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Grief: does loss have to equal sleep loss?

Updated: Jul 18

If you have suffered a loss in your life you already know the feeling I am about to describe. The feeling that happens when you lay your head down on the pillow, exhausted, wanting to drift off into some other place that feels safer, happier, and more complete. Instead your mind clicks 'on' the moment your eyes close. "What does my life look like now that they are gone?",

"What has or will change?", "What will the holidays look like without them?", "Did I do everything I could?", "Should I have resolved that lingering tension, or let go of that grudge I had been holding?", "Did I say thank you, I miss you, or I love you, enough?", "Where are they now?", "What if I can never feel them again?" I lost my mother last year, well, in reality I lost her a few years ago to Alzheimer's Disease, but finally physically lost her in August of 2020. She was my best friend, confidant, cheerleader, and honestly my sanity most of the time. We talked multiple times per day, and some might even say a slight codependency existed between us. I have probably said I couldn't survive without her more times than I could ever count in my lifetime. However, I am still here, surviving.


The grief started quite a few years ago, during my mothers slow painful decline. I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering how I could possibly handle the next phase or chapter in her life as things deteriorated. Sadly, her death came almost as a relief after watching her suffer for so long. Also, relief from years of managing my own suffering as I lost her bit by bit. The finality allowed me to start moving through the feelings instead of living everyday smothered by them, or pushing them aside. Sometimes, laying in bed these buzzing unanswered questions can swirl for hours keeping you awake even when you are desperate to fall asleep. It makes you wonder, where were these thoughts during the day when I wasn’t trying to sleep? You can spend days, months, even years pondering questions in bed at night that often can never be answered.


So, how do you stop the cycle? We know that not getting adequate sleep makes everything more difficult. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, coping. We cannot deal with life’s stressors at full capacity without giving our mind the rest it needs at night. Sleep is when we process through important information, regulate emotions, problem solve, and also Importantly, dream! We have the ability to spend time with the people we have lost in through our dreams, and there is great value in that. The trouble is, when you can’t sleep, how do you get there? It’s so easy to resort to something like self medicating, alcohol, drugs, sleeping pills or other medications, but i think we all know this isn’t a long term solution. Often times medicating can feel like the only thing we have access to In our coping "toolbox". I personally used the self medicating method for awhile, but I was waking up regularly feeling nearly as bad, if not worse than when I went to sleep. Turns out sedation by way of medication isn’t the same as sleep!


Alcohol takes the edge off, lowers that tense feeling and let’s you drift off. However, it completely dismantles the very foundation and architecture of your sleep. The quality of your sleep becomes so poor that you cannot truly reap the benefits of a good nights sleep. Cannabis seems to help for some of us, but, the minimal research that exists so far does seem to show it is less detrimental to our sleep than other drugs or alcohol. However, while THC helps you fall asleep, it suppresses our REM sleep that allows you to dream, consolidates memories, organizes information, and regulates emotions. We are already emotional enough as we trudge through the trenches of our grief, the last thing we need is more emotional instability brought on by poor sleep quality.


The real solution for me came with a lot of practice. Forcing myself to think about the things that were haunting me at night, during the day. I started writing down the intrusive, obsessive, and downright depressing thoughts I was having after the lights turned out. Keeping a note pad or notebook on your bedside table is key. I had to say “I’m going to write this down, leave it here, and think about it in the morning with a fresh mind. I had to assure myself that I was not ignoring the thoughts, I was simply saving them for a more convenient time and a clearer, more rested mind. At first, it felt like I wasn’t allowing myself the time to grieve, or I was doing some sort of injustice by not letting myself think about my loss, like it was disrespectful. Once I gave myself permission to rest and literally wrote out and saved my thoughts for a clearer daytime mind, sleep found me again slowly but surely.

It takes practice to say no to the never ending grief that circles around you. It can feel like a massive python, smothering you as it closes around you taking your breath away. I had to make a list of happy things I was “allowed” to think about at bedtime, and put up a mental block on the rest. You might be familiar with mental blocks if you’re anything like me, they are those things you conveniently put into place when you have something you’re supposed to do but reaaaally don’t want to do. Harness that and put up a mental block on those heavy grief feelings at bedtime, and instead honour your loss by allowing yourself to revisit your favourite happy memories as you drift off. Reliving funny conversations or stories, or my favourite times with her. I combined this with consistent deep breathing practice to lower my stress and anxiety levels. It took me some time to get on board with using breathing techniques but how quickly they work to help me relax and fall asleep had me sold. However, remembering to practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques during the day is key so they come more naturally at night when the pressure is on.

These two things, controlling your negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts and memories, and using relaxation techniques, combined, are magic. If you still can’t turn off your mind, occupy it! Go into your body and start thinking about each body part individually. Ok toes, yep they are there, ok are they clenched? Stiff? Just feeling them against the sheets? Great, relax them. Moving on, what about ankles and calves? Same thing, move through your whole body, identifying and voluntarily relaxing them. It's an easy way to take your focus out of your head and anxious thoughts and into your body, you likely won’t make it too far before feeling sleepy. At first, I would get sleepy and then the moment I’d realize I was sleepy I’d recognize it and then wake myself up, bam! right back to the intrusive thoughts. It takes awhile to get it just right but all we have is time, right? Start over, we can do this all night, gonna be here either way! It gets easier, just like the loss does. It’s never easy, but everyday feels just a little more manageable, and that’s all we can hope for. I still think about my mother, and miss her, every single day, but I know I still have to live without her. I want to honour her by living the best life I can, and I know that starts with getting enough sleep.


Dedicated to my Mom, Verna. Rest in peace Mom, I hope I am making you proud.


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