Grief is inevitable in life. When we lose something or someone we love, we find ourselves hurt and lost. For those grieving, nighttime is often the worst time of day. It forces us to come face to face with our loss. The darkness can bring all those dark feelings with it. That can cause us issues sleeping and we begin to experience insomnia. Insomnia can leave us exhausted and hurting, making it harder to process our grief as we struggle to make it through our day-to-day life. Long-term insomnia can have long-term consequences for our health and general well-being. Fortunately, there are ways to help those with insomnia. If you are struggling to sleep while grieving after a loss, we've put together this guide to improve your sleep hygiene and get some rest.
For many people, grief can become complicated grief. Complicated grief is when a person experiences symptoms of grief that persist for six months or longer. One of the most common symptoms of complicated grief is insomnia. Grief over the loss of a person is not the only kind of grief that can cause a lack of sleep. Grief can come in the form of sorrow in the loss of anything important to you, whether a relationship, opportunity or even a part of your life. It's not always so simple. We'll explore a few types of grief commonly associated with insomnia.
When we think of grief, we immediately think of the complex emotions we face after the death of someone we care about. It’s the most common kind of grief human beings experience.
For many of us, our pets are our family. They are with us through everything and offer unconditional love. They are always there for us at the end of the day offering company and affection when we need it most. Pets matter – and losing one also matters. Losing a beloved pet can affect us in many ways.
Death isn't the only reason we grieve. We may be struggling with the loss of opportunity or losing our job. Being let go from your job – and your main source of income – can be absolutely devastating and completely shocking. It can cause economic anxiety – Where will I work? How will I afford to live? What happens to my family? That stress can easily cause us to lose sleep at night.
The death of a relationship sometimes feels very much like someone has died. In a way, they have. If you have parted ways with someone, then you will perpetually feel their loss as the relationship has intrinsically changed. When someone is no longer in our lives, we often miss them at the strangest moments. For friendships and romantic relationships, we can often find ourselves lying awake at night wondering why these things happen.
When our body betrays us or we find ourselves struggling after a permanent injury, we may also be mourning the loss of our autonomy. Finding yourself unable to move or use your body in ways we've done for years can be incredibly stressful, infuriating, and scary. If you were in an accident, you may find yourself lying in bed reliving those moments or fearing nightmares about them.
Depending on the injury and circumstances, you may also be struggling with some form of accompanying PTSD, which causes insomnia in itself. You can read more about PTSD in Everything You Need to Know about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What keeps you up at night? It's not always simple to answer that question. Insomnia often comes from several complex factors and emotions. The end of the day is the easiest time for grief to set in. As we wind down from the distractions of the day, we begin to think about our loss and the things that come with it.
One of the worst things that come from grief is loneliness. You face a reality where you have to learn how to do everything without that person in your life. Essentially, you are re-learning how to live. It's exhausting but also terrifying. You miss the person (or pet) so much that it's all you can think about. They're gone. It disrupts your entire nighttime routine, doesn't it? Maybe you used to text before bed or maybe it was time to catch up with one another about your day or plan the next. You don't have that in your life. No matter how many other things you have, you're still going to feel that absence.
If you’ve lost a partner or spouse, few things bring your grief and loss to the forefront the same as facing an empty bed at the end of the day. It becomes something you dread during the day, which can heighten your stress levels and even cause adrenaline to spike. You may avoid your bedroom or bed to avoid facing that loss. The same is also true for losing a pet, especially if they slept with you or were part of your nightly routine.
Your grief doesn’t stop at the end of the day. It usually just gets worse. Your grieving brain may have problems sleeping because you can't make yourself stop thinking about your loss. Consequently, your lack of sleep leaves you unable to concentrate on anything beyond your grief. That makes it harder to adjust. You can find yourself in a cycle where you can't sleep due to grief, and then the exhaustion from not sleeping makes you unable to manage your grief. It just starts the process over.
Stress is one of the biggest contributors to chronic insomnia. If you are worried about your future or life after a loss, then bedtime gives you too much time to do that worrying. Your thoughts may cycle through concerns about work, finances, other relationships, family, and your health. The cycle never seems to stop, leaving you lying awake in the early hours of the morning.
Anyone who has ever suffered a loss can be affected by insomnia. There’s no typical case for grief as much as there’s no typical person who develops insomnia at any given time.
If this is the child’s first encounter with death, they may experience a lot of fear and uncertainty surrounding the loss. A person they loved is suddenly gone. They may not understand why or how it happened and even if they do, they may be afraid that it could happen to them. Many times, we explain death to small children as “[the person] is sleeping” or another similar euphemism. That can make the children fear sleep or cause bedtime anxiety.
