Coping with grief isn’t easy, we know this. Along with the emotional impacts of loss, grief brings with it a wide range of physical effects that impact a grievers well-being and day to day functioning. Mental health and sleep are closely connected, and the painful toll of losing someone or something we love deeply can wreak havoc on both.
Sleepless nights (or over sleeping) can be totally exhausting and frustrating. If you’ve ever had difficulty sleeping, you know how much more difficult lack of sleep makes your day to day experiences, and it's only amplified in grief. Grief asks a lot of us, and while sleep challenges are common reactions to loss, we should still be mindful to tend to our grief and our sleep in a way that supports our well-being.
When we don’t get enough proper sleep, our immune system, our mood, and our ability to handle our day-to-day tasks is impacted. The longer it goes on - the more significant the impacts.
GRIEF AND SLEEP TIPS
The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to improve your sleep as you navigate grief. It may take some time to create new routines and rituals that promote restful and deep sleep, but the actions below will support you in getting there quicker. Your sleep is important to your healing, not only physically but emotionally too - so let's dive in.
Unprocessed emotions become stored in the body (the issues are in our tissues), so it is essential that we move (literally) through grief. This may feel like the last thing you want to do, especially when sleep has been a challenge and you're already exhausted, but movement helps us process our experiences and brings our body back into a state of balance.
Through tough times, I personally prefer slow and gentle movements such as a walk, yoga, a hike in nature, or block therapy. Gentle movements often help us restore equilibrium and balance in the body, while not extending ourselves too far.
I intentionally use the word movement here, over the word exercise because of how those two words land in our body based on a wide range of individual, societal and cultural experiences. The messages we hold around exercise don't always feel supportive, and I want to reiterate that movement can be anything that you choose it to be - slow and gentle counts just as much as something more vigorous.
Honour your bodies needs in your choices and move form a place of support for your body rather than force.
02. BODYWORK OR PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION
Being nurtured and supported by touch can feel very supportive for some during times of grief. Many people feel the Relaxation Response kick in while they receive bodywork. My personal favourite types of bodywork include massage, reiki and block therapy.
If you prefer not to be touched during this time or bodywork is not accessible, tuning in to a progressive muscle relaxation audio or meditation can be supportive for helping your body release tension, relax and settle for bedtime.
03. CREATE YOUR SACRED SLEEP SPACE
Here I want to invite you into the creation of your sacred sleep space through intentional action and exploration of what supports you in feeling held, comfortable, and relaxed.
May this be an invitation to prepare your external space for deep and restful sleep. Knowing that everything below is a suggestion and not a requirement. Honour your own capacity and needs during this tender time and do what resonates with you and your body.
Tending to your space:
Declutter, create spaciousness, dust any areas of your home that feel stagnant.
Clean your bathroom and anything that has a drain as this is where water carries our energy out of our sacred spaces.
Clean your sheets and linens - make this a weekly practice if possible. We process a lot, especially in our dreams so cleaning our linens can support clear and restful resting spaces.
Communicate with your space and allow it to be an integral part of your journey. Allow your outer space to nourish your inner self.
Consider the things that nurture your wellbeing and relaxation:
Personal items that bring comfort
Keep it cool, temperature affects the quality of our sleep.
Avoid electronic use in the bedroom.
Keep your room dark. Use black out curtains.
Use lamps instead of overhead bright lights.
Invest in new bedding that makes your bed feel cozy, luxurious and inviting.
Keep your sleeping space clear, clean, and sacred.
Consider and experiment with different sounds, smells, and fabrics
04. SOOTHE YOUR SOUL WITH SOUND
Listen to natural sounds, such as ocean waves, or guided imagery as you fall asleep. I love my niece's sound machine to set the mood and vibe of a bedroom, or setting up a bluetooth speaker on some soothing meditation or nature sounds. This may be especially supportive if/when your mind feels active, busy, or distracted. The silence of the night can be very difficult for some of us, so having soothing sounds can be very supportive so that the body can let go and relax, without being too stimulating.
