Grief and Sleep, Part I

Grief and Sleep, Part I
September 27, 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 that this 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 who’s 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.

For more information about sleep hygiene, check out these websites: