The Impacts Of Grief On Sleep

Losing someone close to you can make you feel as though you’ve lost a limb. It can cause changes in mood, appetite and other very tangible and real physical symptoms—all depending on the nature of the loss. Grief can stem from a variety of changes in your life: the death of a loved one or friend, a breakup or divorce, loss of financial security and more. And, as with most experiences in life, grief can also impact your sleep. Sleep disturbances during bereavement can come in a variety of forms, just as grief can look and feel different for different people. Sleep disturbances during bereavement are caused by the experience of grief, but at the same time, loss of sleep during the mourning period can exacerbate some of the natural emotional reactions that commonly occur following a loss. 

Five Stages Of Grief: Typical Grief And Its Potential Side-Effects 

The five stages of grief are said to be: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While there are five stages that correlate with distinct feelings around loss, grieving people don’t necessarily experience all of these stages in a neat and tidy order. It can feel like a rollercoaster—oftentimes one might cycle through these stages and experience these categories of feeling in different ways and at different times throughout a period of mourning. The discomfort of experiencing such a range of emotions itself can cause a physical reaction. 

The Sleep Foundation describes the relationship between sleep and grief as “bidirectional,” as a lack of sleep can contribute to the intensity of grief and sleep disturbances often come with grief. Someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one will often experience insomnia, middle insomnia and/or hypersomnia—but each individual processes grief a little differently. So while sleep issues are common among mourners, you can be grieving and not experience them. 

  • Insomnia - Insomnia is used to describe a condition of being unable to sleep. In most cases, the insomniac has trouble both getting to sleep and staying asleep. 
  • Middle insomnia - Middle insomnia refers to the condition of someone who may be able to get to sleep, but if they wake in the night have a hard time getting back to sleep. Middlesomnia is particularly common among those who are grieving. 
  • Hypersomnia - Hypersomnia refers to someone who is sleeping too much. Sometimes, this can be caused by insomnia that results in daytime sleepiness due to sleep deprivation, but it can also be a type of sleep disruption caused by grief or other emotional distress like depression.

For most people, these sleep disruptions are situational and temporary and while they do not necessarily help anyone feel better while grieving, and can make feelings of grief seem more intense, they should pass—especially with some TLC. 

Grief, in its five stages, typically lasts around six months. After those six hardest months most people do not necessarily stop missing their loved one, but by this point they are able to integrate the experience of loss into their lives and move forward with some hope. However, that’s not the case for everyone. Some people experience complicated grief, which is essentially an experience of grief that lingers and can lead to more long-term and detrimental sleep disruption. 

Complicated Grief: What is it? How can one move forward? 

All grief is complicated since we all experience it differently. But from a more clinical perspective, the concept of complicated grief is when the grief doesn’t lessen in intensity following six months. Roughly 10% to 15% of mourners have complicated grief—grief that simply lingers, causing intrusive thoughts of the lost loved one, anger, continuous emotional pain, detachment, loneliness and other symptoms. Different from disorders like anxiety, depression and PTSD, complicated grief can be accompanied by other mental health disorders but sometimes requires more specific treatment: Complicated Grief Therapy (CGT) and antidepressants are two approaches. Additionally, sleep disturbances can increase the likelihood of complicated grief so addressing sleep issues head on can also contribute to healing complicated grief. 

Grief is a singular journey, one that looks different for each individual and varies by type of loss. Being aware of the side-effects of grieving and having a sense for how to remedy them can help make the journey less rocky. At the same time, it’s important to really feel your grief to a certain extent—glossing over it or trying to skip the feeling can cause problems in the long run. If you are mourning a loved one, go easy on yourself, try to keep yourself on a daily routine and maintain a sleep schedule, eat healthfully and be patient. And if you find that your grief lingers or feel too intense, consider working with a professional to process it. 

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