Sleep and Grief
April 19, 2019 / Reid M. Jacobs, APHSW-C, MSW
Sleep disturbance, such as difficulty getting to sleep or waking multiple times during the night, are common components of grief. The majority of those grieving the death of someone important to them will experience sleep disturbance during some part of their grief journey. Unfortunately, the effects of lost sleep can be profound and can complicate the grieving process itself. Sleep disturbance affects people on many levels. For example, lost sleep can make it difficult to think clearly, make decisions, increase stress, and impair memory. It can also worsen existing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, while also increasing the risk of new or worsened conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Researchers have found that ongoing insomnia can even weaken the immune system.
So, what to do about this component of grief? There are some basic tricks that can help anyone suffering from sleep disturbance. These are commonly referred to as sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is a series of habits that facilitate restful sleep. These habits are good practice for everyone, grieving or not. There are, however, some unique issues that affect someone who is grieving.
For example, someone who’s lost their spouse or sleeping partner may find sleeping in an empty bed difficult. It can become a constant reminder of the person who has died and the grief it triggers. These people may find some benefit from using a body pillow or letting a pet sleep on the bed. (No, there is no replacing a loved one, especially with a pet or inanimate object, but it can resemble the physical sensation that one has become accustomed to.) Sleeping on a spare bed or on the couch while the body adjusts are also good options to try.
Some people choose to use sleep aids such as prescription and over the counter medications, as well as herbs and supplements. Caution should be exercised when doing this. Some medications like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can cause drowsiness that helps one get to sleep, but it can interfere with the sleep cycle. This results in less actual rest and decreases the restorative / rejuvenating aspects of sleep, leaving one feeling tired and not rested the following morning. Herbs like valerian root and chamomile are effective for many. The supplement 5-HTP is also used, though there is limited clinical evidence to support its effectiveness. Melatonin can be helpful for those whose sleep/wake cycle is off (sleeping in the day, awake at night).
Before starting any of these sleep aids, you should talk to your doctor, especially if you take medications or have existing medical conditions. Be sure to tell your doctor about your grief and how it may be impacting your sleep.
Sleep Hygiene Basics
• Sleep in a cool room: Keep the room at a cool, comfortable temperature, around 60° – 65°; Too hot or too cold can make it difficult to sleep.
• Dark/dim room: Sleeping in a dark room helps with the circadian rhythm. Be aware that some clocks, phone chargers, and other electronics may produce enough light to interfere with sleep.
• Food: Avoid heavy, rich, spicy, and acidic foods in the evenings. These can cause stomach upset that can affect sleep.
• Regular sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. This helps train your body to sleep at certain times and avoids rebound effects on the weekends.
• Use the bed only for sleep and sex: Avoid using electronic devices or watching tv in bed. If you work from home, don’t work in the bedroom. Keeping the boundaries trains your brain to think of the bedroom as a place of rest.
• Alcohol and stimulants: Avoid coffee, caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and tobacco in the afternoon and evenings. These can make it difficult to sleep and affect the quality of the sleep you do get.
For more information about sleep hygiene, check out these websites: