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.
Not everyone loves parties, but for those of you who grieve, you know they can present as something to be dreaded, as they loom on the horizon. Those who don’t grieve and who adore parties are probably wondering , what I am talking about? When life goes along well, to all intents and purposes quite normally, then a party presents as a way to enjoy yourself, a chance to get dressed up, let your hair down, to reconnect with old friends, meet new people, maybe flirt a bit, gossip and it might involve a fair bit of alcohol unless you are teetotal. All of that list potentially present a problem for the bereaved.
Let me walk you through that scenario through the eyes of someone who has been bereaved. The invitation poses a problem first off because it has probably been sent with the idea that it would be good for you to get out of the house and re-engage with life a bit (read, have some fun). I have yet to meet a bereaved person who actually wanted to go to a party anytime soon after their loss. It is usually met with a mixture of horror and fear. Something as simple as having to get dressed up might take on new meaning. For example, women might think, if I get dressed up and look attractive, men might approach me and then what? Men and women might be reflecting on the fact that for the last 20 years they have never been to a party on their own and they cannot face it alone, it is too daunting.
The invitation itself puts pressure on the bereaved because they know that the onus in on them as a guest, to have fun, that is what you are supposed to do at a party right? But they don’t want to have fun, they don’t feel in a fun mood. It is tricky because if they have fun, what does that mean? Have they forgotten their loved one, are they being disloyal by having fun? Will people think they aren’t grieving appropriately (yes, you would be surprised on that particular one)? Will other party guests think they are ‘over’ their loss?
Party conversation is a ticking time-bomb. Hopefully good friends would be sensitive and would know that certain, questions would be inappropriate in this setting, but that is the trouble with parties, there are usually people we don’t know present. If you are bereaved and you have pulled up every ounce of energy to ‘face the world’ that night, it is frightening when you know how close you are to breakdown given the right trigger. Simple questions that we routinely ask at parties, as part of social small talk become potential igniters of a wave of grief. "Where is your wife", "what does your husband do", or a particularly difficult one for bereaved parents is, "how many children do you have"? The answers to these and other questions can literally stick in their throat and a horrible sense of panic can perfuse their body. Once that sets in it can either go two ways: one is to tell the truth about what has happened or fudge the question. It’s really tough because if the truth is told, there is that awkward moment when you see the fellow party guests' face flounder, and a platitude is rolled out amidst embarrassment on both sides. Sometimes they might be lucky enough to meet someone who is really empathetic to the situation, but even so, parties don’t lend themselves to those sorts of conversations oftentimes. Having said that, when they do, it can be utterly redeeming and heart-warming! On the other hand, if the question is fudged, then there is a denial of sorts and that can sit very uncomfortably in the heart of the bereaved. In short, small talk is almost impossible when you are grieving because something so enormous has happened, which leaves everything else feeling so insignificant.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a drink, especially at a party but alcohol poses more of a risk if you are bereaved. I said earlier that a lot of energy is required to ‘put on a face’ at a party. Alcohol can take that mask off very quickly. It is easy to want to drink to drown ones’ sorrows, to forget what has happened and want to numb your emotions or to relax oneself, and I think we all know it is easy to drink too much, especially at a party where the drink is served. Try and imagine the bereaved’s emotions being held tightly in a box, alcohol lubricates the lid and it lifts off. All those emotions can come out in a huge rush and they find themselves breaking down in the middle of the party. Of course, this is natural and normal, but most grieving people want to grieve in the privacy of their home, to maintain some dignity rather than expose themselves to public scrutiny (in fact most people nursing any sort of sadness would feel the same). Alcohol is not the route to private grief in a public setting. It is up to each person to decide what they should do about drinking at parties but it is a thin line when you nurse a deep loss, and one that a lot of mourners don’t want to cross.