05. AVOID ELECTRONICS 1 HOUR BEFORE BED (MINIMUM)
I know its hard, and sometimes we want (or feels like we need) the distraction, but the impact of blue light off of our electronics is extremely destructive to our sleep cycle. Not to mention that the use of devices and consumption of information before bed keeps our mind busy rather than giving it time and space to relax and unwind from the day. Consider more relaxing and less stimulating activities that you could engage in before bed such as reading a book, gentle stretching or yoga, journaling, etc.
06. REDUCE (OR AVOID) CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL INTAKE
I know you've heard this one before, but I have to say it anyways. Grief is already taking your body through a pretty intense journey, so avoiding additional stimulants can be a supportive decision, however I'm not here to tell you what you to. If you choose to consume stimulants, try to do so earlier on in the day. Caffeine shortens the phases in your sleep cycle where deep sleep occurs and its takes up to 10 hours for caffeine to fully clear from your system.
07. REDUCE (OR AVOID) CONSUMING FOOD AFTER 7PM
Our bodies tend to sleep better in a semi-fasted state. By discontinuing food a few hours before you go to bed, you will allow your heart rate to drop to a restful state and avoid provoking indigestion which can further disrupt sleep.
08. GRIEF JOURNAL
Before bed, and/or first thing in the morning, I like to recommend the use of a journal to quiet the mind. I like to do this in the form of a brain dump, turning to the page and free writing anything that comes up and out.
Journalling for grief allows you to externalize your thoughts, feelings and stories - getting them out of your head and onto paper can help clear the space needed to be able to fall asleep. Give yourself permission to let it out - wild, free and unfiltered on your pages. Imagine putting everything down on paper that you are holding onto in your mind and freeing up space for restorative sleep to set in.
09. WATER RITUALS
Water is healing, cleansing, and soothing. Choose a water ritual with the intention of inviting in a deep and restful sleep. Take a warm bath or cleansing shower, drink a hot herbal tea, or listen to the sounds of the ocean.
If bathing, we recommend adding 1 cup of Epsom Salts to your bath water to support muscle relaxation and detoxification.
When showering or bathing, I love to set the intention and visualize that the water is washing away my pain and supporting me in letting go of all that I am ready to release and let go of in the moment.
10. ROUTINE AND RITUAL
Routine and ritual help to bookend your day with activities that are nourishing for your soul, and a signal to your brain and body that it's time to transition to rest. Transitional activities are some of my favourite because they really support the completion of one activity or part of our day, and the beginning or start of something new. I recommend having transition routines and rituals in the morning and in the evening. You may also choose to integrate transitional rituals into other parts of your day, but I recommend first starting with morning (am) and evening (pm).
Some examples may include:
Changing the lighting in your room by turning off overhead lights, and turning on lamps or softer lighting. I like to do this after dinner, so that when I walk into my room, the mood is already set up for a more relaxing vibe.
Self-care rituals. This may be your skin care routine, a bath or shower (see #09 for water rituals), or simply the transition from your day time clothes to your cozies.
Maybe you take some time for yourself to journal, read, meditate, listen to your ocean sound track, or carve our some space for a gentle stretch.
Whatever you choose to do - it is recommended that in order to crate habits, and make our routines easier on ourselves, to do the same things at about the same time every day so that your brain begins to pair the activity with the awareness that its time to relax and settle for bed soon.
Be gentle with yourself as you navigate this tender time. Grief is hard, its painful and it asks a lot of your mind, your body, and your soul. Honouring your needs, and tending to yourself with some of the suggestions noted above will hopefully help support soft, safe, and restorative rest.
Wishing you a restful and nourishing sleep.
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About the Author:
Hayley Yarish is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Grief Therapist, Compassionate Bereavement Care Provider, and Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®. She specializes in supporting individuals who are navigating loss and grief of any kind. Her own experiences with grief and loss have cracked her heart wide open and led her to doing this sacred work in the world.
Specific areas of focus: death of a loved one (recent or past), life changing transitions, relationship transitions and break ups, pregnancy loss, grief around family planning, and supporting entrepreneurs through the grief that comes with growth.
To learn more about Hayley or to book a session with her, click here.