Sleep and Grief
LAST UPDATED ON JULY 31,
Grief is an essential human experience. We’ll all experience grief throughout
our lives, some of us more than others.
Just as grief affects all of us, it also pervades all aspects of our lives.
When we are grieving, our thoughts are consumed by our loss. Food doesn’t taste
as good. We’re less motivated to do things we used to find fun. It takes
everything just to keep going through the motions of daily life.
And it’s tough to sleep. When we experience grief, it’s common to experience
newfound insomnia, or to feel exhausted even if you are getting sufficient
How does grief affect our sleep, and what can you do to sleep better during
Grief, or bereavement, is the distressing experience and symptoms that
accompany the loss of a loved one, such as a spouse, family member, friend,
pet, or other individual.
Grief itself creates intense emotional and physical symptoms: low energy,
anxiety, headaches, digestive issues, and sleep problems.
Meanwhile, the person suddenly experiences disruptions to other parts of their
daily life: they may have lost a major source of financial support when their
loved one passed, bringing on new stressors, and everyday activities commonly
undertaken with the person now feel drastically different and lonely.
Symptoms of grief
Changes in appetite or weight
gain or loss
Insomnia or sleep problems
Low energy or motivation
When these symptoms persist past a six-month period, it is diagnosed as complicated
grief (CG) or prolonged grief disorder. A person with CG may still
experience symptoms of grief and depression, such as feelings of hopelessness
or thoughts of self-harm, difficulty maintaining their daily routine, and
feelings of guilt and blaming themselves.
grief affects sleep
It is difficult to sleep during bereavement.
A grieving person may have distressing thoughts about their loved one, such as
regrets, worries, anxieties, or sadness about their time together or how they
passed. If they shared their bed with the deceased loved one, it can be
especially heartbreaking to sleep without them.
The stress from the loss of a loved one can develop into anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD). In turn, each one of
these conditions negatively affects sleep. One
those who lost a spouse develop clinical depression or anxiety within the first
Even without it becoming something more, a loss is a traumatic experience all
its own that creates disruptive physical symptoms for weeks to months at a
time. One of the most common symptoms is insomnia.
Insomnia describes a difficulty
falling or staying asleep. Sleep-onset insomnia refers to difficulty falling
asleep, while sleep-maintenance insomnia refers to difficulty staying asleep.
Sleeplessness during grief is very common.
Individuals in grief are often consumed with thoughts of the loss, which
interferes with their ability to fall asleep. They may also wake up from
dreaming about their deceased loved one, as their brain emotionally processes
the loss (during the REM or “dream” stage of sleep, our brains
perform emotional and cognitive processing).
When grieving individuals don’t get adequately restful sleep on a regular
basis, they are going about their lives in a constant state of sleep
deprivation. Being sleep-deprived
worsens the intensity of many of the symptoms of grief, and makes life on the
whole more challenging to manage.
On a cognitive level, sleep deprivation impacts the brain’s ability to
process memories and make sound judgment, so the individual becomes more
forgetful, less able to retain learnings from the day, and more likely to
behave rashly or make poor decisions.
the individual has a tougher time balancing their mood, and is prone to produce
higher levels of stress hormones, resulting in increased anxiety and poor
Finally, it impacts the person physically. Their immune
compromised, making them more likely to get sick.
In the long run, sleep deprivation is linked to heart
disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Unfortunately, when
spousal bereavement develops into CG, the risk of adverse health outcomes also increases for some of these
conditions, such as cancer and high blood pressure.
Studies about grief and sleep
A 2008 meta-analysis comprehensively reviewed
the prior research surrounding individuals suffering from CG or LLSB (late-life
spousal bereavement) and their sleep. LLSB affects over 800,000 Americans every
year. Significant findings include:
One study of
widows found that all participants reported poor sleep quality, compared
to only one-quarter of their non-bereaved peers.
Another found that the worse their grief, the worse
the impact on their sleep.
Female widows were more likely than
males widowers to experience sleep disruption, according to a 2000
Likewise, complicated grief is associated with sleep
particularly if the individual has comorbid depression, bipolar
or PTSD. Significant findings include:
Having either comorbid depression or bipolar
sleep quality for grieving individuals, according to separate studies.
over 800 college students found that those in bereavement experienced
significantly higher rates of insomnia. Many participants specifically reported
difficulty falling asleep due to thoughts about their loss, and difficulty
staying asleep due to dreaming about their lost loved one.
bereaved relatives who lost someone in intensive care, over half of
participants developed complicated grief and related, comorbid symptoms of PTSD:
better sleep tips for grief
For many, grief is a natural process. You sort of have to just go through it to
get to the other side.
However, that doesn’t mean you should experience it passively. Taking
control and ownership of everything you can do to stay healthy and sleep well
during this time gives you a sense of power. More importantly, it helps you
recover from this loss with less pain than necessary, and lowers your risk
developing complicated grief.
The evidence is strong that good sleep hastens recovery toward “successful”
bereavement. This is especially true for the wide swath of individuals
suffering from LLSB grief, who are more likely to be seniors. Their risk of
morbidity can be significantly reduced by maintaining good sleep.
One study found
that those who took 30 minutes or more to fall asleep had more than twice the
death rate of their better-sleeping peers. Another study confirmed these
findings. Individuals with poor sleep efficiency (spending less than 80% of
their time in bed asleep) were nearly twice
as likely to die as well.
Researchers have found that treating grief also
improves sleep. However, sleep problems may still linger if they are not
addressed directly themselves. Follow these tips to improve your sleep.
1. Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Are you or someone you care about grieving and experiencing sleep issues? If
your symptoms and sleeplessness have persisted for 12 weeks or more, it may be
time to get professional help.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is
an effective form of psychotherapeutic treatment for anxiety, depression,
insomnia, and more. Studies of individuals with CG or LLSB have found CBT effective for improving their sleep
and daytime symptoms of insomnia.
During CBT, the patient works with their therapist to recognize the negative or
blocking thoughts and behavior they have that make them feel worse, heighten
their anxiety, or encourage insomnia. Then, they learn how to replace those
thoughts and behaviors with healthier ones.
For example, a person receiving CBT-I (CBT
for insomnia) may learn that their
haphazard sleeping schedule is contributing to their insomnia, and work out a
consistent sleep schedule with their therapist. A person in grieving,
however, may develop a phobia or anxiety that they won’t fall asleep because
they’re suddenly having trouble sleeping, and they don’t recognize that it’s a
normal reaction to a loss. They may think negative thoughts about never
being able to recover from the loss, which heighten anxiety, depression, and
lead to restless sleep. CBT can help tease out these thoughts and encourage the
individual to face and overcome them.
2. Follow a regular sleep schedule.
Taking a cue from the CBT recommendation above, a consistent
sleep schedule can help you get a more
regular amount of sleep on a nightly basis. Go to sleep and wake up at the same
time every day, including weekends.
Avoid napping during the day, as this
will only make it tougher for you to fall asleep at night. If you are
absolutely exhausted, limit
your nap to 20 to 30 minutes at the most.
This short nap length will prevent you from falling into deep
from which it’s quite difficult to wake up from.
3. Spend time with friends and family.
During this time, it is important that you spend time with people who love and
care about you. Find people who will allow you to share your stories, your
grief, and your tears without judgment, but who will also know when to help
distract you by doing an activity together.
If you are feeling lonely, ask friends or family to spend the night. You might
invite your petto sleep in bed with you.
If you shared your bed with the person who’s passed on, try sleeping on their
side – it may be less painful to see your side empty. You may also use a body
remind you of them.
4. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or sleeping aids.
While they may help you fall asleep initially, many of these substances
actually disrupt the quality of your sleep – and they can lead to addiction and
permanent changes in your sleep architecture when abused.
You may ask your doctor about melatonin, which is a natural
supplement that can help promote sleep. Even sleeping
only be used as a temporary solution. Instead, focus on the behavioral
strategies outlined here to improve your sleep to the best extent possible.
5. Keep up a healthy exercise routine.
your endorphins going and helps you feel physically better. It provides a
distraction from the pain you are going through, and it also helps you sleep.
By physically tiring your body, you will fall asleep more easily by bedtime.
Just take care to complete your exercise in the morning or earlier part of the
day. That activating energy can wake you up, so you want to avoid doing it too
close to bedtime. Also try to exercise in the sunshine if possible, for an extra
lift in energy and mood.
