Does grief affect sleep? Sleeplessness or over-sleeping is one of the physical symptoms of grief. The thought of my loved one kept me awake, in this post I will be sharing my struggles and tips for coping with insomnia in grief.
An African proverb says that:
“Until a frog jumps into boiling water, it does not know that there are two worlds.”
Before the death of my wife, Chidinma, I erroneously believed that grief is just one emotion like many people. But what I’m finding out through my grief journey is that grief is an intense, multi-layered and sometimes uncontrollable response to a person’s trauma, such as the death of a loved one.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that our grief experience isn’t limited to emotional struggles alone when a loved one dies. I believe that other areas that grief disrupts our lives include our mental, physical, social and spiritual wellbeing.
What I want to focus on in this post is the physical symptoms of grief. To be specific, I will focus on sleeplessness and grief.
Sleep and Grief
Before taking a deep dive into sleep and grief, I think it may be worth taking a quick detour to explore grief’s common physical expressions and what grief does to the body.
The common physical responses of grief include but not limited to:
- Digestive problems such as a hollow feeling in your stomach, sickness, constipation, diarrhoea
- Sensations of body pain and discomfort such as headaches or migraines, heart pain, weighty extremities, aches in the spine, back or skeletal joints or muscle pain in general
- Energy Loss such as low energy levels, feelings of fatigue, or weakness in their muscles.
- Physical manifestations of anxiety through fidgeting, tapping your fingers, pacing, sweaty or clammy feet/hands
- An increase or decrease in appetite
- Sleeping problems such as finding it hard to sleep, fear of sleeping, or sleeping too much
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Miscellaneous such as dry mouth, increased allergy symptoms, oversensitivity to noise, tightness in your chest or throat and shortness of breath.
Note to you; Before you continue reading, please take a moment to make a note on your phone on which of the above common physical responses of grief you have experienced or experiencing.
Ok, let’s continue on our journey through sleeplessness and grief.
The real question here is, does grief affect sleep?
I will take you on a personal journey through my struggles with sleeplessness and grief. I will also share some tips for coping with insomnia in grief.
After Chidinma and I got married, we certainly didn’t toss a coin to decide who would sleep on which side of the bed. We just instinctively choose which side.
Did we choose instinctively?
Reflecting now, I can say that the decision wasn’t intuitive. Why?
I had watched a documentary some years ago about the hunter-gatherer world. The documentary explained how susceptible their environment was to predators.
Because they were hunters, the men placed their weapons in strategic places with easy reach and chose the side nearest to the door while they slept. Sleeping nearest to the door meant that the man could stand between his partner and the intruder in the event of a house invasion.
I suspect that this had registered in my mind and influenced which side of the bed I chose. I suppose the question that comes to your mind is what would have happened if Chidinma wanted the side closer to the door?
Hmmm. I honestly don’t know.
But perhaps a larger space on her side of the bed may have motivated her to choose her side. Now, I wish I could ask her why she chose that side of the bed.
I’ve yet to come across any couple who regularly change which side of the bed they sleep on; I imagine it like creating a rota on who sleeps on which side.
I think the decision on which side you sleep on is a permanent decision once you make it.
How would you react or respond if you found your spouse/partner sleeping on your side of the bed, say frequently? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.
The only times I remember sleeping on Chidinma’s side of the bed were times when I was on baby night duties because the space on her side of the bed was big enough to accommodate Josiah’s ‘Next2Me’ cot.
Why is sleep so essential and what does it mean?
A quick search of what sleep means through the dictionary suggests that sleep is a physical and mental state that usually lasts several hours every night.
The nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes are closed, the postural muscles are relaxed, and consciousness is virtually suspended. We typically go through five stages of sleep: stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
How much sleep do we need?
The sleep requirement of each person depends on several factors, including age. Children usually need about 16 hours a day, while teens need an average of approximately 9 hours.
For most adults, the best amount of sleep seems 7-8 hours a night, but some may require as little as 5 hours or up to 10 hours a day.
One of my physical experiences with grief so far has been sleeplessness. To find the best sleeping position, I would experiment with different sides and angles of the bed.
I have experimented with different sides, like lying in the opposite direction to the headrest. Other times are lying diagonally, but the one spot that works 8 out of 10 times that I have found is sleeping on Chidinma’s side of the bed.
