How can we obtain badly needed rest and sleep when mourning the death of a loved one? The shock of the death sends our physiology into overdrive. Our normal routines are changed. We stay up late, eat little or nothing, and often have to deal with a variety of emotions especially depression.
All of the above is part of a vicious cycle that leads to more anxiety, less sleep, and increased fatigue. Commonly, the immune system is compromised and the mourner comes down with colds, headaches, and digestive disturbances. And most important, energy levels drop at a time when they are sorely needed. Here is one approach to obtaining rest and needed sleep that can make inroads on the fatigue cycle.
1. Plan on a daily rest period of at least thirty minutes. Convince yourself first that you are doing the right thing, and in no way are diminishing your commitment to your loved one. This is an essential part of your grief work. Find a quiet place to lie down. Place a small pillow under your feet to elevate your legs. If you wish, play soothing music. Close your eyes and focus on the sounds.
2. In the evening, before you try to go to sleep, take a warm bath. Add lavender oil to the water. Focus on the relaxation of muscles that feel tight as you scan your body. Each time you exhale visualize your warm breath going through the tense areas and relaxing them.
3. Prepare your sleeping environment. Make sure the room is completely dark. If the death has caused fear, keep a night light on and use a sleep mask. If traffic or other noise keeps you awake try ear plugs. (If you sleep on your side, put a plug in one ear.) Keep the room temperature at 70 degrees. A room that is too hot or too cold only adds to sleeplessness.
4. Follow your usual pre-sleep routine whatever it might be. If you are unable to do so, read something light, if possible. Or, play a tape of nature sounds. Remove any tight or restrictive clothing, even if it means sleeping in the nude.
5. Place a pen and paper on the night stand next to your bed. When your mind starts racing, or you begin thinking about what has to be done the next day, get up and write it all down. Then go back to bed.
6. If you still are unable to drift off, try using a one word mantra. For example, focus on your breathing, and each time you exhale repeat the word sleep. Other possibilities would be words like release, relax, calm, slow, or rest. As soon as you find your mind wandering and thinking of the next day or your great loss, gently bring yourself back to repeating your word. Do not be alarmed to have to start saying the word again because you were thinking of something else. That is a common experience.
7. Some experts believe that electronic devices can interfere with sleep. Be sure anything of that nature, like a clock, is not near your head.
8. If you get off to sleep and then wake up after a couple of hours, and are unable to get back to sleep, start using your one word mantra again. This may also be a time when you might wish to try one of the herbal remedies to induce sleep like valerian, passion flower, or chamomile. Some people have had success using the amino acid L-Tryptophan.
In summary, sleep disturbances are a normal part of the grief process. The emphasis is on normal. Patiently work to clear your mind by learning to focus on one word and your breathing rate. Persist in following a set routine and try to go to bed and rise at the same time each day. Light exercise during the day (walking for 10-15 minutes) can also facilitate sleep. Most important, yet difficult to do, is not to react strongly to not getting off to sleep. This increases the alarm reaction within. Gradually your usual sleep patterns will return.