How to Cope with Grief and Sleep Alone
Nothing will ease your grief—at least, not for a while. But these tips will help you sleep, and sleep will help you heal.
By Ellen Michaud with Julie Bain
From Sleep to Be Sexy Smart and Slim
A Time of Turbulent Emotions
Grief is hard. There is no easy way to move through it. Most of us will lose someone we love, will feel bruised right down to our soul. We’ll feel worry, fear, sadness, guilt, anger, frustration, confusion, and loneliness. Some psychologists say that those feelings are stages through which we move. But the truth is, moving through these stages is circular. We’ll begin to move on, spot a glove or a book left behind, and slip right back into a puddle of despair.
Unfortunately, a consequence of these uncontrollable feelings is something that makes it even harder to handle: Most of us simply don’t sleep. We lie down, turn out the light, close our eyes—and our minds remain sharply alert. And when we finally slip into unconsciousness, we frequently wake through the night.
Disrupted sleep makes it harder to handle our grief, our lives, and even the day-to-day duties of making the bed or paying the bills. And it may also affect our health. In a study of 4,395 married couples at the University of Glasgow, for example, when one spouse died, the risk of the other spouse dying from anything ranging from heart disease, stroke, and cancer to accidents and violence increased by 27 percent.
14 Tips to Help You Sleep Alone
1. JOURNAL. Limit writing to 15 minutes a day, and just write about how you feel. Periodically read back through what you’ve written. Over time you’ll be able to see how you’ve moved through the grieving process. Somewhere around 80 percent of us will move through the worst of our grief within a year.
2. NURTURE YOURSELF. Pay attention to your body’s needs. Prepare balanced meals, and serve them on your best china and linens. Exercise for 30 minutes every day, even if it’s just a walk with the dog. And every morning center yourself in a prayer of gratitude for the people in your life, the sunshine outside your window, and the fact that you can make a difference in the lives of others.
3. CONSULT SOME EXPERTS. Check with your attorney and a financial consultant about the effects a death has on your legal and financial situation. No, you don’t want to deal with it. On the other hand, you’ll sleep better knowing exactly what will—or won’t—be coming at you in the months ahead.
4. USE GUIDED IMAGERY. “Mind/body stuff really works in helping you get to sleep,” says therapist Belleruth Naparstek, M.S. “The imagery has enough cognitive recruitment to seduce the brain into seeing and thinking about other things, while the voice tone, pacing, music, and images will persuade your parasympathetic nervous system that it’s time to calm down. It will shut down the adrenaline and shoot some calming hormones into your nervous system.”
Slip a CD of guided imagery into your CD player, snuggle into bed, turn out the lights, and follow the imagery into sleep.
5. BAN THE BOTTLE. Alcohol simply prolongs the grieving process and makes it harder to get good, restorative sleep.
6. SCHEDULE A MASSAGE. “Massage interrupts the neurohormones connected with sleeplessness and almost manually imposes sleep on you,” says Naparstek. “If you can’t afford a massage, go to a massage school. You can get one there for $15.”
7. GET WHAT YOU NEED. “For some people six months of Ambien is a good thing,” says Naparstek. “If you need to take medication to interrupt the adrenalization of your life, so be it.”
More Sleep Tips
8. FIND NEW FRIENDS. Preferably other widows. Several women who belonged to the same church in Spring Hill, Florida, banded together after the death of their husbands and called themselves the Merry Widows. One was an artist, another a real estate agent, and two others were homemakers.
At first they weren’t merry at all—like everybody else, they were devastated by their losses. But gradually as they met for lunch or dinner, picked each other up for church, and brought takeout or chicken soup to those who were sick, things changed. They joked—with a sometimes macabre humor that could startle those still married folks who overheard them—providing an understanding and caring for one another that soothed their adrenalized state.
9. READ. Books on grieving, particularly memoirs of survivors, can reassure you that many of the intense feelings keeping you up will someday ease.
10. WRITE A LETTER. What would you tell your partner if you had a chance? Even if you don’t share the letter with anyone, the process of writing it may help you unload some of that adrenaline. If you’re angry, feel free to vent.
11. ACCEPT YOUR GRIEF. Allow yourself to move through all the emotions associated with grieving—sadness, longing, guilt, anger, betrayal, the whole range of passionate emotion that allows you to be the loving, caring person you are. Don’t try to stiff-upper-lip it. You’ll only make getting to sleep harder, prolonging the grieving process.
12. BE CLEAR. So many people will want to talk with you about your spouse and your grief. Friends will want to process their own grief by talking about it over and over. Be tough and tell them very clearly to leave you alone. Same goes for those whom who know only slightly. “I got very comfortable saying, `I don’t want to talk about this,’ ” says Naparstek.
13. COLLECT THE STUPID THINGS PEOPLE SAY. Write them down, share them with close friends, and joke about them. “I had a friend—a nurse—whose husband died of a heart attack,” Naparstek says. “I knew that she’d had a snootful of all the things people say. So I called and said, `Wanna get together for dinner? I’m buying. And we can talk about all the stupid things people say to new widows!’ “ She laughs. “We had a blast!”
14. FIND SOLACE IN ONLINE COMMUNITIES When you simply can't sleep, talk to someone who can help you deal with the thoughts running through your head, such as another widow. Log on to the Web site http://groups.msn.com/forwidowsonly or www.groww.com/Branches/branch.htm or if you're a young widow, try www.ywbb.org/index.shtml. Chat, get a cup of tea, then go back to bad.