Animation of Sleeping after Loss

Sleeping After Loss:
Understanding the Effects of Grief on Sleep

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The loss of a loved one changes your life forever. Despite what many well-intentioned folks might advise, there is no “getting over it” or “moving on.” So let’s put that to bed right now when talking about sleep deprivation and grief.

Part of the problem, and really all the bad advice is that grief isn’t very well understood. According to speaker Kelley Lynn, what very few people talk about is that the gnawing feelings of grief are rooted in fear.

Fear that you’re lost forever. Fear that that person will be forgotten and that their life will slip out of everyone’s mind as if they never happened. Sound familiar?

Try sleeping with that!

When you lose someone, you have to relearn your entire life. You have to relearn new ways of taking care of yourself, and sleeping is one of those things. This guide will hopefully help you unpack your own experience with bereavement and learn new ways to approach your health and well-being, which starts with getting to sleep at night.

Not All Grief Is Created Equal

Every single person experiences grief differently and a lot depends on your relationship with the person lost. There’s no one right way to grieve, but understanding the unique circumstances of your loss may help you find a path the healing that makes the most sense for you.

Illustration of a Young Depressed Woman

Grief after Suicide

Some experts believe the grief felt by those who have dealt with the loss of a loved one by suicide is often more severe than other forms of grief. In some ways, grief after a suicide has been compared to the symptoms and effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

There may be specific setbacks that people dealing with this form of grief may have to face. One big issue could be the stigma placed on the topic of suicide, which may make it more difficult to reach out and seek help. This may also be compounded by local, cultural, or religious beliefs dealing with suicide.

Recommendations for Healing



  • Experts suggest managing grief on your own terms and in your own way.



  • A support system is very important. Counseling sessions and support groups may be good options if family or friends can’t help.



  • Healing occurs over time, it is perfectly normal to expect a few setbacks. Some experts caution against feeling disapproval over guilt or backsliding when faced with triggers like anniversaries or reminders of the lost loved one. Pausing or changing traditions may help to ease these triggers. – [1] Mayo Clinic

Loss of a Spouse

Illustration of a Couple In Love
Losing a spouse is often a very big factor in experiencing sleep disturbances, this form of loss may, in fact, be the most likely to cause insomnia and sleep loss. Theories suggest having to adjust to a new sleeping arrangement (no longer sharing a bed) as one of the top reasons for this disparity.
28 percent of those grieving the loss of a spouse may experience enhanced risk of major depression within the first 2 years of recovery.


[2] National Center for Biotechnology Information

Studies conducted by Rice University and Northwestern University found that people who had recently been widowed were two to three times more likely to experience inflammation due to sleep disturbances. Elevated inflammation may be tied to an increased risk of cardiovascular health issues or death.
Illustration of a Father Reading a Bedtime Story To His Kids

Loss of Parents

Losing a parent can be a terrible thing to go through at any age. But not surprisingly, research has found that younger children are more at risk for depression and other side effects from grief after one of their parents has passed away.

1 in 20 children under 15 years of age are likely to experience mental health issues after losing a parent.


[3] Psychology Today

While the loss of a parent is obviously devastating to anyone, some experts believe gender plays a role in how well children are able to cope. Some believe women feel more grief after the passing of their mothers, while men have a harder time adjusting to the loss of their fathers. [3]
Recommendations for Healing



  • It is recommended that the bereaved focus on their own strengths and abilities in order to move forward without feeling too helpless or lost. Some experts suggest seeing a therapist, as the loss of a parent could cause them to relive painful childhood memories and the therapy could help them to heal past wounds.

Children and Grief

Sad Little Boy Illustration

As noted above, children frequently experience grief in a severe manner. One study noted that bereaved children showed a lack of interest in their former common activities and they generally experienced less positive emotion than the control group of children. However, it was noted that children with major depressive symptoms showed some signs that bereaved children did not — feelings of worthlessness and guilt.

The study found 37 percent of bereaved children showed suicidal tendencies.


[4] Taylor and Francis Online

In general, parents seem to have a difficult time identifying when their children are suffering from grief or depression. While the parents of bereaved children tended to notice fewer symptoms than the children reported themselves, bereaved parents were able to recognize more symptoms than parents of depressed children.


