Grief Insomnia: 8 Tips To Get More Sleep After Loss

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Updated: October 26, 2022

Posted: October 26, 2022

Grief insomnia is not just frustrating, it can have a negative impact your ability to cope with grief. While sleep disruptions are a common grief reaction, long term sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your health and quality of life, and even contribute to prolonged grief disorder (formerly called complicated grief).

Poor sleep harms your physical health, mental health, and ability to handle day-to-day tasks. Simply put, a lack of sleep adds more suffering on top of emotional pain.

If you are struggling with grief and sleep issues, there are a number of simple steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene and finally rest. Good sleep during grief is so important that it is the first thing I teach members of my online grief support group. It is also included in the first step of my Mindfulness & Grief System, called Conscious Relaxation.

If you would like help with grief and sleep, join me in my weekly grief support group Awaken, or schedule a private session. The tips below will help too!

Why Grief Impacts Sleep

There are many reasons why sleep loss is  a common symptom during grief. Understanding the source can help you choose the best tips from the list below to help you get more hours of sleep and better sleep quality. 

  • Mental rumination and worry
  • Intrusive images (particularly with traumatic grief)
  • Loneliness and yearning for your person or pet
  • Reminders such as an empty bed
  • Stress related to secondary losses
  • Wake time coping behaviors (alcohol, caffine, etc). 
  • Biological response to grief caused by a severed physical attachment

The Three Stages Of Sleep

There are no stages of grief, but there are three stages of sleep. OK, four if you count awake, which naturally occurs during the night even with the best sleepers. It is important that you get the three below to feel your best (or at least less worse).

  • Light Sleep helps you process memories and regulates your metabolism, among other physical maintenance. About 50% of your night will be spent here.
  • Deep sleep helps repair your physical body, including cellular rebuilding and repair. This stage usually occurs in the first half of the night.
  • REM sleep helps with emotion regulation and memory. It is also when dreams occur. A lack of sleep can cut into your REM, since it usually doesn't kick in until the second half of the night.

Most smart watches and fitness trackers will break down your sleep by stages. If you have one - or get one - this data can help you see what works for you in terms of sleep hygiene tips below.

 

8 Tips To Cope With Grief Insomnia

These sleep hygiene tips are helpful for anyone struggling with chronic insomnia or sleep issues, not just during grief. However the tips below are also helpful for grieving people even if you are getting enough sleep! 

1. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule

Your body loves routine, particularly when it comes to sleep. Set a bed time and a reminder so you stick to it. If you have trouble falling asleep, try some of the techniques outlined in tip 8, such as meditation, stretching, or self-hypnosis.

2. Move your body during the day

Exercise can help with sleep disturbances, but some of us don't love that word. If you are exhausted, the idea of exercise may not sit right, but you can move. Choose something that will not push your body pass its edge. 

Yoga for grief can help your body find its way back into equilibrium. A walk or hike will expose you to natural light, which will contribute to a healthy sleep cycle.

If you have the ability and energy, get your heartrate up. A brisk walk, zumba, angry dance around your living room. Do not engage in vigorous exercise after 7 PM as it can be stimulating, unless you know this will work in your favor based on past experiences.

3. Limit your caffeine & alcohol intake

The National Sleep Foundation points out that even though alcohol can act as a sleep aid shortly after consumed, it disrupts the second half of sleep once your body begins to metabolize the alcohol. Most sources recommend no alcohol within 4 hours of your bedtime.

Caffeine, of course, is the antidote to sleep. Try increasing your water intake during the day, and avoid caffeine after 3 PM.

4. Receive massage or bodywork regularly

Therapeutic bodywork, such as massage, reiki, acupuncture or Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, can help your body relax and bring your system back into balance which will in turn help you sleep better. Some people can feel the Relaxation Response kick in while receiving bodywork, and even report feeling like falling asleep on the table or mat. If you do schedule an appointment outside of your home, ask a friend to drive you to and from your appointment so you can relax completely.

