Grief and Sleep
Every night, you crawl into bed, feeling worn out from the emotionally draining tasks of the day, thinking “Surely, I am so tired that I will just pass out as soon as I close my eyes.” You turn off your bedside lamp and snuggle under the covers. Immediately a rush of scattered thoughts consumes you: “Did I remember to start the dishwasher? Did I remember to reply to my boss’s email?”
These mundane musings are followed by a rush of thoughts about your loved one who died: “I miss them so much it hurts. What else could I have done to change the course of events that led to their death? I can’t believe my sister-in-law had the nerve to tell me ‘it’s time to move on.’” On and on the thoughts overwhelm you and, instead of sleeping, you find yourself restlessly stewing over all the things you can’t control, but wish you could.
Maybe in your case, you have no trouble falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. But then those repetitive thoughts shake you awake at 3am and you can’t fall back to sleep.
How much sleep did you get last night? What percentage of that sleep was quality sleep. Did you wake up feeling rested or still exhausted, like you tossed and turned all night? If you are grieving, you are probably not getting much sleep. I don’t need to remind you that not getting enough rest makes you feel even worse.
I use the word rest on purpose, because sleep is often choppy at best during intense times of grief. So the goal is to take advantage of random moments of rest whenever you can. Lack of sleep is a serious issue during grief. I highlight it with every client because it is so important. If you are not sleeping, your body will start to fail you. You are more likely to get sick, because you can’t fight off the germs. And it is flu season here in the U.S.!
What can you do to manage your rest, so you can feel better?
Let’s start with the 3 Ps:
1. Prioritize: Make getting enough rest an absolute priority, because it is actually more important than just about anything else on your to-do list. I know this advice goes against our society’s emphasis on “productivity.” But if you are not well-rested, your sluggish attempts at being productive will cause frustration anyway.
2. “Put a pin in it”: If your spinning thoughts are keeping you from resting, find a distraction to tuck the thoughts away temporarily. Sometimes watching boring television (infomercials?) or listening to soothing music can help. Try the Jar Exercise for Spinning Thoughts, which lets you set aside your ruminations so they can be addressed another time. You can find the instructions in my free downloadable Grief Guide. (Go to https://www.jococounseling.com/resources and choose the drop-down: “Free Grief Guide”)
3. Plan ahead: Consistent routines will get you on track for more rest. Here are simple daytime and nighttime tips you can start using today.
Stop all caffeine intake early, ideally before noon. When we’re tired, we just crave more coffee. Resist that temptation to stop the vicious cycle of sleeplessness!
If you are home, take only a very brief early afternoon nap (less than 20 minutes!), so it won’t interfere with your bedtime. Try not to nap after work. Instead, plan to go to bed by 8pm and sleep through the night.
Get outside: natural light keeps your circadian rhythm on track. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Sit on the front porch when you have to make a phone call. Take the long way around the building to walk to the mailbox.
Incorporate more movement into your day. I know you don’t feel like exercising when you are sleep-deprived. But even 5 to 10 minutes of gentle stretching at your desk, or walking to your car on the far side of the parking lot, will make a difference.
Decompress to reduce stress! Set the timer on your phone for five minutes and close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply for the full five minutes. Silently count to 4 as you inhale, then count to 6 as you exhale. The slightly longer exhale will gently calm your nervous system. This can work in any setting: sitting at your desk or sitting in your car during lunchtime.
Start preparing for bed one hour before you normally want to fall asleep by turning off all screens. Yes, even your phone.
Take five minutes to think about your day. What can you let go of and what are you thankful for?
Wind down by spending 10-15 minutes in silent meditation or prayer, and jotting your thoughts down in a journal. The act of writing out what is on your mind will clear space for rest.
If you can find even a few extra minutes of rest every day, you will start to feel a little better overall: improved mood, improved concentration and focus, and an increased ability to resist illness. After one good night’s sleep, your grief will not heal magically. But you will feel stronger, healthier, and more prepared to cope with the daily tasks and emotional pain of bereavement. Take care of yourself by starting your new sleep-honoring habits today.
Need more help to cope with grief-related sleepless nights? Call me to find out how grief therapy helps.
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