Your gain: Understand why getting quality sleep after the death of a loved one can be so difficult, and learn ways to cope with (and hopefully eliminate!) insomnia or poor sleep.
The period following the death of a loved one, especially within the first days, weeks, or even months after is a recipe for dysregulation of all the systems that control our sleep.
To get a little brainy here with you for a second, our system is pumping out a combination of adrenaline and cortisol as a response to the stress of bereavement, which in and of itself is enough to keep anyone awake. Almost as if we’re drinking extra coffee constantly throughout the day.
The thing is, we can’t necessarily force ourselves to sleep, just as we can’t force ourselves to get over our grief. It’s a process. But what we CAN do is provide opportunities for natural systems to become regulated again.
Yes, this can take time.
My Experience with Sleep Issues
When my dad passed away, I had moved into my parents’ condo full-time. I had also just broken up with my then boyfriend, now husband. I was not only alone physically, but I experienced a lot of loneliness and feeling very lost and dis-ease as well.
For months I slept on a pull-out couch in the guest bedroom because I couldn’t bring myself to go into the primary bedroom where my dad slept. Let alone sleep in the nice, big comfy bed that was in there. Eventually, I got to the point where I was so uncomfortable on that pull out couch that I slowly began to make the transition into sleeping in that room. when I tell you I had countless sleepless nights, I’m not exaggerating.
I remember nights where I hardly got any REM sleep, let alone any other stage of sleep. I’d wake up pretty frequently, and the act of actually falling asleep was virtually impossible. I mean, I would be up for hours on end. Unsettled, stressed out, tremendously heartbroken, and grieving. On top of all of that, the energy emanating in that bedroom—almost energy that I felt like was my parents—was absolutely indescribable and also impossible to ignore.
It took a lot of research and actually a conversation with the medium that I meet with every so often to get myself out of that mental space and allow room for peace. For feeling settled, and as though the space was my own and not haunted by my loved ones.
With that, I want to quickly get into a concept you may not have heart of before… at least not in this way (I hadn’t!).
What Are Zeitgebers?
I know, not a word you hear everyday! But understanding these and what they are will really help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes.
As we slowly put the pieces of our lives back together, new zeitgebers play a role.
The word zeitgeber is a combination of two German terms, Zeit, which means “time,” and Geber, which means “giver”. So, a zeitgeber is literally a “time giver.”
In nature, zeitgebers are cyclical or recurring patterns that help keep the body’s circadian rhythms operating in an orderly way. Some of the examples of zeitgebers are light, temperature, and eating or drinking patterns. These external cues help the internal biological clock to be consistent with the rhythmic cycle.
While we might not be able to force ourselves to go to sleep, we can “force” ourselves—and by that I mostly mean setting up an alarm and ACTUALLY getting up—to get up at the same time every day, for example.
Our waking time resets the whole circadian cycle, and this is an example of something that can help over time. Even if we feel tired during the day, forcing ourselves to get up with our alarm is a helpful first step. And, let’s be real, if you’re up earlier, the more likely you’ll be tired earlier at night! Well, hopefully… not always the case, I know.
More daily life examples of these could be eating dinner around the same time, or winding down after that in a period of quiet prior to going to bed, like watching TV or reading. Just don’t watch TV in bed! More on that below. A final zeitgeber is getting into bed and getting cozy under the covers with warmth, smells, and any visual cues, and turning off the lights.
The Sleep Disruption
These can all be disrupted by the absence of your loved one. Instead of being cues for comfort, they’re cues for grief and a reminder that your special person is not here. When we’re grieving, zeitgebers aren’t just absent. Their absence can also be a trigger for grief-related rumination, which can cause pervasive thoughts. It’s no wonder that we can’t sleep!
Pills for Sleep (and why not to take them)
I just want to get this out there because I’d be remiss if I didn’t. Empirical evidence shows that sleeping pills do not help grief. In fact, they can make grievers worse over time. Even if you sleep better at night when you’re taking one of these prescriptions, eventually your circadian rhythm gets used to the drug use.
People can become synchronized to the feeling of the drug along with other things they do when they get ready for bed. But when they stop taking the drug, they go back to having poor sleep again. Or, the sleep is even worse. This insomnia rebounds, and now they have to cope with both the absence of their loved one and the absence of a drug their body has come to expect.
