This week, we have a special guest post by Sara Bailey of TheWidow.net. Sara has a heartbreaking yet empowering story of unexpectedly losing her husband at the age of 40. Left to parent two children alone, she had to figure out how to put her life back together and mend her family’s broken hearts. Her website provides many resources for those on the same journey. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Hope and Help After Loss: A Guide for Newly Widowed Parents.
One of the many struggles of the bereaved, or anybody experiencing any kind of loss, is re-learning to sleep through the night. Sleep is critical for our health and the thing we need most when we are grieving. Yet, it is also the very thing we can’t seem to make ourselves do. Sara offers simple tips for helping people get back on track. Thank you for sharing with us, Sara.
Not being able to sleep when you’re wracked with grief is like getting kicked while you’re down. You’re constantly fatigued by grief, living in a perpetual state of fog. But when you try to rest, your mind can’t stop racing. Insomnia is common in bereaved people. As Tuck explains, “Individuals in grief are often consumed with thoughts of the loss, which interferes with their ability to fall asleep. They may also wake up from dreaming about their deceased loved one."
Grief insomnia is frustrating and it’s also a serious health threat. According to a 2018 study from Rice University, published by Science Daily, grievers with insomnia have levels of inflammation two to three times higher than other insomniacs. This inflammation leads to a significant increase in cardiovascular disease and mortality risk for widows and widowers.
If you’re struggling with insomnia after the death of a spouse, here are some strategies for calming your mind and getting some much-needed rest.
Take Memories Out of the Bedroom
The last thing you want is to erase the memory of your loved one. However, your bedroom isn’t the best place for reminiscing. When you go to bed, you want your mind to be quiet and calm, but you can’t do that if you’re surrounded by memories.
Redo your bedroom so you can reminisce on your own terms, not when you’re trying to fall asleep. Remove the obvious reminders of your loved one, such as photos on the wall and clothes in the dresser. Then, change up anything that subtly reminds you of your loss. You don’t need to get rid of the duvet your deceased spouse picked out, but swapping it for the guest bed blankets might help you sleep right now. If your bed is uncomfortable now that you’re sleeping alone, a new mattress is another smart switch to consider. Depending on the size you need, you can find an affordable foam mattress for around $199.
Most of us aren’t emotionally prepared to deal with our spouse’s possessions immediately after a loss. Rather than forcing yourself into a task you’re not ready for, put your spouse’s items in storage so you can address it later. If you don’t have space in your home, rent a storage unit to buy yourself time. Believe me, it’s a small investment for a much greater payoff.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Certain habits promote quality sleep. Going to bed at the same time each night, waking up on a schedule, and avoiding caffeine late in the day are obvious ones. However, many people don’t realize which habits are ultimately sabotaging their sleep. Watching TV late into the night keeps your mind active when you should be mentally winding down. Switching to a tablet or smartphone isn’t any better: According to Sleep USA Mattress, “The blue light from your phone or tablet mimics the natural daylight you see during the day, so your circadian rhythm doesn’t know that it’s time for the brain to shut down.” Instead of zoning out in front of a screen, use the time before bed to engage in relaxing practices. Meditating or using devices designed to induce sleep (for example, you can find a good white noise machine for around $50 on Amazon) can help you shut out intrusive thoughts at bedtime. Exercising earlier in the day is another smart move. Exercise reduces mental stress and triggers physiological changes that promote quality sleep.
Few things in life are more painful than losing a spouse. It’s not surprising that widows and widowers have trouble falling asleep and deal with nightmares when they do, but that doesn’t mean sleeplessness should be accepted as an immutable part of grief. If you want to protect your health and give yourself a chance to heal, taking action against insomnia is a must.
And finally, be gentle with yourself. There will simply be nights when these techniques are not successful but I promise you, this will all get easier with time and continual self-care. One morning, you may just wake up and realize you had the best sleep of your life and and make a renewed commitment to this beautiful life you still have.