Losing a spouse may be the biggest cause of grief-induced insomnia. It also contributes to depression and other health issues. This can be attributed to how profoundly this loss changes our entire life. From shopping habits to cooking, nothing is the same after losing a romantic partner. As we said above, there are few things worse than facing an empty bed at the end of a lonely day. Widowed individuals make up the largest group of people suffering from sleep disruption.
No matter how old you are, you are never prepared to lose a child. We always expect our children to outlive us. When the unthinkable happens, it can leave us devastated and unable to process the situation.
Not all bonds are forged in blood. For many, friends are family. Losing your best friend or close companion can make you feel just as lonely as losing a family member. Sometimes, you may be closer to that person than anyone related to you by blood. This loneliness after their passing can directly contribute to insomnia, especially when we find ourselves reliving memories and thinking of a future without them in our lives.
Good sleep habits can nip insomnia in the bud before it becomes a greater problem. Here are our most effective strategies for dealing with insomnia and creating good sleep hygiene.
Sleep disturbance after a loss – any type of loss – is normal for anyone. There is nothing wrong with you. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Sometimes we struggle to process our emotions, especially after something like this. It can be easy to get angry with yourself that you can’t sleep or find a way to blame yourself. When you are grieving, insomnia is normal. Sleep disturbance is difficult for everyone when it happens and it often happens to people in times of stress, uncertainty, and loss.
If you are struggling to get a good night's sleep, first you should decrease your caffeine intake. That means cutting back on coffee, tea, cola drinks, and other products. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it can keep you up at night, especially when you drink it later in the afternoon. Even if you’ve never had an issue with drinking caffeine late in the day before, grief can make you more susceptible to its effects when you are already wound up from anxiety and stress.
If you need a cup of coffee to get you through the day (as many of us do), then try cutting back to one cup or not drinking anything with caffeine after noon or later than 3 PM. You may need to cut back gradually or try a few things before you find what works for you.
Like caffeine, nicotine is also a stimulant. For many, it's used to combat stress. However, it can also keep you awake at night and add to your late-night anxiety. While it seems counterintuitive, it might be good to cut back on nicotine intake in the evenings if possible.
While alcohol is a depressant (meaning it may relax you), it can also disrupt your sleep patterns. It might make you fall asleep faster but it also prevents your brain from letting you fall into the deeper sleep you need to feel rested for the next day. You should avoid it as much as you can.
Exercise has been shown time and time again to help with disturbed sleep. This doesn’t mean you should devote yourself to a new workout routine seven days a week or change your entire lifestyle (unless you want to). It doesn't even mean you have to do strenuous exercise of any sort. However, you may find that any kind of physical activity helps burn off excess energy and make it easier to sleep at night. If you find yourself restless and unable to sleep, being active can help you.
Being active can be as simple as taking a daily walk outside (which can also give you Vitamin D from sunlight as well as fresh air), taking a hike on the weekend, practicing basic yoga techniques, or taking a bike ride through your neighborhood. It's important to get your heart rate up during these activities, whatever works for you.
You may also want to avoid exercising at night, as it could keep you up.
While it sounds like the easiest thing to do, maintaining your routines through times of extreme stress and grief can feel impossible. However, your body craves routine, especially when it comes to important processes like eating and sleep. It’s important to try to stick to a dedicated nighttime schedule every day. Even if you feel like you can’t sleep, try to go to bed at the same time every night. If you have trouble remembering, you can set an alarm or a reminder to make sure you are in bed by a certain time. You should also set a specific time to wake as well.
In keeping with a routine, you should avoid naps later in the day. While sleep is good when you can get it, afternoon naps can disrupt your greater health by causing you not to sleep at night. If you can, try to avoid naps altogether when you’re struggling to sleep through the night. It might seem counter-intuitive at first. However, it’s more important to get good sleep at night than sleep an hour or so at a time.
While it might seem like a cliché, writing down your feelings and worries can help you. Journalling can be a powerful tool to make sense of your emotions, especially in times of chaos or stress. Often, just putting your thoughts and worries into words will help you untangle the anxieties and confusion caused by grief. Taking your thoughts to pen and paper gives you a chance to let them out in a healthy way while also giving you a chance to reflect on them at the moment and revisit your words later. If you aren’t the type of person to write things down, that’s okay too! You may find that just expressing them out loud when you are alone can have the same effect.
When it comes to posting on social media, you may have some hard decisions to make. It’s important to take the time to consider whether exposure to social media platforms is good for your mental health and overall well-being while you are grieving. You may find yourself "doom-scrolling” (or mindlessly scrolling through social media and news platforms) at all hours of the night, heightening your feelings of stress and grief instead of giving your mind a break and a chance to sleep. It may be good for you to take a break from social media and take your feelings to paper instead.