Now, I know so many doctors have the best of intentions when they prescribe things like this. They just want to help a current, in-the-moment problem. That’s a lovely intention, but it’s ultimately doing the bereaved a disservice in the long run.
This is really just another example of how time doesn’t heal, but rather your experiences do. The best thing you can do for yourself is work to improve your insomnia or sleep issues more naturally.
Creating a Routine
With that being said, I want to talk about the importance of creating a routine. Having a solid routine is really a fantastic thing whether or not you’re journeying through grief. It’s a good first step to gain some semblance of normalcy again, and you can build onto it from there to make it really work for you. And, it can be something you’ll actually look forward to!
Why Routine Is Important
A routine you enjoy can give you a little structure or control in a time that can feel very out of control. A routine can bring you back to the present moment, even just a little bit. When you fill your routine with things that are beneficial to you and make you happy, you’re more likely to want to get up and do them. And, do them well instead of wanting to go back to bed, or just sitting there and saying “I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this”.
If you don’t have a (somewhat) set routine already, I want to stress the importance of taking this one step at a time. Seriously, create a routine with just one step if anything more than that feels overwhelming to you. That’s okay! Baby steps here.
Using our waking time example from above, perhaps it’s setting a consistent alarm that is your time to get up in the morning. You stick to that come hell or high water.
A Routine Example
Think about how you can build on this. To use a couple of my own examples for a moment, five days out of the week I get up around the same time, depending on when I have to go into the office or not. No matter what time that ends up being, I always get in a workout between 25 and 40 minutes long. Some days I might do a 5 – 10 minute meditation after that. While I certainly try to as often as I can, admittedly sometimes it just doesn’t happen. But I don’t beat myself up for that! I go with the flow and know tomorrow is another day to make it a priority.
After my workout, I have a prompted journal entry that I do every single morning. Just like the one that’s available to you here. It includes three things I’m grateful for that day, a mantra for the day, and three things I’m looking forward to. We’re going to talk about journaling in a little while, but even beyond journaling, I want to stress how important it is to begin your day with gratitude and glimmers of hope. A beautiful way to do this is exactly what I just laid out.
Start Your Day With Positivity
Put gratitude out into the world, a mantra that resonates with you that day, and at least one thing you are excited about. This can be something as simple as your morning tea or coffee or whatever this looks like for you. Perhaps a quick walk around your neighborhood or playing with a pet. Maybe doing some form of art, a bike ride, trying a new hobby, or reading a book that’s of interest to you as of late. Literally this can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it’s something positive that you will look forward to.
To finish up my example of my morning routine, immediately after doing this quick journal prompt I hop in the shower and do whatever I need to do to get ready for the day. Sometimes that’s just putting some moisturizer on my face and calling it a day, sometimes it’s putting makeup on if I’m heading into the office. You see how this could possibly change a little bit depending on what you have going on for the day, but the point is some semblance of consistency.
Let’s look at the night time, because I think this is equally important. If not more so, given it might be a lack of sleep you’re dealing with.
Once again, I think it’s really important to end our day with gratitude or at least one to three highlights of the day. What sparked joy for you that day? What is something you’re grateful for coming out of the day?
Is it being here and alive today? That’s beautiful, go ahead and write that down. Was it watching one of your favorite shows or movies? Write that down. Going to get coffee or a treat with a friend? Jot it down. The list could go on here. Whether or not you write it down or say it out loud or even in your head to yourself, the idea is really to just acknowledge it. To know that it’s possible and know that these little bits of hope and positivity are in there. That they exist.
It’s All About Mindset
If you feel like something wasn’t particularly positive that day or you’re really struggling to see the positivity, I want for you instead to write down what would make tomorrow more positive or fulfilling to you. Start to visualize what a more healed, peace-filled life looks like for you. I really do want you to write this down because it’s so important to manifest these things as they come to us. Not every day is going to be easy.
Not every day may have a lot of positives or be chock full of things to be grateful for. Or at least, it might not feel that way. This is a really important exercise in getting out of your head a little bit to get in touch with those things, instead of being stuck in the mud of our loss. Not lifting our heads and opening our minds to see a way out.
Now, you can do this gratitude or highlights of your day acknowledgment either right before you’re crawling into bed, or quite literally in bed before you turn off the light (that’s what I do).
