Understanding How the Loss of a Spouse Can Affect Your Sleep

Woman in ChairThe loss of a spouse, no matter how old you are, is a traumatic experience. Not only are you losing your partner, but death also brings with it stress and anxiety related to financial security, changes in lifestyle, and even feelings of reduced personal safety. All of these factors can contribute to sleep disturbances -- not to mention the changes to the sleeping environment that come with the loss of a spouse -- and ultimately, affect the bereaved person’s overall mood and mental well-being. 


According to one study, virtually everyone who is mourning the loss of a loved one experiences sleep disturbances. Although sleep disturbances are temporary for some people experiencing grief, when they last longer than six months, it’s a sign of complicated grief (CG) also known as prolonged or traumatic grief. CG is usually marked by other signs and symptoms of depression, such as feelings of hopelessness or despair. Sleepless nights can only exacerbate those symptoms, creating a vicious cycle that typically requires medical intervention. 


Why Sleep Is Important

The connection between grief and sleep isn’t necessarily well-studied, but researchers who have investigated how bereavement impacts sleep have all reached similar conclusions: Sleep disturbances may be inevitable, but the longer they go on, the more detrimental they are. In fact, for older adults, losing a spouse can actually increase their own chances of dying. Researchers have discovered that seniors who have grief-related sleep disturbances -- specifically taking 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep and spending less than 80 percent of their time in bed actually asleep -- are almost twice as likely to die as those who aren’t bereaved. 


It’s possible that this increased risk of death comes from the cognitive, emotional, and physical effects of sleep deprivation. Cognitively, when you’re sleep-deprived you are less able to process information, have poor memory, and are more likely to have poor judgment and make bad decisions, which can affect your overall well-being in many ways. Emotionally, sleep deprivation can contribute to anxiety and depression, and prevent you from seeing the positives of life and healing from your loss. 


Perhaps most concerning, though, are the physical effects of sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep reduces your immune function, increasing your likelihood of getting sick, while also contributing to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, if your grief extends into CG, your risk of poor outcomes from any of these conditions increases, along with your chances of developing cancer and high blood pressure. 


Clearly, it’s important to make sleep a priority after the loss of a loved one. That may be easier said than done, though. 

Sleep Better After Loss

Although it’s normal to experience some sleep issues after your spouse’s death, it shouldn’t last for more than a few weeks. It’s important to understand that grief is a process, and it can take time to work through all your emotions and accept your new normal. 


That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps toward healthy sleep while you grieve, though. Taking care of yourself and maintaining as healthy a lifestyle as possible can help you recover from the loss. Follow some of these tips for healthy sleep during your grieving period.


  • Address your grief. Although it might feel more comfortable or seem easier to avoid confronting the emotions you’re facing, this can prolong the bereavement period and contribute to other problems. Acknowledging your grief, and that you will have complicated feelings that may be exhausting or overwhelming at times, is a good first step. Working through your grief with the help of cognitive-behavioral therapy, talk therapy, support groups, and celebrating the life of your loved one can help you get a handle on your feelings, so you can improve your sleep. 


  • Focus on sleep hygiene. Developing sleep-promoting habits, including creating a comfortable sleep environment, limiting the bedroom for sleeping only, creating a bedtime routine, and not using electronics before bed can help support healthy sleep. 


  • Maintain a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, and avoiding long naps during the day, can help you sleep better at night. 


  • Eat well and exercise. Sticking to a healthy diet, and getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise will help you sleep. Try to get outside if you can, so you’ll be exposed to natural sunlight, which can help regulate your natural sleep-wake cycle. 


  • Evaluate your space. Spend some time thinking about how your bedroom is influencing your sleep, and whether it’s helping or hurting you to have reminders of your loved one nearby. Photographs, mementos, even bedding can have a profound effect on your emotional state, and making some changes may help you sleep better. This doesn’t mean you need to remove all reminders of your spouse from your life permanently,  but even temporarily moving things around can help you get more rest. 


Ultimately, it’s important to understand that having trouble sleeping after the loss of a spouse is totally normal and to be expected. Taking time to care for yourself and focusing on sleep hygiene, and getting help when necessary, can help you process your loss and stay healthy as you adjust to your new lifestyle.

About the Author

Robyn South is a Relations Specialist for the Sleep Advisor, a website that covers everything related to sleep, from mattresses to the newest science behind technology and wellness breakthroughs.