Never underestimate the knowledge that a good doctor has to offer you. There’s no shame in reaching out when you’re having difficulty sleeping. Your doctor may be able to offer recommendations for sleep tailored to your specific needs and medical history. You should also have a full medical physical to see if any underlying health issues contribute to your insomnia or are caused by it.
If you have prolonged insomnia, they might be able to prescribe a medical sleep aid for you to take temporarily or until your symptoms ease. While you might be familiar with some insomnia medications like Ambien or Lunesta, you’ll find that there are several other options on the market. There are several medications without side effects or danger of withdrawal symptoms.
Not everyone has easy access to a GP. If you do, then you should not hesitate to reach out to them. If not, you may be able to find an urgent care practice that can offer you similar services (and often for less money). They may be able to prescribe you sleep aids as well.
Sometimes the worst thing we can do when we are grieving is to be left alone with our own thoughts. Even if we enjoy quiet time, the silence can become something unwanted and oppressive. We may find ourselves focusing on the silence (and our own difficult thoughts) rather than letting ourselves relax enough to sleep. If you struggle with that, you may want to try incorporating ambient noise into your nighttime routine.
Ambient sound is often used to treat insomnia. The best ambient sound for this is a form of white noise – a type of noise that contains all frequencies at equal intensity. White noise is a steady thrum of noise that maintains pitch and frequency to lull your mind into calm. Good examples of white noise include the hum of an air conditioner, a hissing radiator, a whirring fan, running water, or steady rain. Natural sounds are quite good for creating a relaxing environment. The best ambient noises are those that fade into the background, giving you just enough to lull you to sleep without enough variation that you try to focus on it.
Fortunately, there are many devices and mobile apps that can mimic these sounds to give you a good night’s sleep. You can find many lists of good quality white noise machines online. However, there are free or inexpensive options for your phone.
Good white noise apps include:
For others, music can help with grief in surprising ways.
There is something to be said about the power of sunlight on the human body. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, your body manufactures the vitamin D that it needs to be healthy. More than that, the sun helps us maintain our health in many other ways as well.
While it's important for your health to be outdoors and seek sunlight, it's just as important to wear sunscreen anytime you're exposed to ultraviolet rays!
It often feels impossible to sleep in a space when you don't feel safe or comfortable. If you once shared your sleeping space with someone, being without them at night can be unimaginably difficult. You may not be able to sleep in the same room knowing that it will never again be like it was before. You may find that a room that once felt cozy is now restrictive, uncomfortable, or downright inhospitable. If that’s the case, it’s time to make a change.
You should make your sleeping space as comfortable and conducive to sleep as possible.
Sometimes, we all need a little help to get some sleep. There’s no shame in trying some over-the-counter medication when you are struggling to sleep. They make several types of medication that are effective for short-term use. Many people find that a melatonin supplement can help them fall asleep. As melatonin is a chemical produced by the brain at nighttime, it can help to "trick" your brain into thinking it's time for bed even if you are feeling anxious or uncomfortable.
Many people use it regularly to help them get to sleep and stay asleep. If that does not work for you, there are several alternatives available. Anything with Diphenhydramine (often found in Benadryl) is a solid option, as it is a sedating antihistamine. You should always read up on all options – including side effects – before you choose which may be best for you.
Much like other types of medication, there’s no perfect fit for sleep disruptions. You may find certain types of medication work better than others. However, you should not take these medications for a prolonged time. Many of these sleep medications have specific warnings for how long they are effective and safe for use. If you continue to have difficulty sleeping for over a month, then you should consult a medical professional for further help.
One of the best ways to treat persistent insomnia or any grief-related conditions is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. A therapist can help you deal with complicated grief in many ways. They provide a safe place for you to talk about your feelings (even the most unpleasant ones) without judgment or fear. You will be able to work through the negative emotions without feeling like you need to perform or act a certain way. When it comes to insomnia, a therapist can also help you enact better sleep hygiene habits. You can learn to implement strategies for change that give you results. They also offer real-time feedback on how you are feeling and what is (and isn't) working.
If you are interested in learning more about therapy, you may want to read through our guide: Mindfulness Therapy Through Grief.
Insomnia affects every major system in your body negatively. The condition can have serious and long-lasting consequences for your health and physical well-being. It goes beyond being groggy or uncomfortable during the day. Sleep deprivation negatively affects everything from your coordination and balance to your weight and your heart health.
Here are some of the ways insomnia puts your health at risk.