Perhaps you’re also winding down your evening with a show you enjoy, or reading a book that speaks to you. Then after that you take a shower or wash your face and get in pajamas. That starts to tell your mind and body, ‘okay, it’s bedtime now. We’re winding down, it’s going to be time to rest soon, let’s get in that mindset.’
Final Thoughts On Routine
Grief and the bereavement process can feel very overwhelming, and you might find yourself changing your mind a lot on things or just feeling a bit unsettled. Just as in that process, the routine forming process can also take a little time. Give yourself permission to feel that and embrace it, and I promise you with some time and the right routine for you you’re going to feel a world of difference.
I want to stress just one more time, start small—I’m talking one step—and go from there. That’s step one for a little while. On top of that, when you’re feeling more comfortable with that consistency, add one more thing, then perhaps add another.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t need to be some crazy eight step regimen. Don’t feel the need to do that to yourself. The goal is simply consistency and something you enjoy and a process you can trust. Soon enough, other aspects of your life will no doubt follow suit.
I can’t express enough how beneficial and helpful this has been in my own journey. And, the journeys of so many people I’ve spoken to who have also experienced loss. Again, if you’re not already giving this a try and don’t have a solidified routine in both the morning and evening, your unofficial homework here is to give that a go and get one in place.
Forming a Habit
Remember, it has been shown through studies that it can take a minimum of 21 days to form a habit. Let’s say you start this routine and it’s a little rocky at first, or you feel like it’s really just not working or not sticking. I want you to keep tweaking this routine if you feel it’s necessary! If something in your gut doesn’t feel right or it’s not bringing some semblance of relaxation and decompression to your life, consider making some changes.
However, if you feel like it’s more that you’re in your head with it or you’re not giving it enough of a fair chance when the steps are reasonable enough and are things you enjoy, be honest with yourself. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to really get accustomed to it.
Going back to sleep for a moment, I wanted to touch on this in the context of a routine. Let’s say you have a routine, you might be nailing it—or at least working up to it—but sleep is still your frenemy right now. A few other things I recommend to enable us to sleep better are next.
Other Ways to Cope and Improve Sleep
Improve Your Bedroom Environment
Your bedroom environment has a lot to do with whether or not you can settle down for sleep at the same time every night. It’s really important to make sure your bedroom is primarily used for sleep, if possible. If you hang out there during other times of the day, perhaps to read or watch TV, having a separate chair or separate space (if you can) is ideal so you only associate the room—especially the bed—with sleep.
Then, make sure the bedroom environment itself is conducive to sleep. Experts say it should be relatively dark, quiet, and cool, ideally around 65 to 68 degrees. Choose a mattress, pillow, and bed linens that are as comfortable for you as possible. More on this below!
Be Mindful About Light Exposure
Exposure to light at different times of day influences your internal clock, which regulates when you feel tired or awake. Getting some sunlight during the day, especially first thing in the morning, signals your body that it’s time to be awake. A good tip is to try drinking your morning coffee (or tea, etc.) outside or near a sunny window.
Light at the wrong time of day can also throw off your internal clock. If you find yourself scrolling on your phone before bed, try reading a book instead. Or, even better, meditate or do some breath work! Blue light emitted by phones and other devices mimics sunlight, telling you it’s time to wake up rather than relax and ready yourself for bed.
Get Enough Exercise
Make sure you’re getting enough exercise during the day! This was advice given to me when I was really struggling, and while I still tried to workout, it wasn’t necessarily in a way that “wore me out”, so to speak. It didn’t exert enough energy, mostly because I was doing more weight training at the time. Of course that exerts some energy, but she suggested I run, ride a bike (either outside or an indoor stationary one in a more intense capacity), or just do something to exert more energy that would wear me out in a more.
Truthfully, I’m really not much of a runner or Peloton type of girl. Major respect to anyone who is, and if you are, use this to your advantage! Wear yourself out! I did try the stationary bike, and on some days it did work, I’ll give it that. Long term, truthfully it wasn’t my thing. But the point is I tried.
I made an effort to improve my health and my sleep. Honestly, I think even just that got me in a different, healthier mindset. And when I did work out, even if it was mostly weights, I really made sure to focus on the workout and give it my all.