What about flirting? It might be that the one who died has been ill for a very long time, years maybe. Being a carer of a chronically ill loved one is a tiring and difficult job. I have met carers who have rarely left their sick partners' side for years. Their self-confidence is low, their sexuality is on the back burner (buried somewhere pretty deep) and they have probably forgotten how to have fun. Add some of the aforementioned alcohol, and an empathetic ear, a pretty party dress and the scene could be set for some innocent (and completely fabulous) flirting. In the cold light of the next morning, that can either feel like something promising and exciting or a complete betrayal of their partner. You can imagine that one of those outcomes leads to a lot of recriminations and soul-searching, the other shines with brighter promise.
So what can help? Here are some suggestions to consider?
It is OK to say no to an invitation, it is not a three-line whip, it is just an invite!
Plan how you are going to get to and from the party (don’t rely on lifts and favours), almost all bereaved people like an escape plan, it makes staying easier if you know you can leave at any time.
Think about taking a friend or supporter with you so you have an anchor there.
It is absolutely fine to protect yourself by keeping facts and emotions private.
Think about whether you are up to party or you need to hold back on the drinks to stay in charge of yourself, and act accordingly.
Give yourself permissions to have fun, this is really important because you may not have had much fun lately, and I am pretty sure your beloved would want you to.
Don’t worry if you laugh, it isn’t a betrayal, it does not mean you are not grieving, it just means you are in the moment.
Same goes for flirting, it does not mean you do not continue to love your partner of course you do – forever, but maybe there is a possibility there is still some spark there. I hope so!
Have you found anything which helps at parties. Please join the conversation below. It might help someone else.
If you want to contact me about counselling you can do so here
The words ‘Happy New Year’ can feel like thorns in your side when you are grieving. The evening itself may have been desperately difficult with all the jollities going on around you. You may have felt an expectation to have fun while those around you were heralding in the New Year with joy and all those hopes for the future. If you are feeling you don’t have a future after the death of your loved one and are struggling to get through each day with your grief, then no doubt it was and is particularly painful.
If the death of your loved one occurred near to Christmas, then the whole festive period can be a torture, and in some ways, always will be extra-ordinarily difficult. I think it is something about the clash of a happy time with a sad time. In early grief, and by that I mean the first year or two (not just the first three months) Christmas is usually anticipated with a feeling of dread. In a year like this one when the dates fell against weekends, and the whole period got extended over days that feeling of dread can be exacerbated. It is then quickly followed by the nation’s jubilation at the approaching New Year. It is a double whammy really.
Grief often feels colourless and empty, and there is nothing colourless about New Year for the majority. Think of parties, fireworks, party dresses, sparkle, abundance of food and drink. The misfit of how you feel with how everyone else is feeling at this time of year is jarring and can put a spotlight on the loss of your loved one. You might be remembering what you did as a family last year, or things you had planned for this year and it magnifies your grief in a very real and raw way.
What do the words New Year mean when you are grieving?
365 days without her, 365 days to get through till this time next year? It means a lot of time without the person you want back. I imagine that thoughts might go through your head like, I don’t want to have to face this year, I cannot leave him behind, this feels like I have to move forward without him. A new year can feel like a new book but one you really don’t want to read and also one that you really don’t want other people to finish because your beloved got left behind in the first chapter.
You might be worrying about people’s expectations of you, that you should somehow be getting over your grief now or leaving it behind in that terrible year just gone, but of course, grief doesn’t work like that. You bring your grief with you, things don’t change so radically from December 31st to January 1st, nor should they. Grief accompanies you into the New Year and though it can be gut wrenchingly painful, I am sure you would not want to leave it behind because grief is the tie that binds you to your loved one and is an expression of your love and everything you had together.
As a therapist what I can say is that I know that a New Year offers the chance for some things to change slowly and incrementally. You might find you have more good days than bad, you might be able to cope a little better sometimes, you might get back to work or decide to change your job, you might laugh a little bit more or find enjoyment in small things. Whatever changes the New Year heralds, none of these mean you don’t still miss your beloved with every fibre of your body.
So try to remember that New Years day is just a day that follows the one before it. It does not have to be laden with meaning, it does not require resolutions or commitments. It just requires you to be present to your grief, to put one foot in front of the other and to look after yourself the best way you can and find ways of coping which support yourself.
If you have found someting that helps as the New Year begins, please share below.
If you are facing the New Year with grief and would like some counselling support, do call me.