The loss of a loved one is traumatic on every level: physical, emotional, psychological, and for many people spiritual as well. One of the most common — and potentially dangerous — after-effects of coping with extreme grief is insomnia. A 2010 study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that sleep disturbances were common in bereavement, both for individuals widowed later in life, and for those suffering from prolonged grief disorder (also known as traumatic grief and complicated grief). 

What makes insomnia so debilitating, is that it adversely impacts so much of our lives — from our ability to digest what we eat, to our capacity to concentrate, to the strength of our immune system to fight off infection and illness, and the list goes on, comments experienced funeral director and licensed embalmer Henry Vinson. To exacerbate the problem, it is in the aftermath of losing a loved one when people need to protect and fortify their health the most. However, when they cannot sleep, they draw down their already-limited resources. It’s a vicious cycle that can open the door to very serious and even potential conditions, like heart attack and stroke.

According to Henry Vinson, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mortuary Science, here are four ways to deal with insomnia after the loss of a loved one:

  1. Cut down on — or better yet, avoid — coffee and alcohol.

While a cup or two of coffee in the morning is usually fine, individuals experiencing insomnia or low-quality sleep should stop consuming caffeine (in all of its forms, including chocolate) by mid-afternoon. Those who enjoy the taste of coffee can try caffeine-free substitutes made from roast chicory, dandelion root, and mushrooms; all of which are available online or at a local health store. Alcohol consumption should also be reduced or eliminated. Even though alcohol is a depressant and typically makes people feel drowsy, it can also cause excessive relaxation in the muscles in the neck, throat, and head — which ultimately disrupts optimal breathing during sleep. Furthermore, alcohol can cause disturbances in the body’s circadian rhythm (the internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats approximately once every 24 hours), which upon waking contribute to irritability, fatigue, and trouble concentrating. 

According to Henry Vinson, caffeine and alcohol consumption are highly detrimental to sleep. In addition to impeding the brain and body’s need to relax overnight, they can also lead to dehydration, which can cause kidney and liver damage, as well as other serious health problems.

  • Make the bedroom a sleep-only space.

Many people use their bedroom for a variety of tasks: working, exercising, watching TV, surfing the web, checking email, reading, and so on. While this may be efficient, sleep experts suggest that it’s not smart or healthy — because it can negatively impact sleep and in some cases trigger insomnia (including the kind that people are not aware of since they do not recall waking up throughout the night, even though that is what is indeed happening on a regular basis).

Henry Vinson, who also advises death care providers on how to effectively and appropriately market and advertise their services states that the ideal is to make the bedroom a sleep-only space, so that the body and mind associate that area with sleeping instead of another activity, such as watching TV or reading a book. With this in mind, in some homes it may not be practical or feasible to make the bedroom a sleep-only space. For example, people who live in an apartment or condo may need to put their treadmill or exercise bike in their bedroom. If this is the case, then the advice is to impose cut-off times for any non-sleep activities in the bedroom.

  • Exercise during the day.

In addition to promoting quality sleep, studies have shown that exercise can help some people cope with grief, and it may also help prevent depression. While exercising during the evening may not adversely impact sleep — in fact, some people claim that it helps them sleep — the general consensus remains that exercising during the day (and ideally in the morning to maximize metabolism-boosting benefits) is the smarter, safer option.

Individuals should also consult with their physician or other member of the health care team, to determine what kind of exercise they should be doing, with what intensity, and for what duration.

  • Use herbs, botanicals or pharmaceuticals as directed.

If adjustments such as reducing (or eliminating) caffeine and alcohol consumption, making the bedroom a sleep-only space, and following a daily exercise regimen are not contributing to the solution — or at least, not having enough of an impact — then it may be helpful to use specific herbs, botanicals or pharmaceuticals. However, it is extremely important that people do not self-medicate. They should consult a qualified naturopathic doctor for advice on herbs and botanicals, and consult their physician for advice on possible pharmaceutical and over-the-counter options.

The web is loaded with articles, videos, ebooks, infographics, and more on what people can take to deal with insomnia and promote restful, quality sleep. However, while this information is well-intentioned, in some cases it can be incomplete. Listening to a well-meaning family member, friend or colleague can also worsen the problem instead of help solve it. Consulting with a doctor either naturopathic, medical, or both is vital.

The Bottom Line

Coping with grief is a difficult, painful, and prolonged process that can take many months or years to resolve. Unfortunately, insomnia — which is common after the loss of a loved one — makes an already agonizing situation even worse, and can open the door to a range of physical and mental health problem.

Concluded Henry Vinson: occasional sleeplessness is, for most people, an inevitable consequence of losing a loved one. However, if the condition persists, then it must not be ignored. Professional help and support is available.