Editor’s Note 4.28.20: Sara Bailey recently sent us a link to an excellent guide to sleep and grieving that we recommend. Here is the link:
The Catharsis of Loss: Tips for Better Sleep After Losing a Loved One
by Sara Bailey
People have trouble falling asleep for all kinds of reasons: Insomnia, stress, a poor mattress, illness and anxiety are just a few of the most common causes. Grief isn’t often thought as a major factor in sleep deprivation, but people in the throes of grief often experience insomnia. Grief is a slow and emotionally draining process that can elicit feelings of guilt and self-doubt, which manifest themselves in racing thoughts and an inability to shut off your internal monologue and the inevitable wondering of what might have happened if things had unfolded differently. Nighttime, when things quiet down and the mind races to fill the void, is when you’re most vulnerable, and your sleep is likely to suffer. There’s no easy way out of grief, but there are some steps you can take to improve your sleep situation. Here’s how to get started.
Establish a Routine
Our bodies acclimate easily to rhythms. Your system is accustomed to the rhythm of the seasons, the rhythm of each passing day, and even different phases of the moon. Establishing a bedtime routine creates a rhythm that you’ll get used to and which will make it easier to fall asleep at night. Your sleep strategy should start with the same bedtime each night so you know when to start ramping down. By the same token, it’s important to get up at the same time each morning so you maintain a regular sleeping/waking rhythm. It’s also a good way to return to a normal schedule if the loss of a loved one has brought chaos into your life. Remember that a restful, distraction-free sleep environment is also very important. Use a sleep mask, turn off all screens, and use a fan or white noise app to create steady, relaxing background noise.
Getting Ready for Sleep
Try incorporating restful, soothing activities into your pre-bedtime routine. These should be activities you find relaxing, such as reading a book, drinking a hot cup of tea (preferably decaf), or listening to some light, pleasant music. Anything that slows your heart rate and diverts your thoughts is helpful. However, be careful to avoid using alcohol or smoking, which introduces stimulants into your system that can affect your sleep.
Sometimes, the simplest approach is the best. Doing breathing exercises or engaging in activities that encourage deep breathing can be a great way to slow your metabolism and move you closer to a sleep state. Try taking a meditation or yoga class, which teaches purposeful and systematic breathing as you learn to stretch out and improve flexibility. If this proves ineffective, try focusing on a word, simple phrase or comforting imagery as you breathe, which will prevent your thoughts from drifting into the same old negative patterns.
A New Bed
It’s easy to overlook the obvious when you’ve tried everything else. Sometimes your mattress is the culprit, even if it doesn’t seem like you’ve had it that long. A mattress that supports your sleep style (on your stomach, on your side, etc.) is essential for restful, restorative sleep. If you decide it’s time for a new one, it’s more convenient to get a mattress at a lower cost and arrange delivery by buying online. While you’re at it, consider rearranging or redecorating your bedroom as a way of achieving closure and making a fresh start after the loss of a spouse.
It’s very hard to shut off the thoughts that dominate your thinking in the wake of a catastrophic emotional loss. Grief can take you over and turn normal, everyday activities upside down. Grief is natural; it’s an inevitable emotional catharsis, but your sleep and, consequently, your health don’t have to suffer while you’re working through it.