Sleep problems and grief

As difficult as it may be to sleep during the first shocking days since a bereavement, problems of disturbed sleep may carry on long through the months and years of grief. Not being able to fall asleep, not being able to stay sleep or having troubled sleep are common.

It’s really important to find a way to catch up on sleep, as most of us find that when we get over-tired, our emotions can intensify and can be harder to control. Everything can look a much bigger mountain than it is.

Sleeping pills by prescription or over-the-counter herbal sleep aids are one possible solution, even if short-term. A doctor might prescribe a course of sleeping pills; this can be for a matter of days or it might be something longer. Sometimes the pills can be useful in breaking a cycle of not sleeping.

Some grieving people find that it’s the silence of the night that makes their sleeplessness so hard to bear. Putting on the radio or an audio book can be a solution. I wrote about my own experience of that some time ago: The shipping forecast

Once you start looking into it, you can discover all kinds of ideas. Here’s one I came across in a newspaper – apparently a method used by the army:

The secret to falling asleep in 2 minutes. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Relax the muscles in your face, including tongue, jaw and the muscles around the eyes
  2. Drop your shoulders as far down as they’ll go, followed by your upper and lower arm, one side at a time
  3. Breathe out, relaxing your chest followed by your legs, starting from the thighs and working down
  4. You should then spend 10 seconds trying to clear your mind before thinking about one of the three following images:
  • You’re lying in a canoe on a calm lake with nothing but a clear blue sky above you
  • You’re lying in a black velvet hammock in a pitch-black room
  • You say “don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” to yourself over and over for about 10 seconds.


The full article talks about racing thoughts being a hindrance to sleep, and when we’re bereaved that is very much the case. We may be reliving aspects of our loved one’s death, or things we wish we had or hadn’t done or said. Losing a loved one can make us feel very unsettled and insecure, and though we might try to guard our thoughts during the busy daytime, sometimes it’s when we lay down at night that worries can take over.  I don’t know if an exercise like the one above will help in that case, but it’s worthwhile giving it a try.

Sleeping alone

For those who have lost a spouse, one of the special difficulties in coping with that loss is adjusting to sleeping alone. A bed that is empty on one side is physically colder than a bed with two people in it; even the bedroom itself can be cooler if only one person sleeps there. That vacant space on the other side of the bed is an ever-present reminder of the person who is absent.

Sometimes it’s not only the bedroom that’s the problem; it can be frightening to sleep alone at home if you have had a partner with you for many years.

Some people find it helps to leave on a light somewhere in the home, perhaps the bathroom, and even have the radio or TV on at a low level. Having an alarm or phone at the bedside can be reassuring. Some find it helps to sleep somewhere different, like in a spare room, or to change the bedroom set up. Others find comfort in the memory of their loved one on the other side of the bed.

At first it might feel like you will never be able to relax and sleep again, but it is surprising what we can adjust to.

For more on losing a partner, see: One step at a time; life and grief after the loss of a partner.

Some other miscellaneous tips to aid sleep:

  • Take a warm shower before bed
  • Get plenty of exercise in the fresh air during the day – but not right before bed
  • Don’t read on your tablet or device for awhile before bed – there’s something about the blue light keeping you awake
  • Keep the bedroom cool, keep a window open
  • Don’t drink caffeinated drinks after supper

What would you add to this list?

This duckling at Bodnant Gardens doesn’t have a sleep problem 

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