While there are many signs and symptoms of grieving (see, “Allowing Grief to Run Its Course”) there is one that seems every griever has in common – difficulty sleeping. This can mean having trouble falling asleep, or being able to fall asleep but then waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to go back to sleep. It’s an especially frustrating symptom as a lack of sleep only serves to contribute to the weariness a griever is already feeling.
Grief is an exhausting process. A person who has lost a loved one will find their every waking moment filled with thoughts about their loss.
It can be in the form of questions….could I have done more? Or tried harder? Or saw a different doctor or sought treatment sooner? Or, what if I never let him leave the house that night? Should I have tried harder to get her to stop smoking? Or take better care of herself? Should I have seen the signs that he was doing so poorly?
Mixed in with the questions from the past, are the future worries. What comes next? Where will I go from here? How am I supposed to go on? How can I go to work and take care of the rest of my family now? Who is going to take care of me?
And finally, sleep can elude the griever as they find themselves consumed with the sights and sounds encountered leading up to their loved one’s death. Reliving what their loved one looked like in their final days, the sounds of their breathing or of their suffering. If the loss wasn’t following a long illness, the trauma can come from remembering the phone call that came, or the atmosphere of the hospital when they were told the news.
While these thoughts and worries exhaust the griever all day long, the night brings no respite. In fact, the quiet and lack of other distractions can mean that many people find themselves staring at a dark ceiling each night, as their body begs for sleep but their thoughts won’t allow it.
Problem is, a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of our well being, and as the mind and body try to heal from grief it is even more important. And yet, it is often overlooked as an important part of what it takes to help a griever begin to feel themselves again and move forward.
While so often after the loss of a loved one we can feel helpless, getting a good night sleep is actually within reach and something we can control (with patience and practice).
Some tangible tips and help for sleeping below:
Set a nighttime routine. Our bodies crave routine, and nothing can throw us off balance and out of sync like a traumatic life event. Making a plan for sleep that starts well before we head into the bedroom can be an important part of getting back on track. Eat light and healthy dinners that are less likely to cause upset stomach or indigestion. Make time for a relaxing activity – reading if you can find the focus for it, taking a walk with a pet or a friend, or watching an old movie or show that is relaxing and enjoyable (avoiding sad and stressful news channels if possible). Dim the lights and change into comfortable clothes. Try a bath or drink a cup of tea. You may find that now you need lights on and/or music or “noise” as you go to sleep. If it’s a change from your sleep routine before, don’t fight it. Do whatever it is you need to do to feel comfortable right now.
Try breathing exercises. So let’s say you’ve done all the above, you’re finally in bed and you still can’t sleep. What your brain needs at this point in the day is a distraction from the circulating thoughts and emotion. Start by reminding yourself that you can always return to the thoughts and the worries in the morning, but right now, what you need is sleep. Try a yoga or meditation class to learn more about breathing for relaxation, or research the following techniques online: 4 – 7 – 8 breathing, Complete Breathing, Ujjayi, or Alternate Nostril Breathing (that last one is a personal favorite). You can also look into Guided Meditation or Guided Imagery. While not a breathing exercise, exactly, it is a relaxation technique that should allow for quiet and controlled breathing. The internet is filled with guided imagery exercises, most of them including relaxing music and and peaceful images. A quick search on youtube yields almost 45,000 results, and they’re all free to use. Try a few and see what, if any, works for you. Bottom line, there is one thing that each of these techniques has in common: they offer a distraction. Because what your mind needs to be able to find restful sleep at sad and stressful times is a vacation from its own thoughts. Whatever technique you try, remember that it is serving simply to distract you from these circle of thoughts long enough to allow you to fall asleep.
Recognize when more help is needed. There may be times where a shift in routine or attempt at a relaxation exercise simply isn’t enough. If that’s the case? It’s okay, and you’re certainly not alone. Talk to your family doctor for ideas of what may help. Look into individual counseling. Perhaps one who incorporates relaxation techniques as a way of helping you cope. For many, the “sights and sounds of grief” can leave behind a trauma similar to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Look for a counselor who specializes in helping a person heal post-trauma. Some techniques to research include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Recognize that some of the repetition of these sights and sounds is simply your brain’s way of trying to come to grips with what’s happened as it’s still trying to process all that it’s seen.
In the end it comes down to being patient with yourself (and your thoughts). If you say you’re someone that can’t do it – that you’ve tried this before and it’s never worked – keep trying. Quieting and calming the noise in our own mind is more challenging and takes more practice than preparing to run a marathon. Don’t expect to be able to run 26 miles the first time out. And don’t expect to be able to still your racing thoughts with ease. Know that the images and the worries will try to make their way in, and that you will need to work to put them aside as you attempt to relax and fall asleep. Like so many other parts of the grieving process it takes work and it takes practice, but it is something that can be achieved. Time is not a healer on its own, but time does serve to help move us further away from the traumatic event. And with time, we may find the solace and respite of sleep can return to us once again.