6. Eat well.
Just like exercise, what you eat affects your mood and your sleep, too. It may
be more challenging than ever to get out of bed and avoid indulging in bad
foods during this time, but it only makes it that much more important.
Do your best to eat healthy foods and avoid overly sugary, junky, or fatty
foods. The same foods that don’t make you feel great emotionally or physically
also disrupt your sleep. Instead, incorporate more of these healthy,
sleep-promoting foods into your diet.
Also, even though caffeine is fine for some people,
limit your intake past the afternoon and overall. It activates your nervous
system, keeping you alert and potentially anxious.
7. Develop a calming bedtime routine.
Creating a bedtime routine is helpful for anyone who
wants to fall
asleep faster, but for those in
grieving, it gives you something to focus on besides your grief.
Walking through the steps of your bedtime routine will train your mind to
recognize that it’s time to go to bed, and while also clearing your mind of sad
thoughts. When we lose someone close to us, it disrupts our daily routine.
Establishing a bedtime routine can also help give you a sense of control again,
bringing a sense of order back into your life.
Include relaxing activities in your bedtime routine. These will calm your
anxious spirit and nervous system, preparing your body for sleep. Options
Aromatherapy – try misting your pillow
with a lavender essential oil spray
Drinking a cup of warm bedtime
Taking a warm bath
Dimming the lights and turning
off your electronics
Practicing meditation or visualization – you can
download a guided
meditation coaching app for your smartphone
progressive muscle relaxation exercises in bed
Listening to calming music or a white
Reading a boring book
8. Try journaling.
If you wake up during the night, don’t stress. Disrupted sleep is a common part
of grief. If you can’t fall
back asleep after 10 minutes or so,
get out of bed and go into another room. This part is key – you don’t want your
mind to start viewing your bed as a place where you lie awake and frustrated.
In the other room, you might again try one of the relaxing activities from your
bedtime routine. You might also take the time to journal. Write about happy
thoughts and memories, calming your mind and giving you something to focus on
besides the fact that you can’t sleep.
9. Avoid electronics at night.
Electronics like our smartphone flood our eyes with strong
bluelight. Our brain perceives this as sunlight, and accordingly tries to keep
us up and awake.
Beyond the physical reaction, electronics often provide stressors of their own,
even though many of us view them as leisure devices. Dramatic
TV shows can
affect our nervous system, social media notifications may remind us of our lost
loved one, and emails may arrive from the funeral home.
Avoiding electronics in the 60 minutes before you go to bed helps you mentally
break away from these distressing reminders, while avoiding confusing your
brain about what time of day it is.
10. Reframe your bedroom.
It’s possible you have items that remind you of the loss in your bedroom,
whether it’s a photo of you and your pet, a memento of the person. You may even
have shared your bed with the person you’ve lost. It may be easier for you to
cope if you remove reminders of that person from your room – at least
temporarily. Seeing their face or clothes may trigger your grief.
Also be thoughtful of how else your bedroom is helping or hurting your sleep.
You may take this time to redecorate your room, giving you something to focus
on that provides hope. Choose calming, relaxing colors and clear your bedroom
of clutter. A calmer
bedroom environment makes for a calmer mind,
more conducive to sleep.
It might also be time for you to get a new mattress. Sleeping on a high-quality,
comfortable mattress makes it easier for you to
fall asleep, and the new one may remind you less of your lost loved one.
Finally, avoid doing anything besides sleep or sex in your bedroom. Work, fun,
and other activities wake up your brain. You want your brain to see your
bedroom as a place solely for sleep.
Grieving is an experience we all go through. Lean on family, friends, and even
strangers for support. Below we’ve listed several online resources for finding
online support forums, in-person support groups, blogs, non-profit
organizations, and education about grief.
General grief resources
Open to Hope is a non-profit that
provides resources for those grieving any type of loss, from the death of a
sibling to that of a child. The site publishes videos, books, blog, and
podcasts. Individuals can easily search the information relevant to them by
filtering by the date of their loss and the individual they lost.
Grief Healing is the blog behind the
Grief Healing Discussion Groups. The posts are designed to be informative and
helpful to survivors as well as professional and family caregivers who are
anticipating or recovering from a loss.
