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Insights on Sleep and Grief: Some suggestions

I have heard a lot about difficulties with sleep from my clients, some fighting to get a few hours each night, others sleeping way too much. Some turn to sleep aids, others to warm milk or stronger beverages; others give up, watch old movies all night and are relieved when morning comes and they can stop trying. On the other extreme, people report that they hide under the pillow in the morning to avoid leaving the oblivion of sleep even after ten hours of it.

The people at Sleep Help, a website focused on various issues related to sleep have some suggestions for grievers facing sleeping problems.

The difficulties: They cite studies that confirm what clients have told me – that sleep problems connected to grieving are very common. The studies describe two ways that happens: first, disrupted habits and patterns around sleep – like when to turn in, and who’s missing. The second is related to the depressed feelings that come with grief, even if they do not rise to the level of a diagnosable depression. The thoughts that spin from these can keep the mind busy and unable to relax. A further impact, one we all know and probably have experienced, is that a lack of sleep can worsen a person’s functioning and judgment the next day.

The solutions: Creating a welcoming sleep environment includes comfortable bed and bedding of course, and setting aside devices that emit blue light that interferes with settling down for sleep. And the one that our parents told us long ago – turn off noise and light to go to sleep. Adding a calming scent like lavender and cooling the temperature in the bedroom are also advised.

They suggest building sleep habits that include keeping to a predictable schedule, preceded by a familiar routine to prepare for bed. Most people know to avoid caffeine before sleep; few know that alcohol, while it has an early sedating effect, actually interferes with ongoing sleep.

My favorite of their suggestions is to learn some relaxation techniques that can range from journaling to progressive muscle relaxation to meditation in its many forms. (An easy way to start the latter is with one of the many meditation apps that offer guided meditations. They can be surprisingly helpful and require no prior knowledge of meditation.)

If you cannot sleep one night, their advice is to give it twenty minutes and get up to do something relaxing. Staying put tossing and turning just increases distress. And let your bed be just for sleeping, not for TV watching or fooling with your phone, they suggest. Finally, they point out that getting more exercise can improve sleep, as long as you do it an hour or more before bed.

Like many other issues we discuss here, sleep is something we can take action about and learn ways to soothe ourselves into better rest.

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