Write It Out Through Journaling
Journaling before bed is another wonderful way to calm your mind. Whether it’s free writing or a prompted journal—which, by the way, remember you can grab my Gratitude in Grief Journal Prompt here—this can be a great way to relieve thoughts that keep coming up because they go somewhere other than your head. You could always revisit them later, right? Save them for the following day. Put them down and let them go, that’s what I like to say!
Take an Epsom Salt Bath
Another method I tried was taking a bath with some lavender Epsom salts. But the catch? No TV, no distractions, no nothing. Personally, I wouldn’t even read. What that looked like was purely trying to relax. In fact, I would use this opportunity to meditate and breathe.
Truthfully, what would usually happen is I would cry. I would feel my emotions deeply, they came in full force, and I let them run. It was incredibly cathartic. Now, of course you don’t need an Epsom salt bath to enable this to come through. Anytime, anywhere you can or want to sit with yourself to let this come through is a beautiful practice.
Yes, we can feel our emotions and our grief very loudly and intensely in practices like this. It’s raw, it’s very vulnerable, and it’s not always easy. But remember, this can also open us up to a lot of clarity and peace. Perhaps not right away, but with time and doing it frequently enough.
Additionally, remember that when Epsom salt is dissolved in water, it releases magnesium and sulfate ions. This can help your brain produce neurotransmitters that induce sleep and reduce stress.
Consider Vitamins or Supplements
Magnesium may help your body produce melatonin as well, a hormone that also promotes sleep. Now, some might say the calming effects of Epsom salt baths are simply due to the relaxation caused by taking hot baths. Hey, even if that’s the case, at least you’re relaxed, right?!
Speaking of magnesium, studies show a lot of people don’t consume enough magnesium, so this supplement could be a good option for you to help promote good sleep. But of course, please make this decision at your discretion and consult with your doctor before adding this to your regimen.
Melatonin, as I just mentioned, is another hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness. It helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. Similar to magnesium, a melatonin supplement could also be a good, more natural option for you. But I’ll say it again, I want you to be smart here and do your research on this before taking it.
Practice Positive Associations
Another final method I’ll share that I did in my own journey is to reassociate your bedtime with something positive. I want to share something here in case anyone can relate to this in some capacity.
When my dad died—both parents were gone at this point—I was also newly single. I was now living in their condo full time, completely by myself. In this two bedroom condo, the guest room had a pull out couch which is where I slept for quite a while. There was no way I could bring myself to sleep in my parent’s bed.
But I have to admit something. That pull out couch was not NEARLY as comfortable as their bed with the Tempur-Pedic topper was, as you can imagine. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long after he died that I made the move into their room.
Eventually, I finally got up the courage to change the sheets that were still on the bed from the very last time my dad laid there. The same bed he was in when I had to call the ambulance for him because his health was so poor—the very last place he was in the house before he went to the hospital and never came out.
A Griefy Confession
Full disclosure: I still have those sheets. Never washed them. I simply folded them up and put them in my linen closet. I’m telling ya… grief and wanting to hold onto our loved ones makes us do things like this sometimes. It’s okay.
Uneasy, Unsettled, Uncomfortable
I put new sheets on and I laid down. Oh my gosh… when I tell you I didn’t sleep well for weeks in that bed, I’m not exaggerating. I was so unsettled. Uneasy. Uncomfortable, despite being in the comfort of an actual bed. I could FEEL the energy around me. Like, seriously feel it. As though they were there.
I also have to tell you, I’ve never had more tangible, realistic dreams than I did in that time period. There was once a dream that was so vivid I could feel my mom’s hand. Her nails, even. I can still feel it now telling you this. It was absolutely amazing.
There’s actually a reason for this and why this can happen. You may or may not have heard this, but many mediums and other clairvoyants will say our loved ones will often come to us in our sleep. Why? Because that’s when our minds are the most “turned off”.
It’s when they can finally break through all of the walls we have up here in the physical world, emotional or otherwise. They can break through the grieving, ruminating and thinking we’re doing during the day to actually chat and visit with us. If that’s happening to you often, that could most certainly be why!
Resolving the Sleeping Issues
Back to the sleeping issues… what did I do to fix this? Well, I did—or at least tried—everything I just told you about with the exception of magnesium and melatonin because I hadn’t discovered those yet. Sometimes these methods worked better than others. When it wasn’t working and I was feeling absolutely broken and sad and just needed something happy for once, I turned to a funny show.