Grief Haven provides support and
educational resources to those grieving, as well as those providing care to
them. The site assists healthcare professionals who work with death such as
caregivers and hospice.
Rogers Company provides resources for
parents looking for help on explaining death to their children.
What’s Your Grief is a blog managed by
mental health professionals who have also experienced the loss of a loved one.
The site provides e-learning courses and training for health care professionals
as well as those grieving.
Join an online grief forum to ask for advice or just have someone to listen.
Popular grief forums include the Grieving.com
Healing Discussion Groups, Online
Grief Support forum, Grief
Support subreddit and the GriefSupport
To avoid feeling isolated, join an in-person support group. Google “grief
support group” and you will find additional local resources near you. National
directories of support groups are also available on Grief.com, Psychology
the drop down menu by “Find a Therapist”), and GriefShare.
Resources for widows and widowers
Soaring Spirits is a community of widowed
people who share their stories with each other through local support groups,
pen pal programs, online forums, and in-person events.
Widowers’ Organization provides online resources
and peer support to men who lost their spouse or partner.
for Widows Foundation provides support to other
widows through a private Facebook group, online forums, local meetups, and more
Parents Without Partners helps single parents
grieving their spouse or co-parent connect with peers for local support through
organizational-led recreational activities and more.
Widowed Village is a forum run by Soaring
Spirits. Other forums include the Young
Widow Forum, the Widows
& Widowers Support Group on DailyStrength, and the Widowers
Resources for families grieving the death of a child
The Compassionate Friends is a non-profit with
chapters in all 50 states that helps families grieve after the death of a
The COPE Foundation helps families grieve as
well, with a special focus on helping siblings as well as parents. Their
hotline 516-364-2673 is available 9a-9pm on weekdays and 10a-3pm on weekends
for peer support.
Grieving Dads is a blog run by a father
who lost his son that provides support to men, who are often overlooked during
Four Plus an Angel is a blog run by a mother
who lost one of her children, and chronicles her family of four children coping
and moving forward.
Still Standing Magazine supports parents who lost
a child, particularly at a young age or through miscarriage. There are also
resources for medical professionals.
peer support for families grieving a military member.
Forums include the Loss
of a Child forums on Grieving.com and Loss
of an Infant, Child or Grandchild forum on Grief Healing
Resources for children who have lost a parent
Alliance for Grieving Children posts blog posts, hosts a
local support directory, and shares resources to help children and their
caregivers cope with the grief of losing a parent or loved one.
Forums include the Loss
of a Parent or Grandparent forums on Grief Healing
Discussion Groups, the Loss
of a Parent forums on Grieving.com, and the
Children Dead Parents subreddit.
Resources for suicide survivors
The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors hosts a community forum,
local support group directory, and provides books, resources, and other tips
for new survivors.
Survivor Task Force provides support to
healthcare professionals like therapists who are coping after the suicidal
death of a client.
Friends for Survival is run by a team of
volunteers who have all been affected by suicide. The site provides resources
on how to give comfort, encourage coping, and otherwise provide support to
those grieving the suicide death of a loved one. The site’s Suicide Loss Help
Line can be reached at 800-646-7322.
Prevention Resource Center and the American
Foundation for Suicide Prevention both have resource pages
dedicated to survivors.
Forums include the Suicide
Grief Support Forum, the Alliance
of Hope Community Forum, the Suicide
Bereavement subreddit, and the completely
private and confidential Suicide.org
Suicide Survivors Forum.
Resources for those who lost a pet
for Pet Loss and Bereavement is led by volunteers
trained in pet bereavement. The site shares helpful resources and articles. It
also hosts live chat rooms from 8pm to 10pm during the week and 2-4pm on Sunday
BestFriends.org lists books and local
community-run support groups for individuals grieving the loss of a pet.
The Humane Society shares a guide for coping
with the loss of a pet, organized by tips for each family member.
the Rainbows Bridge Pet
Loss Forum or 24/7 Chat
Room, the Petloss
reddit, the Loss
of a Pet forum on Grieving.com, the Loss
of a Pet forum on Grief Healing Discussion Groups, and the Pet
Loss Grief Support Message Board.