible, set your thermostat between 65° to 68°. De-cluttering your room and including relaxing artwork, scents, and comfortable bedding can go a long way to make your room sleep approved.
5. Turn Off Electronic Devices 1 Hour Before Bed
Avoid using the computer or watching TV one hour prior to going to sleep. Make sure your room is dark. Recent studies tell us that blue light is most likely to contribute to alertness, so pay attention to the color of your digital alarm clock.
6. Keep a Grief Journal
Journaling for grief allows you to externalize your thoughts and stories. It can be a way to give yourself permission to discontinue the thoughts. Try journaling at least 30 minutes before bed, and imagine you can put everything down on paper that you are holding in your mind. You may also want to keep a sleep journal and pen by your bed, and write down any thoughts or sensations that are keeping you awake.
7. Choose to Relax Before Bed
Schedule twenty minutes before you want to fall asleep to do some conscious relaxation. This can provide a bridge between wakefulness and sleep, which will help you relax your muscles and calm your mind so you can rest, rather than toss and turn.
Other Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation Meditation: Your body has the natural ability to shift from stress to relaxation, you just have to know how to do it. The Relaxation Response or progressive muscle relaxation are two time-tested practices that can be done while you are lying in bed, so if you fall asleep you are already in place.
Yoga: A gentle, restorative or PM yoga practice 30 minutes before bedtime can help you calm your mind and release physical tension.
Soothing Sounds: Listen to natural sounds, such as ocean waves, or guided imagery as you fall asleep.
Aromatherapy Meditation: Combine aromatherapy with counting your breath. Put a few drops of lavender essential oil on a cotton ball, and hold it under your nose or place it on the pillow beside you. Begin to count each exhale starting with one and ending with 20. Then reverse the process, starting at 20 and ending with one.
Water Rituals: Take a warm bath or drink hot herbal tea as a bedtime ritual to invite restful sleep.
By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT: Heather is the author of Mindfulness & Grief and a member of the TAPS Advisory Board. She hosts The Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and leads self-care and meditation classes online through the Mindfulness & Grief Training Institute. She holds a masters degree in Thanatology, and is a certified yoga therapist. Visit mindfulnessandgrief.com to download guided meditations and learn more about her classes and book.
Responses from Survivors
Survivors recently responded to the topic of sleep through the TAPS Saturday Morning Message.
From Merry, mother of Wesley: My sleep patterns have been broken for as long as I can remember. I'm usually up every morning around 2am and have learned to accept the fact that this is my lot in life. I'm a very light sleeper. I use my tablet to listen to sermons or peaceful music and do breathing exercises to relax. I can usually get back to sleep eventually. Tart cherry juice has natural melatonin so I use that sometimes.
From Cheryl, mother of Jack: I have not found any answers about sleeping. I do drink a sleepy time tea and I try to ‘turn my brain off’ going to bed and reading. Sometimes when I wake at night I’ve tried to pray for family. I usually fall asleep before I get done. Other times I just give up and get up. I do the things as if it was time to get up.
From Perry, father of Christopher: In the weeks that followed the death of my son, my sleep habit had changed to where four hours was my norm. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sleep, it was more like I didn’t want to sleep. I remembered a speech I had heard by Adm. William McRaven on changing the world, one task at a time. I took his words to heart every morning when I woke up and made my bed. As I added more daily tasks to my list of accomplishments, I found sleep came a little easier with every passing day. Even today, almost 15 years later, I have bad days remembering things. Sleep can be hard. Even on a bad day no matter what happened at the end of the day, my bed I made myself is waiting for me. To me it is being mindful to do the little things with focus so that on the day big things happen, I am ready for them. I am not a tea drinker, but as a kind of reward on one of these hard days, I will fix myself a cup of tea. Depending on my day, I have several different teas to choose from, but each is mentally and physically relaxing to me.
From Carrie, wife of William: I've had a terrible time falling and staying asleep. I find exercising late in the day helps me to be tired when bedtime comes around. This is something I didn't do previously. I used to be a late sleeper, but since my husband passed, I'm up most days by 7 a.m. Guess this is my new normal.
From Sheryl, mother of Adam: My sleep has been deeply affected since my son's death. To help me sleep, I keep very regular bedtimes. Bed is for sleeping only and I shut off screens at least a half hour before my bedtime.
From Samira, mother of Andres: When I cannot sleep I make a tea with the skin from an apple (believe me, it works), and pray. I also hold Andres’ pillows. This helps me when I have that sleepless night.
From Sandra, mother of Joshua: I’ve always had sleep issues. After the death of my son, it became more difficult to sleep at night. With suggestions from my doctor and tips from the workshops at the TAPS seminars, I have tools to help me tackle my sleep issues. At the TAPS seminars I found Frank Campbell's workshop for people new to grief and the workshops on meditation extremely helpful. I open the blinds in the morning and close the blinds in the evening. Morning exercise is helpful for restful sleep at night. I love aqua jogging. I try to stop drinking all caffeinated drinks after 2 p.m. That means no tea, coffee or soda with caffeine after that time. The doctor also told me not to drink anything after 8 p.m. In addition, my room is completely black, because I have blinds and curtains. I have a rain sound on my clock, and I just recently purchased an aromatic diffuser.
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