5. Create a Sleep Sanctuary

Sleep experts agree that the bedroom should only be used for sleeping and sex. Always avoid watching television or using electronic devices in your bedroom. If possible, set your thermostat between 65° to 68°. De-cluttering your room and including relaxing artwork, scents, and comfortable bedding can go a long way to make your room sleep approved.

If you shared a bedroom with a spose or partner, mindfully consider any changes you want to make. This varies from person to person. In my online grief group, members are invited to survey their bedroom with all of their senses, and choose what to add, modify, or take away to make the bedroom as safe as possible. One member removed what she called "cancer equipment" and created an alter with images of her wife and placed inspirational words on the wall, which eased her bedtime anxiety while helping her feel close to her beloved.

6. Stow your electronic devices at least 1 hour before bedtime

When it comes to getting good sleep, staring at a phone, tablet, computer, or TV within one hour of your bedtime can lead to more disturbed sleep. The blue light stimulates your brain, and mimics daylight which throws off your natural circadian rhythm. 

Make sure your room is dark enough for you to get the rest you need, and if you have an illuminated clock or night light, lean towards the color red over blue. 

I also recommend charging these devices outside of the bedroom, as the temptation to surf can be a huge barrier to sleep. If you wake up, try some relaxation exercises or relaxing visualization instead.

7. Write in your grief journal

Journaling for grief allows you to externalize what you feel inside. Journaling during the day will help you tend to what you need to address so that it doesn't follow you to bed. You can free write in a blank journal or use one with prompts, such as my guided journal, From Grief To Peace.

You can also write before bed, however this may lead to rumination. Do what works best for you, but know that the research shows that one of the best ways to journal before bed is to simply write down tomorrow's to-do list. 

You may also want to keep a sleep journal and pen by your bed to record what you remember in the morning. Or if you wake up in the night, you can write down any thoughts or sensations that are keeping you awake. When you close your journal, imagine that you are letting them go for the night so you can get the rest you need. 

8. Turn off your mind with relaxation techniques

I have met a few people who are able to climb into bed and fall asleep in an instant, but they are few and far between - especially when grieving. 

Just 10 to 20 minutes of intentional relaxation before bed will help you relax your muscles and calm your mind so you can rest, rather than toss and turn. I like to think of it as a bridge between activity and sleep. Here are ideas to help you sleep with grief:

Relaxation Meditation

Your body has the natural ability to shift from stress to relaxation, you just have to know how to do it. The Relaxation Response or progressive muscle relaxation are two time-tested practices that can be done while you are lying in bed, so if you fall asleep you are already in place.

Yoga or Gentle Stretching

A gentle, restorative or PM yoga practice 30 minutes before bedtime can help you calm your mind and release physical tension.

Soothing Soundscapes

Listen to natural sounds, such as ocean waves, or guided imagery as you fall asleep.

Aromatherapy Meditation

Combine aromatherapy with counting your breath. Put a few drops of lavender essential oil on a cotton ball, and hold it under your nose or place it on the pillow beside you. Begin to count each exhale starting with one and ending with 20. Then reverse the process, starting at 20 and ending with one.

Water Rituals

Take a warm bath or drink hot herbal tea as a bedtime ritual to invite restful sleep.

 

Bonus Tip: Join my really awesome grief group

While this isn't a typical sleep hygiene tip, members of Awaken Grief Support Group get the peer and professional support they need to get sleep and cope with grief. Plus we focus on skill building for grief - finding healthy things you can do for yourself to do more than just survive life after loss. I would love to help you out! 

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Mindfulness & Grief. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She is on the Advisory Board for the highly regarded military family survivor organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and is a faculty member of the Portland Institute of Loss & Transition, founded by Dr. Robert A. Neimeyer. She is also the host of the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, founder of the Mindfulness & Grief Institute and the Frederick Meditation Center in Maryland.

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