In those first shell-shocking weeks, when you feel like your world is falling away and everything you know is unrecognisable, including yourself, it is very common to suffer with lack of sleep. Fatigue is one of many symptoms which plague people after a bereavement and when lack of sleep is added to that ‘in your bones’ weariness, it really make life very difficult indeed. Tempers can fray, the feeling of being able to function diminishes, the ability to endure seems out of reach and emotions run amuck in the face of tiredness and misery. The unfortunately part of insomnia during bereavement, is it comes at a time when you need all your energy, because there is usually so much to do following a death in the family.
The routes to sleep deprivation when you are grieving vary, but here are a few common ones:
• I fall asleep easily, but always wake in the middle of the night
• I can’t fall asleep till the small hours and am exhausted in the morning
• I sleep late, wake early, then fall back to sleep again
• I try to stay up as long as I can because I don’t want to go to bed without my partner
• I am not sleeping in our bed, it is too painful, I sleep on the sofa to avoid it
The first thing I want to say is that insomnia is absolutely natural and normal after the death of someone you love. Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be avoided. The troublesome emotions which make sleep difficult for those of you who are bereaved are generally anxiety, panic, disbelief, rage, sadness and loneliness (in fact any feeling you are having can make sleep feel out of reach). Added to these emotions are many physical symptoms which make sleep impossible, such as intense crying, breathlessness, nausea, an upset or churning stomach, aching limbs or pains in your body. If you then add in behaviours which ward off sleep, such as drinking too much alcohol, having too many drinks with caffeine in them or napping at the wrong time of day, it may all look pretty bleak for you during the wee hours.
What I want to say straight away is that this period of insomnia will pass. It is not something which goes on for years, rather more weeks or more likely, months. There is no set time, but most people find it passes naturally and in the longer term they return to their pre-bereavement sleep patterns. If you can think of it as a phase (albeit, a really tough and upsetting one), it helps because sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees when you are tired and it is very easy to fall into believing that nights are always going to be like this now. They won’t be, honestly.
In the middle of the night, when sleep eludes you, if you are grieving, you may recognise that you then worry about the lack of sleep and the effect it is going to have on you tomorrow. This can become a vicious cycle which is hard to break. The more you want to sleep, the more you can’t and the more you worry. What might help you is to understand a little about the circadian timing which each of us experiences throughout the day and night. There is a natural rhythm in our bodies which cycles around every 90 minutes day and night. 20 minutes into this cycle, we are at our most alert (this would be a good time to get up in the morning for example, or your concentration might be at its best at this point of the 90 minutes) but after 45 minutes it is dipping down until about 60 minutes in to this cycle we are at our lowest ebb (which would be a good time to go to bed, or you might be reaching for the snacks at work to revive you). In the last 25 minutes, it is on the rise again towards alertness.
This is important because in the night when you feel you cannot get to sleep, there may not be much point in trying if you are at the peak of that cycle, by which I mean, your most alert. If however you are at the bottom of that cycle and are more tired, that is a good time to try. So how would you recognise that? It is quite simple really, and something we know but maybe don’t always pay attention to. If you are yawning (however alert you feel), you are probably at the low point. We yawn when our bodies feel the pressure to sleep.
So what can help you achieve better sleep so you can cope during the day and gets some much needed rest?
Three cardinal rules are a dark, quiet, boring room! (No computers, TVs, or phones). It can be very tempting to leave the TV or radio on in your bedroom for company when your partner has died, but it probably doesn’t help if you suffer from insomnia at the moment.
Keep a good routine at bedtime and also for waking times in the morning, try to get up at your usual time however bad your night has been, it will help your sleep the next night.
Restrict fluids so you don’t have to get up to go to the bathroom and break your sleep.
No milky drinks (they need digesting which isn’t a good idea).
No caffeine after lunch or exercise or big meals near bedtime.
Try and get outside during the day into natural light, it increases the amount of melatonin released at night time and promotes sleep.
Don’t lie in bed ‘trying to get to sleep/worrying/grieving’ (you may be at the alert part of your 90 minute cycle) get up, till you feel tired and start yawning (optimum time to try to sleep).
Try not to nap in the day (desperately hard when bed is a good place to escape to when you are upset, I do appreciate that). Nap early if you feel you have to.
Try not to overindulge with alcohol, it gets you to sleep but wakes you later on due to dehydration.
No hot baths during the two hours before you want to sleep, but paradoxically getting hot prior to that two hour pre-sleep time can help promote sleep, so have a bath earlier on.
There is a type of relaxation exercise called Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercises which are very sleep enhancing, you can find them on Amazon and other sites.
There are also many Apps which aid sleep. One just recommended to me (and tried with surprising success) is PZIZZ.
The last thing you need when you are grieving is another list of things to do, so please don’t feel you have to try all the above, or become overwhelmed by the list. I hope that some of the guidance might help you at this time which I know is so hard to cope with. Remember, this time will pass and you will get back to better sleep in time, even if you do nothing about it now. I hope that offers some reassurance.
If you have been bereaved and have found something that helps enhance sleep, please share it here for other readers.