When Grief Messes with our Sleep

"Sleep? What's that?" Paul said. "I manage to snatch a little here and there, but I haven't slept through the night since Colton died."

Paul's son Colton had always been into horses. He began riding at age 4. He spent most of his free time at the arena. He landed an equestrian scholarship and excelled in college. 

Colton was killed one day in a freak accident, caught between two horses spooked by the sudden appearance of a low-flying plane. He had just turned 20. 

"At night, all I can think about is Colton. I've had so many nightmares that now I just expect them. Most nights I don’t even want to go to bed," Paul shared. 


When sleep flees from us

Sleep disturbances are natural and common after the loss of a loved one. Our normal biorhythms have been upset. 

Our system frequently interprets loss as a threat, sending us into fight-or-flight mode. It's hard to rest, sleep, or relax when our brains are sending danger signals to our organ systems.

We try to sleep, but sometimes the quiet gets to us. Our minds spin, and most of our thoughts have to do with our loved one. We naturally dig up all the old questions. Why did this happen? How? What could I have done? How do I live through this?

Minutes turn into hours. If we're lucky, we drift off from time to time. When we do sleep, we often wake up with a start. Another dream about them. Perhaps it was a nightmare and we wake in a panic. Maybe it was a good dream, and we open our eyes to the terrible disappointment of reality.

Many think dreams are an outlet used by our unconscious to work through what the conscious mind cannot. If so, dreams can be another avenue whereby we process our grief. No wonder we dream of our loved one. We love and miss them.

Sleep deprivation is said to be the most basic form of torture. Over time, it can begin to take its toll our bodies and our health.

Most of us need help dealing with the confusion, pain, and anger that so often leads to insomnia and sleep disturbances. None of us should be alone with our nightmares. We're suffering enough already.

Lack of peace, safety, security, and closure usually results in lack of sleep. Sleep disturbances are a natural and common experience for hearts shattered by loss. 

"Even in my sleep, I think of you. I miss you."


An exercise to try:

Sleep disturbances are common. Processing your grief and moving back toward healthy sleep patterns is important. Here are some possible action steps in that direction:

  • Breathe. Practice breathing deeply, especially right before bed (see the exercise in chapter 6 for details on deep breathing).
  • Talk. Talk about your dreams with someone you trust. Be as honest and specific as possible. "Getting it out" is important. 
  • Write. Write your nightmares and dreams down. If you’re more artistic, draw or paint them. This slows down the mind and emotions and helps us process the experience. 

A determined focus to practice these three things - Breathe, Talk, Write - can make a big difference over time. Stay with it. You'll be glad you did. 


Adapted from the award-winning bestseller, Shattered: Surviving the Loss of a Child. You can watch the Shattered videos here: Gary, Michelle



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About the Author

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of the award-winning bestsellers Shattered: Surviving the Loss of a Child, Please Be Patient, I'm Grieving, HEARTBROKEN: Healing from the Loss of a Spouse, and Surviving the Holidays without You and the co-author (with New York Times Bestseller Cecil Murphey) of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One. Visit him at www.garyroe.com.

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