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  • Writer's pictureLucy

Grieving and Sleeping

If we have grief which hasn’t been dealt with, it could explain why grieving people sometimes have trouble with sleeping for many years after the event.

Grieving and Sleeping

Friday, 18th of March was World Sleep Day. The connection between grief and sleep, or in many cases, lack of it, is an interesting one.

As a griever, I stumbled across Dr Lindsay Browning, a Chartered Psychologist, neuroscientist, author, and sleep expert. She received her Doctorate in Insomnia from The University of Oxford, where she studied how worry and rumination affect sleep. She set up Trouble Sleeping in 2006 to help people overcome these issues, as well as other sleeping problems.

As a mother, she used her expertise to help her own children when they had trouble sleeping – as everyone experiences from time to time. The real problems arise when a period of poor sleep, such as following an illness, work or exam stress, a bereavement, etc, becomes permanent.

Lindsay and I had a conversation over a cup of tea one day on why when you are bereaved does your sleep gets affected so much. I was curious about the mind and sleep. What better person to speak to than a neuroscientist and sleep expert!

When my son Jack tragically died in August 2010, I didn’t sleep for about 48 hours, and I remember I had to have sleeping tablets, just a very short course, to help me fall asleep. I often wondered why my body wouldn’t let me sleep naturally, as I was so very tired.

I understood I had experienced a trauma but didn’t understand why my body refused to rest until I had the conversation with Lindsay.

Sharing my experiences of what had happened to me, I wanted to know if other bereaved people experienced the same if they had a short sleepless night, or whether they experienced recurring sleepless nights. I did a mini poll in my bereavement support group called Grief and a Cuppa and was astounded by the varying differences in how people have not slept very well after a bereavement. ranging from a few nights to 24 years.

Grief is different for everyone, no one grieves the same. There is no right way or wrong way, its just our way, but what I do know about grief is it is exhausting, emotionally exhausting so not being able to sleep adds more stress to our bodies but why?

Navigating Sleeplessness is a book written and published by Dr Lindsay Browning

I found it very insightful explaining the different sleep cycles, What the difference between temporary bad sleep and insomnia is.

There is a clear analogy, which helped me to understand why when a bereavement happens it affects your sleep pattern, which Dr Browning has very kindly agreed for me to share.

The Tiger in your bedroom

Imagine that you are snuggled up in your bed with your favourite pillows, with bed linen that has been freshly laundered. The room is dark and quiet, and you have had a long, successful busy day. You don’t have any worries and you feel as relaxed as can be, content and calm.

You are physically tired and ready for a good night’s sleep. You gently start to close your eyes. Just as you are about to drift off to sleep, there is a noise, and suddenly a Tiger comes into your bedroom. There is a real life, three-metre-long adult tiger at the foot of your bed.

How do you feel?

I bet that no matter how calm and sleepy you were feeling five seconds ago, you are now feeling incredibly panicked and anxious. Your heart will be racing, your breathing will be short and shallow. There is no way in the world you could possibly fall asleep now.

In fact, if the tiger stayed in your room for ten minutes, one hour, three hours or even all night, you would not fall asleep for a second. No matter how sleepy you had just been feeling, you would completely be unable to fall asleep with a tiger in your bedroom.

This analogy may sound fanciful, but it is a fantastic example of how anxiety stops us from sleeping.

Ever since our caveman days, our bodies have been biologically designed to react to stressful or threatening situations in a certain way – namely, by increasing our adrenaline and cortisol levels, making our heartbeat faster and quickening our breathing. This is what is called our ‘flight or fight’ mechanism at work.

When we encounter a physical threat such as a tiger, we either need to fight it or run away from it to survive. By helping you pump more oxygen around your body quickly, this evolutionary mechanism makes either option – an epic showdown or hasty retreat – easier.

Now you may be thinking, but what has this got to do with my sleep? I don’t have trouble sleeping because there is a tiger in my room – it's not as though my life is in danger when I’m tucked up in bed!

Granted, in life we rarely face life or death situations such as a tiger in our bedroom scenario. Instead, the “threats” we face day to day are those of redundancy, health scares, bereavement and these cannot be fixed by running away. Nevertheless, our flight or fight mechanism kicks in regardless.

When your body interprets your potential lack of sleep as a threat and responds in the most basic way it knows how. To sleep well we need to stop being so anxious about not sleeping. (Credit:- Navigating Sleeplessness – Dr Lindsay Browning).

Grief is not logical, it is heartfelt; we can’t logically heal a broken heart.

If we have grief which hasn’t been dealt with, it could explain why grieving people sometimes have trouble with sleeping for many years after the event.

I am pleased to say I don’t suffer from insomnia, but I do sometimes have a bad night’s sleep due to illness or needing to get up to go to the toilet, but my grief doesn’t keep me up at night anymore.

If you are having trouble with sleeping and would like to know more about how working with Dr Browning could help you or maybe you have some grief that is keeping you awake at night, that you might need some support with, then please email myself or Lindsay and we would be happy to help.

About Lucy

Lucy Herd is a founding member of Grief Specialists, a bereavement rights campaigner and a grief educator based in Berkshire. My son Jack was only 23 months old when he tragically drowned in my garden pond in August 2010. Living through every parent’s worst nightmare gave me the strength to take on the system, so no one would have to suffer as I had.


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