It had been a few weeks since our loss when someone asked me if I was sleeping okay. Naively, I answered yes. If I’m honest, answering yes felt completely inaccurate stumbling out of my mouth but I couldn’t figure out why initially. Maybe a part of me wanted it to look like I was handling this “so well”, and maybe another part of me actually believed that to be true. Now, seven years later I am positive that wanting to handle grief at all is a misguided aspiration. Surviving it should be at the forefront, along with taking care of your heart, space and mind. Grief is so overwhelming you don’t even realize how much has changed until time has allowed you to adapt to the massive ripples that have saturated the topography of your entire life. Time doesn’t heal, it merely gives you a measurable space to adapt.
For me, insomnia didn’t just happen overnight — it crept in slowly. It started when I would try to lie down at a normal hour and find myself wrestling with thoughts that could not be silenced with activity and television and conversation. The more I tried to sleep, the louder and darker the thoughts and memories became. Eventually I just started staying up later and later until I was completely exhausted — and too exhausted — to think. So each night instead of falling asleep, I would crash. I would make myself go a hundred miles an hour with the day’s activities until I couldn’t go anymore.
It wasn’t until two years passed, and circles under my eyes started to gather, and constant fatigue that I realized it all pointed to sleep deprivation. A few physical symptoms that were manifesting as a result of poor sleep were acne, sugar addiction and a particularly hard time losing weight, but most importantly my health was suffering. I could feel myself getting weaker. I found out that grief did have physical symptoms.
When I realized I did in fact suffer from insomnia, I began taking notice of the physical symptoms that subsided, and took mental notes of my energy levels. It was a journey back to getting the proper sleep, though I don’t know that I will ever sleep like I used to. I give into rest more easily than I used to, because frankly I think time is on my side. I don’t know that there is any one thing that helped, but ultimately the journey to getting proper rest began with a decision to say yes to myself and to my body.
- Slow down. It is okay that grief might have you running in every direction for distractions. I am all about facing grief, but distractions from grief keep us from losing our minds. The key is knowing when to shut them down, dim the lights, walk away, say no, answer that text message in the morning, etc. There is a benefit in running all day, your body will most likely be exhausted (mentally and physically) from the day’s activities that transitioning into a slower pace might come more natural. Find an hour that works for you to slow things down a bit. In your transition from activity to slowing down, find 2-3 calming activities you enjoy. They could be reading a book, stretching, taking a walk around your neighborhood, meditating, praying, taking a warm bath with bath salts or bath bombs, having a cup of tea, crochet, doing a body scan while laying flat on a yoga mat, listening to a podcast, etc.
- Be vigilant. Your instinct will be to give into whatever is helping you survive. And up until this point that has been anything but rest, so be ready and be aware that while your body needs rest, it won’t give in so easily. Fight or flight, remember? Your body is often in “fight” mode after losing someone you love. You will find yourself retraining your body and mind to calm down, and to find rest enjoyable and just as satisfying as staying busy. Write yourself a note, a little encouragement in advance. You might even put a reminder on your phone to rest, and a few more after that to just keep resting. Have your materials for your calming activities (if needed) handy so that escaping from rest isn’t so easy.
- Reduce stimulants. Our world is chalk full of stimulants. We are wired, not just as grievers, but as human beings in a modern world to be stimulated. Caffeine and electronics can be your best friend in the morning when it’s time to start your day and hit the ground running, but at the end of the day, and especially if you’re suffering in the sleep department, find a balance that works for you. Maybe you cannot shut off your phone for work or personal reasons, but maybe you can switch to an herbal tea instead of reaching for a soda after a certain hour. Even eating too late can also disrupt your sleep cycles. Try to eat lightly at dinner when possible. If you can, try to drink two cups of water before sleeping. This will aid in digestion and hopefully alleviate any physical barriers to getting proper sleep.
- Aroma. There are smells that I will always associate with the hospital and Jenna. Similarly, there are smells that make me want to clean, or cook or even eat. Make yourself keenly aware of your environment, even down to what your bedroom smells like. Scents can also serve as soothers or stimulants. You might invest in a candle that has a gentle scent. There are also essential oils worth looking into that have calming properties.
- Breath. It might sound cliche, in fact I’m sure that it does but tuning into your breath is massively connected to good sleep. Look into three part breathing. Is your heart racing? Is your belly engaged? What is your breathing like? Is it deep or is it shallow? Is it fast or slow? Most likely if your heart is racing and your breathing is shallow, going to sleep will only end in frustration. Engaging in some gentle breathing exercises will help you relax before trying to sleep.
It is only until we are stripped of our innate ability to fall asleep that we realize how impossible it can be when we have mental, and physical barriers. More often than not it isn’t grief that keeps us from sleep and rest, it is our reactions to grief, such as eating too late, engaging in social media or watching TV later than usual, or not being aware of our surroundings that cause us to actually miss out on sleep.
Teaching yourself how to calm down, slow down and relax is entirely contrary to what we have learned to do since losing our precious children. But I urge you to take a courageous step toward rest if you have been suffering from sleep deprivation or insomnia.
disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nurse, and any type of clinician and I don’t play one on the Internet. Consult with your physician before making any changes to your diet and physical health.