Physical Symptoms of Grief

Some people may not be aware, but grieving does not just present itself with mental and emotional symptoms. While nightmares, loss of interest, and other emotional effects are often seen with this condition, there are many physical symptoms that are likely to occur.

 

Many people experience aches and pains or a general feeling of being tired and having decreased energy, which could be a consequence of sleeping less, in general. Dry mouth, difficulty breathing, and pain or tightness in the chest may also occur. Eating habits may change and some discover a sensitivity to noises.

 

All of these symptoms are not only partially caused by sleep deprivation, they also make getting to sleep even harder. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to the most common effect of grief on sleep: insomnia.

Physical Symptoms of Grief Chart
The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth also counts headaches, digestive issues, and sore muscles as possible physical symptoms of grief. – [5] Psych Guides

Complicated Grief Syndrome –
What Is It?

Grief is typically believed to subside within the first 6 months of trauma. People who show signs of grieving past the usual 6-month mark may be considered to be experiencing Complicated Grief and might need professional help to ease symptoms.
“Prolonged Grief Disorder” or “Traumatic Grief” may also be used to describe Complicated Grief Syndrome.


[6] National Center for Biotechnology Information

Some experts believe Complicated Grief is closer in nature to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than depression.


[7] Clinical Advisor

The syndrome has only recently been accepted as an elevated level of bereavement. However, statistics say it affects somewhere between 7 and 20 percent of those coping with a loss.


[8], [9] National Center for Biotechnology Information

There are a variety of tell-tale signs that doctors think could point to a higher risk of experiencing Complicated Bereavement. People who depend on the presence of a loved one for a positive mental or emotional reward become attached to this feeling, causing them to be unable to move forward with this symbolic “reward.” Likewise, people who have historically had a difficult time dealing with other losses in their life may require extra help in coping with grief later on.

Dangers of Letting Insomnia Continue

Losing sleep might be a normal thing that everyone goes through from time to time, especially in times of great distress or sadness, but that doesn’t diminish the terrible impact it can have on the body. Receiving less than 7 hours of sleep a night could increase the likelihood of diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, or anxiety. In some cases, chronic insomnia may increase the risk of certain cancers due to the disruption of the circadian rhythm and changes to the immune system and hormones.

Consequences Of Sleeping Less than 7 Hours
People who suffer from chronic, untreated insomnia are 1.9 times more likely to become injured at work and 1.5 times more likely to become injured, in general.


[10] Psychology Today

Some may turn to sleep aids, like sleeping pills or alcohol, to attempt to self-treat chronic insomnia. This is not recommended by doctors and may be dangerous as it could lead to addiction and further sleep deprivation. Experts recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, instead.


Relearning How to Sleep After Loss

Reduce Naps, Avoid Alcohol and Sleep Aids

Relying on naps and alcohol to sleep are not recommended, as they could actually cause further sleep problems. While alcohol may help you “pass out” you won’t be getting the restorative rest you need.

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Get Moving

Exercise could be a great way to naturally induce sleep and body relaxation.

Start a Journal

Some experts recommend journaling as a way to get out thoughts and feelings that have become disruptive. Always check with a professional to learn what is right for you.

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Reorganize Your Bedroom

If the loss of a co-sleeper is the cause of grief, moving the bed or purchasing new bedding could alleviate some of the symptoms.

Seek Professional Help
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the top suggestions for treating long-term sleep disruption. Speak to a doctor to learn more about this process. – [6] National Center for Biotechnology Information
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Connect with Support Groups

Even your best friends do not understand what you’re going through, and it may be helpful to connect with groups online of people with similar experiences. Talking your feelings through with someone with a similar background may help your mind rest.


Resources

01
7 Cups Online Therapy Community
02
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
04
07
GriefShare (recovery and support groups)
08
Grief Anonymous (anonymous support groups)

[2] Sleep Disturbance in Bereavement, National Center for Biotechnology Information


[4] Grief and Trauma in Children and Adolescents, Taylor & Francis Online


[6] Sleep Disturbance in Bereavement, National Center for Biotechnology Information


[8] Complicated Grief in Late Life, National Center for Biotechnology Information


[9] Grief and Mourning Gone Awry: Pathway and Course of Complicated Grief, National Center for Biotechnology Information


[10] An Under-Examined Danger of Insomnia, Psychology Today

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The Sleep Advisor