grieving person holding a broken heart

8 Ways to Sleep Better When You're Grieving

by
/ September 9, 2021

More of us than usual in a typical year have lost loved ones in the COVID-19 pandemic. As anyone who has ever grieved before knows, grief can seriously disrupt your sleep. And when you can’t get the sleep you need to stay physically and emotionally well, the difficult feelings that accompany grief can become overwhelming.

So how does grief affect sleep—and what can you do about it to ensure you're able to be present to your grief while not being consumed by it? Here's what you need to know. 

How grief impacts sleep

Let’s make something clear: You don’t “get over,” or “move on” from, an important loss. The loss will change your life forever, so it’s best to make sure you understand there is no stopwatch running on your particular experience. 

Adjusting to the loss takes time—sometimes a very long time—as you move through the grief process and eventually find a way to carry on. It takes effort to do that, and it can be tough when you sometimes may not even feel like moving.

Losing someone dear means you need to find new ways to take care of yourself—and sleep is one of the parts of everyday life that's likely to require some focused effort.

The cause of a loved one’s death can play a big role in the grief of those left behind. A suicide death, for example, can be particularly traumatic for survivors, compounded by stigma that can make it hard to reach out to others for support.

Losing a spouse is another big sleep disruptor. In fact, this particular loss may be the most likely to cause insomnia. Studies by Rice University and Northwestern University have found that people who were recently widowed were two to three times more likely to experience inflammation because of sleep disturbances. Inflammation has been tied to increased risk of cardiovascular and other negative physical effects.

Losing a parent is a rough experience for people of any age, though research shows younger children are more at risk for depression and other side effects after one of their parents has passed away. An estimated one in 20 children under age 15 will develop mental health issues after losing a parent during their childhood years.

Grief manifests itself in all sorts of physical and emotional ways. Many report feeling new aches and pains or generally feeling tired and having less energy.

“All of these symptoms,” writes Carolyn Burke at SleepAdvisor.org, “are not only partially caused by sleep deprivation, they also make getting to sleep even harder. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to the most common effect of grief on sleep: insomnia.”

Eleanor Haley, writing for the What's Your Grief blog, lists these reasons a griever may have a hard time sleeping after a death:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Worries and anxieties about stressors that have occurred as a result of the death
  • Bad dreams
  • Anxiety about having bad dreams
  • Trouble sleeping in the bed they shared with their partner
  • Disorders like depression, insomnia, and PTSD

Grief manifests itself in all sorts of physical and emotional ways. Many report feeling new aches and pains or generally feeling tired and having less energy.

Although grief typically begins to subside within the first six months after the trauma, people whose grief experiences don’t seem to lessen are potentially at risk for what is called “complicated grief,” “traumatic grief,” or “prolonged grief syndrome.” 

An estimated 7-20% of those coping with a loss experience the additional challenges of grief that continue to be immediate and intense. People who've had a difficult time dealing with earlier losses in particular may require extra help in coping with grief.

In short, grief and sleep loss can become locked in a vicious cycle where grief causes sleep problems and those sleep problems exacerbate the grief. 

Kristi Hugstad, grief recovery specialist and host of “The Grief Girl,” writes in HuffPost, “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 better when you're grieving

Hugstad offers these tips for helping you get a good night’s sleep if you're grieving:

  • Prepare the bedroom for sleep by making sure it’s cool and dark.
  • Talk to your doctor and get a complete blood panel to make sure there are no deficiencies that could be causing sleep problems.
  • Stick to a regular bedtime and wake-up routine.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine after 3 p.m.
  • Practice relaxation exercises before bed, such as yoga, breathing exercises, or meditation.

“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.”

Santa Monica, Calif.-based grief therapist Sandra Jacoby Klein, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Heavenly Hurts: Surviving AIDS-Related Deaths and Losses, says losing loved ones in the COVID-19 pandemic has had unique aspects that can complicate grief. 

These include isolation from in-person support systems (friends, relatives, therapists), being unable to be with the dying person, and fear of contagion if the ill person is living in the same house. Of course, there is also the potential for economic insecurity and disruption of routines and life events.

Klein shares a few special tips for those experiencing complicated grief :

  • Talk to the person who died before you try to sleep. Write down in a pre-sleep notebook your thoughts of what you want to tell, or discuss with, your departed loved one. This takes the thoughts out of your head and reduces the likelihood of intrusive thoughts keeping you awake.
  • Have an item that belonged to the deceased with you in bed.
  • Visualize a favorite place or activity that made you feel close to your loved one and comforted.

The bottom line on grief and sleep loss

Whether or not your grief experience is complicated, you can expect it to take time to move past the shock and trauma of losing a loved one and re-frame your life without your dearly departed.

While poor sleep is a common feature of grief, remember there are things you can do to improve your sleep even as you grieve.

By taking these steps to enjoy a good night’s sleep, you'll give yourself the best chance possible to stay emotionally well even as you live through this difficult experience.

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of trauma. Learn about the role sleep plays in keeping you resilient

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