Grief is a natural response to the emotional trauma of loss, which is part of life. Not only do we suffer from absence, we’re also dealing with a major life stressor. Whether we’re processing the death or impending death of a loved one, or another type of loss like divorce, the symptoms of grief can have a significant impact on our day-to-day lives, including sleep. The stage of grief and our individual coping mechanisms may determine the effect on our sleep patterns.
Stages of Grief
The most commonly recognized symptoms of grief are based on the Kubler-Ross model outlined in the book On Death and Dying. People move through the stages of grief at different rates and in different ways, sometimes becoming “stuck” in one stage for an extended period or seeming to skip over a stage altogether. There are no rules on how to grieve, but it’s helpful to be familiar with the stages and understand where you are in the process.
- Denial: Denial is a natural defense mechanism that helps us to buffer the initial shock of loss by not fully accepting it right away. During this stage, you may feel like you’re in a dreamlike state or otherwise separated from reality.
- Anger: As reality begins to set in, the bereaved often feel angry and may take out their frustration irrationally. For example, it’s not uncommon to feel angry at the deceased loved one for leaving us or at the doctor for being unable to save their patient.
- Bargaining: Bargaining can take two forms and is often a manifestation of self-blame. We may feel that if we had done something differently, we wouldn’t be suffering this loss. It can also take on a more literal form, such as making promises to a higher power in exchange for a different outcome.
- Depression: The depression stage of grief is different from clinical depression, although grief can cause the bereaved to become clinically depressed. In the depression stage, we experience profound sadness and often regret, such as berating ourselves for not spending enough time with our loved one.
- Acceptance: Acceptance is not happiness or “getting over it,” but reaching the acceptance stage means we’ve made it through the phases of grief and are ready to continue living our lives.
Grief and Insomnia
Insomnia is most likely to occur during the anger and bargaining stages. Often, when we lay down to sleep and stop going through the motions of everyday life, the brain becomes overactive and we focus on our anger or on the things we think we should have done differently. While it's important to allow yourself to fully experience each stage as it happens, if grief is causing insomnia, talk to your doctor about appropriate solutions such as therapy, meditation, or medication.
Sleeping Too Much
Many people find grief exhausting. In addition to the bereavement itself, there’s also a lot of planning and activity associated with loss, such as funeral services. This exhaustion can lead to an intense desire for lots of sleep. In addition, while the depression stage can manifest itself in many ways, some of the most common symptoms are lack of energy and decreased motivation. This can cause people to sleep too much as a form of escape.
When to Seek Help
While there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, some methods of coping, such as substance abuse, can become self-destructive. Prolonged grief can also cause other health issues, such as heart problems. The sleeping problems associated with grief can weaken the immune system and exacerbate illness.
If you or a loved one are dealing with significant physical and mental health repercussions as a result of grief, there are lots of resources that can help. Those dealing with terminal illness, whether it’s their own or someone else’s, may find various hospice services helpful. Your general physician may be able to provide appropriate referrals, and you may want to take advantage of grief counseling services. In an emergency, online communities and crisis hotlines specific to grief and mourning issues can provide fast assistance.