Yes, I did what they tell you never to do and watch TV in bed. You may hear that this is frowned upon because the brightness of the screen and all of that can keep you up. But you know what, I didn’t care at that point! I needed some freaking peace and laughter and positivity in my life. I wanted to go to bed on a high note. Or, as high of a note as I could get, given the circumstances.
Whatever happy show I watched back then, I’m not even sure I could tell you now. But it did help. Did it keep me up later? Sure, I have to admit it did sometimes. But by distracting myself with something else where my mind didn’t have to think so hard or run, it allowed my mind to rest and, therefore, fall asleep.
With sleep issues touched on now, let’s take a step back and get into other ways to relax and calm your mind that you can implement when rumination or insomnia gets to be too much, or when you’re stressed or having an anxious moment.
I’ve written about ASMR before in this blog post here about 13 ways to relax and calm your mind. Long story short, if you aren’t familiar with ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), I highly encourage you to check it out. ASMR can be incredibly relaxing and soothing, and can help with anxiety and promote better sleep. I’ve lost track of how many times a good ASMR video has put me to sleep, and I definitely took advantage of these in my earlier days of grief!
Invest in Better Sleep Equipment
I can’t stress this enough. We spend one third of our lives sleeping and in our beds. That’s a lot, when you really think about it. Now, I know mattresses aren’t exactly the cheapest purchase in the world, but I promise you they—and a good quality pillow—are worth the investment. And, there are fairly inexpensive options out there!
Definitely do your research here. I love The Sleep Doctor as a trusted resource as well. Remember, you don’t need the fanciest Tempur-pedic mattress on the market. A lot of factors come into play when shopping for a mattress: your sleep position, firmness preference, whether you sleep hot or cold… the list goes on. Keep these factors in mind when looking for a compatible mattress.
On a Budget? All Good!
Let’s say you can’t invest in a new mattress right now, or are on a budget. Totally fine! Either investing in a slightly less expensive mattress, or simply using the one you have, with a mattress topper can make a world of difference. That’s what my husband and I use, and it’s heavenly.
Finally, I can’t exclaim enough about having a good pillow. In my case, I’ll be honest with you, I have yet to find “the one”. I’ve tried those ones that are supposed to contour the shape of your neck, but never use them for very long. I’ve used fluffy ones, ones that are flatter… seriously, I’ve tried a lot. I have my old tried and true pillow that I’m still using that gets the job done.
But again, think about your needs and invest in one that’s fitting. The Sleep Doctor has resources on that, too! But honestly, a good Google search will show you countless results. Reading reviews of other purchasers is my go-to to figure out which ones are really up to snuff.
Neck and shoulder tension are one of the most common physical symptoms of someone grieving because we hold so much stress, etc. there. So, do yourself a favor and don’t force yourself to be miserable at night, too. Give yourself the gift of comfort and relief. You deserve it!
Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine
Both these substances can interfere with your sleep if taken at the wrong time. A cup of coffee after 2 p.m. can keep you from settling down later on, while drinking alcohol before bed can keep you from getting enough deep sleep. I’ll keep this one short and sweet—just try and avoid these, especially during these timeframes, if you can!
Why Sleep Is So Important
Getting quality sleep after a significant loss can feel next to impossible. Or at the very least, very inconsistent. But for the best opportunity for healing long term, general happiness in your daily life and productivity in both work and in your personal life, sleep is pivotal.
Sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Sleep deprivation also negatively affects your mental abilities and emotional state (which you may have already noticed!).
You may feel more impatient or prone to mood swings. It can also compromise your overall immune system, and who needs higher chances of getting sick when you’re already feeling down, right?
The point is: sleep has never been more important to your health and healing than when you’re coping with a loss. Don’t do yourself a disservice and neglect this on top of everything else you’ve been through. If it’s something you’re struggling with, try one or all of the methods I’ve laid out for you in this piece and give it a real shot.
I promise, you’ll feel so refreshed and slowly have a new outlook on your loss and life in no time.
Get Your Freebie From Me
I have FOUR free tools you can take advantage of if you’re ready to step up your grief work. I’m so excited to share these with you! My Gratitude in Grief Journal Prompt, From Grief to Grinning Toolkit, A Practice in Presence Toolkit, and Creating a Vibrant Life Toolkit are ready and waiting for you to download. All you have to do is click here or the button below.