It brings me this warm comfort that I find hard to put into words. It feels like that is the closest that I can be to her. One prominent theme since Chidinma’s death is that I don’t fall asleep for a long time. It doesn’t matter whether I go to bed early or late.
My sleep pattern is now somewhat different from that of the early months of grief. In the first six months of grief, my sleep pattern lay wide awake through the night till between 4-5 am before I could catch two-three hours of sleep.
These sleeping patterns changed after these six months.
I am prepared to sleep at 10 pm. I toss and turn like when using a wooden spatula to mix boiling water and grated cassava flour to make Eba before falling asleep, only to suddenly wake up at 1 am or 2 am—ending my sleep for the night.
Eba is one of the major foods consumed in the Western African sub-region, particularly in Nigeria and in some parts of Ghana. It’s made with dried grated cassava (manioc) flour, also known as garri.
I have conducted several experiments to help me sleep.
Below are some experiments that I have tried hoping that I would sleep.
- Wear an eye mask besides the blackout blinds, hoping that it would work
- Play white-noise background noise
- Play soft background music
- Don’t play any music
- Drink hot malted beverage
I had hit-and-miss results with the varied experiments I tried. But there was one experiment I tried that worked. I lacked the essential components of sleep, which were sleep quality, sleep duration, sleep efficiency and experienced sleep disturbance.
There was this evening when I had been tossing and turning for a while. Then I had a brilliant idea to make pounded yam.
At 11 pm, I took off my sleeping face mask, went two flights of stairs down to the kitchen and was delighted to find a bowl of Banga soup waiting for me in the fridge.
I boiled water, stirred the pounded yam, microwaved the soup and demolished the delicious and tasty meal.
What happened next?
I remember getting into bed. Anisa woke me up! It felt like I had only just closed my eyes. When I looked at the time, it was 7 am! I had slept for seven hours. What a great sleeping pill that meal was?!
I know what you’re thinking. Was I able to sleep the following night?
I had pounded yam again for dinner, this time with the children at 6 pm. I slept through the night like a log of wood till daybreak.
By the third night, I thought, maybe we should try this again. I stopped because I knew the impact of eating a heavy meal every night on the body. Like clockwork, I struggled to sleep that night.
I then tried going to bed earlier with a plan to get out of bed after 30mins if I wasn’t drowsy or hadn’t drifted off to sleep. I found I got out of bed after 30mins for at least six a week.
I then decided not to go to bed until I felt sleepy, only to find that I didn’t feel sleepy between 2 am and 3 am. To compensate, I attempt sleeping with little success when Anisa and Josiah have gone for their afternoon nap.
The internet is full of tips for coping with sleeplessness in grief. I struggled with some suggestions on how to deal with sleep and grief.
The suggestion of turning off electronic devices between 1 and 2hours before bedtime was one of them. I attempted it once or twice and decided that it wasn’t a practice that I can sustain.
I read somewhere that losing a spouse/partner is also a significant factor in sleep disturbances, leading to insomnia and sleep deprivation. If we can love, we must also be able to deal with grief and how it manifests in our lives, primarily through sleep.
Sleep deprivation and bereavement go hand in hand. Sleep deprivation amplifies the effects of grief, making day-to-day life much more challenging to handle.
Although grieving makes sleeping difficult, you need sleep to recover from grief, like the chicken and the egg metaphor. Theories say that one of the primary reasons for this imbalance is adapting to a new sleep arrangement (no longer sharing a bed).
At the point of this writing, I can share with you I am yet to gain straight 7 hours of sleep. If a person is deprived of sleep in previous days, the amount of sleep a person requires will increase.
Too little sleep leads to a “sleep debt,” which is very similar to an overdrawn bank account. Your body will eventually demand debt repayment.
When implementing any coping strategies, may I suggest you choose ones that are easy to adapt into your lifestyle because if you choose one that isn’t, you may find it not sustainable
The following are two things I am currently doing to cope with my grief-related sleeplessness
- I am learning not to push myself hard when I don’t get the recommended hours of sleep.
- When I can’t sleep, I try to at least rest.
These two steps have so far been very beneficial to me. I still have a messed-up sleeping routine, but I don’t beat myself up over it. I accept it and relax when I can.
Do you have any sleep tips that I may find helpful to try?
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below. Thank you.