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Grief insomnia: 10 sleep remedies for bereavement

Woman suffering from grief insomnia, sleeplessness at night

Symptoms of grief aren’t just emotional, they can be physical too. Along with loss of appetite, sleeplessness is one of the most common symptoms of grief.

Having sleeping problems after the death of a loved one, sometimes called grief insomnia, can make the stress of coping with bereavement even harder to deal with. Lying awake in bed with nothing but your thoughts can be difficult at the best of times, and being relaxed enough to fall asleep might feel impossible.

You probably know how important a good night’s rest is, but how can you drift off when your grief is hard to bear? Here are 10 tips to help you get to sleep, and sleep more soundly, when you’re coping with grief.

1. Do some exercise

Exercising is probably the last thing on your mind. Even if you’re usually a fitness enthusiast, normal routine is often thrown out the window when a loved one dies, and any planned workout regimes with it.

However, exercise is one of the best ways to get your body and mind ready for a long night’s rest. It doesn’t have to be high intensity – even a short walk or some basic stretches could help you sleep better.

2. Meditate

Don’t be skeptical about meditation – it might seem like the latest wellbeing fad, but scientific studies show that meditation and mindfulness exercises really do help your body and mind relax.

If you’re new to meditation, try guided meditation for sleep. There are hundreds of free audio recordings on the internet that will talk you through breathing deeply and relaxing, with a specific focus on preparing to fall asleep.

3. Breathe deeply and regularly

Focusing on your breathing can be an effective way of increasing your oxygen intake and allowing you to drift off.

The 4-7-8 method is known to work well; breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. This will increase oxygen levels in your blood, making you feel drowsy.

4. Limit alcohol and caffeine

When you’re grieving for a loved one and dealing with all the painful emotions that entails, it can be tempting to reach for the bottle to cope with your feelings.

While you might think a drink or two might help you sleep, the drowsiness you get after drinking is just the result of alcohol being a depressant. In fact, sleep after drinking is often more disrupted and less restful. It’s best to avoid alcohol before bed for better sleep.

It’s also a good idea to limit your intake of caffeine, especially in the evening. The average coffee or energy drink can still have an effect on you up to 6 hours after you drink it, so opting for decaf in the evening can make a big difference to your sleep routine.

5. Stick to a routine

A sleep routine can let your mind and body know that it is time to start winding down for the day. Try going to bed at the same time every day, if possible.

Performing the same tasks in the same order can also help. For example, having a warm bath, followed by doing some stretches, then brushing your teeth could be a regular routine to help you mentally and physically prepare for bedtime.

6. Try natural sleep remedies

If you’re unable to sleep, natural sleep remedies could help you drift off. Lavender oil can be added to a warm bath for relaxation. Chamomile tea can also be calming – use two or three teabags in a pot for the best effect.

Your physician can advise you further on natural remedies, such as valerian tablets, that can promote natural, restful sleep.

7. Avoid all electronic screens an hour before bed

Unfortunately, it’s become normal to watch TV right before bed – or even browse your cellphone or tablet in bed. The unnatural bright light coming from these screens will awaken your mind and make it harder to wind down once you do put down the phone.

Give yourself a tech curfew before you go to bed. Try reading, or listening to music instead, or better yet, try meditating to really unwind.

8. Have a snack before bed

Nutritionists say that certain types of food can make you feel sleepy. Eating nuts, avocado, bananas or lean protein like turkey or chicken about an hour before bed can help make you feel drowsy and relaxed.

Avoiding sugary carbohydrates and fatty dairy can also help. These foods can make your blood sugar spike and won’t help you feel restful.

9. Listen to white noise

White noise is a sound that comes out across all hearable frequencies and can actually help you sleep. It’s a constant sound that sounds a little like distant traffic noise. It masks any sudden or jarring noises that can wake you up.

There are many YouTube channels with white noise playlists available for free. If you don’t find it relaxing, try pink noise instead – it is slightly less high-pitched and can be better for some people.

10. Take a break from trying

Sometimes it’s best to admit when sleep isn’t happening. Get up and do 10 minutes of stretches, meditation, or reading before trying again. Avoid switching on the TV, though it might be tempting. When the 10 minutes is up, be sure to go back to bed and try again.

Remember that grief can have a significant impact on you, physically and emotionally, and that experiencing some sleeplessness is common. However, if you are unable to sleep well for several days or weeks and it makes you unable to perform daily tasks like cooking and cleaning, see your doctor for further advice. They will be able to rule out any more serious problems such as insomnia and other sleep disorders.

For more help and advice on coping with grief, visit our bereavement support page.