While you sleep, your brain forms important connections that allow you to process new information you've learned during the day. These connections help you create memories, shifting information from short-term to long-term memory storage. When you suffer from insomnia or any prolonged lack of sleep, your brain may not make those proper connections. It can affect both types of memory (short-term and long-term), leading to lasting issues if not addressed.
When we are tired, we may have trouble performing certain tasks or engaging in effective f problem-solving. Because sleep helps you form connections between information (and form memories) by creating pathways between neurons (brain cells), insomnia makes it harder for you to learn new things. It also affects your coordination, making physical tasks more difficult. Your decision-making ability is compromised, which could affect your personal and professional life. You're more prone to impulsive and even irrational decisions. You have less attention to detail. It's easy to make mistakes you wouldn't otherwise have made. It can also delay your reaction time, leading you to make more mistakes or potentially cause accidents.
Insomnia can wreak havoc on your cognitive abilities, but it can also affect your mental health and emotional well-being. People with insomnia often have mood swings, increased irritability, and stress. You may feel more anxious and panicked over things that wouldn't bother you otherwise. For those diagnosed with a bipolar mood disorder, insomnia can trigger manic episodes. However, it can also cause mania, paranoia, and highly impulsive behavior in those without a mood disorder.
One of the most common psychological symptoms of insomnia is depression. Without sleep, we lose the ability to regulate our moods. For those already suffering grief, the combination can feel unbearable. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicidal ideation and intrusive thoughts. If that is ever the case, reach out to your healthcare provider or call the 988 Lifeline immediately. People do care and want to help.
Do you often feel tired or prone to sleeping a lot when you are sick? There's a good reason for that! While you sleep, your body has more energy to devote to internal processes – like producing antibodies and cytokines – that help keep you healthy. These processes help your body fight off diseases and help repair muscle and tissue. Studies show that people who sleep less and are chronically fatigued are more likely to become infected by viruses or infections. Chronic insomnia is also associated with an increased chance to develop an autoimmune disease like lupus and autoimmune encephalitis.
Did you know that insomnia can also cause diabetes? When you don't get enough sleep, your body produces less insulin. The lack of insulin causes increased glucose (blood sugar) levels. In some, this can mimic the symptoms and cause the same health risks as diabetes.
Grief is often complicated and its symptoms can be difficult and equally complicated to manage. If you have questions about insomnia, we may have answers not covered fully in our article. Here are the most frequently asked questions for those experiencing grief-related insomnia.
There are many reasons it can be difficult to sleep after someone dies. Our bodies and minds react to grief in very physical ways. Stress and anxiety often lead to difficulty sleeping, as you may be unable to quiet your mind when you are devoid of the distractions of the day. If you lose a partner (or even a pet), it likely disrupts your nightly routine. Their absence at the end of the day hits harder than any other time. Everything feels different, unnatural, and maybe even unsafe. It can be hard to settle in and feel really comfortable.
If you are having trouble sleeping after the death of a loved one, you are not alone. Insomnia is a very common symptom of grief and complex grief. Insomnia is often brought on by anxiety or depression, both frequently found in those experiencing grief. As thoughts of our loved ones occupy our thoughts, it's even more difficult to relax enough to feel like sleeping. It can occur briefly or last for a longer period.
For those suffering from acute grief, insomnia can last anywhere from a few days to a couple months and even up to a full year. There is no perfect timeline for grief, thus there isn’t a timeline for when those symptoms may lessen. Typically, insomnia only lasts for a few weeks If you experience sleep deprivation for longer than a few weeks, you should consider consulting a professional or trying some of our suggestions to manage your symptoms.
Insomnia is a normal symptom of grief. Studies have shown that almost 90% of people struggle to maintain their sleep schedule after someone they love dies. Almost 50% of grieving people struggle with insomnia for some length of time. Though most people experience some form of interruption in their normal sleep schedule, the disruption is always unwelcome and concerning. While grief-related insomnia usually lasts a few days up to a few weeks, losing any sleep can have long-lasting effects throughout the day. It’s a symptom of grief that should be treated if it goes on for any length of time.
You should always consider talking to your doctor when anything changes with your health. However, you should certainly reach out to your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms after a loss:
While insomnia is a common symptom of grief, that does not make it easy for those who experience it. Grief hurts and insomnia can only make it worse. If you are experiencing insomnia, be kind to yourself. Give yourself time to grieve. You may find that some of these strategies can help you work through your insomnia, even if they seem daunting at first. No one expects you to try everything on our list all at once. You may have the best luck incorporating one or two into your life and see if it opens the door to try more.
Moreover, do not put aside the symptoms and stresses of your grief. If you find that your sleep patterns remain disrupted for longer than a few weeks, you should always reach out to a medical professional for advice and assistance.
February 11, 2023 by Frances Kay