Why Does Grief Feel Worse at Night?

Updated

The worsening of grief at night isn’t all that uncommon. Unlike the daytime, the evening hours are when the day’s activities start winding down, leading into the stillness of the night. These natural rhythms in our daily lives dictate our body’s ability to get appropriate rest and sleep. When these rhythms are interrupted, we suffer from tiredness, exhaustion, and the inability to cope with stress. 

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A frequent complaint of bereaved persons is the inability to sleep at night after suffering a loss. Experiencing a loss of sleep is a natural and normal part of grieving linked to the initial feelings of shock and disbelief usually attributed to the death of a loved one or another significant loss. Sleep disorders and the physical and psychological side effects of grief tend to worsen at night for some individuals dealing with grief and exhaustion and other consequences of grief. 

Reasons Why Grief May Feel Worse at Night

The relationship between nighttime bereavement and sleep disruption often enhances the harmful effects of certain types of grief. Getting inadequate sleep at night disrupts the body's sleep rhythms necessary to fend off stress, depression, and other adverse grief reactions. The mind and body defenses are lowest when poor sleep patterns exist, leading to negative grief consequences. Here are some reasons why grief may seem worse at night. 

Loneliness creeps up

Severe yearning for the deceased or preoccupation with the details of their death leads to disrupted sleep patterns, making it challenging to fall or stay asleep. Individuals who’ve lost a spouse or child may feel intense emotional pain that adds to feelings of loneliness and depression that can last for several months post-loss. The nighttime hours are when all activities slow down or stop, providing ample opportunity to think about specific losses and consequences. 

The mind goes into overdrive

Grief-related insomnia is sometimes a consequence of rumination on the loss and specific thoughts of the deceased when taken together. Grief and insomnia work against the body's natural ability to heal and may exacerbate the consequences of grief when the mind and body are exhausted.

The nighttime hours make it more challenging to cope with the profound pain of loss. A bereaved person may find an issue with initiating or maintaining sleep, allowing for more hours to think about their loss. 

Defenses are down

The level of grief a person feels directly ties in to their inability to sleep at night. When sleep is interrupted for several nights in a row, the body loses some of its natural defenses to ward off depression and block other negative thoughts from creeping in.

A bereaved person may be too tired to fight with themselves and might succumb to their grief more so at night because there typically isn’t anyone around to help them cope with their grief. And the less sleep they get, the more their symptoms of grief increase. 

Examples of Grief Feeling Worse at Night

Many grieving individuals experience increased grief-related symptoms at night associated with problems staying and falling asleep, leading to an increase in experiencing worse grief at night. Sleep disturbances generally increase with a person’s age.

One of the reasons is that older adults may already suffer from other medical conditions contributing to their usual sleep habits. The following are some examples of how grief may feel worse at night for some people.

Spouse losing partner

Older adults who've spent many years married to a spouse who's recently died are vulnerable to increased feelings of grief at night.

The onset of nighttime increased distress stems from not having that person around to enjoy the evening to talk about things that went on during the day or hold at night when going to bed. Loneliness contributes to the nighttime worsening of grief and directly relates to a loved one's absence from usual end-of-day routines. 

Breadwinner getting fired 

Not everyone who’s suffering from grief has experienced the death of a loved one. Additional causes of distress link to interpersonal issues, problems at school or work, or financial matters. Sometimes all three contribute to feelings of increased nighttime stress.

A parent who’s financially responsible for the maintenance and financial upkeep of their family who has just lost their job may feel an increase in their grief at night. Their stress and worries keep them up, focusing on how they’re going to improve their situation. 

A child whose parents died

A young child who's experienced the death of a parent may feel the added stress of their grief at night when they feel the impact of their parent's absence.

Children often have the added social support of their friends and other loved ones throughout the day to help them cope with their grief. However, young children feel an increase in their loss when the night comes and their parent isn't there to cook dinner for them or tuck them in as usual. 

How to Deal With Grief at Night

The severe, persistent, and debilitating grief that sets in at night for some people can be challenging to overcome. With diminished grief resources, most bereaved individuals must rely on self-care, especially when they live alone. The following tips and ideas may alleviate some of the intense feelings of grief prevalent in the nighttime. 

Meditating before bedtime

Meditation is the spiritual practice of self-care that involves observing your thoughts and calming your mind. Although this practice isn't a religion, it has some of the same calming effects as when you go to your usual place of worship.

Meditation is primarily about calming the racing thoughts that contribute to your fear and anxiety after suffering a significant loss. This practice will help you calm down so that you can get better nighttime rest.

Reaching out for support

Never underestimate the social and grief support your friends and family can offer you. Often it may feel that reaching out to those you know in your moments of distress may be burdensome to them. Instead of making a quick phone call for some reassurance, you spend the better part of the evening trying to deal, unsuccessfully, with your grief.

If this sounds like you, you may benefit from setting up at least two “lifelines” of trusted individuals you can call on at any time during the night with no explanation needed. 

Taking a sleep aid

Talk to your medical professional about your loss-related experiences and how they might increase at night. Although many doctors are moving away from prescribing quick fixes to deal with mental health issues, they understand the need for a temporary bridge to get you through the most challenging times when grieving.

If your doctor refuses to or you don’t have access to medical care, consider talking to your local pharmacist to see what they can recommend that’s safe to use temporarily. Make sure to research the potential side effects before you start taking something for sleep, whether it’s a prescription or over-the-counter. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With Grief at Night

When someone you know and love is suffering the effects of grief, it’s hard to stand by and watch them go through the pain and suffering. You may feel at a loss of what to do or say to help them, so you turn away because it’s just too painful to bear. You’re not alone if this scenario resonates with you. 

Most people don’t know how to help a loved one in distress, and they might disappear for a while until their loved one gets over their grief. The sad reality is that the only way to heal from suffering is to go through it. There’s no getting over grief. Here are some suggestions on how you might be able to help.

Remain present 

Being a constant source of support for a loved one dealing with grief can boost their mood and positively affect their outlook. Depending on the type of loss your loved one has suffered, their evening routines may have drastically changed, leaving a void that screams pain and loneliness. 

Maintaining a presence for your loved ones means not only taking their calls but initiating them to check up on how they're coping. It also means listening without judgment or rushing to get off the phone. If time and distance permit, consider spending a few evenings with them throughout the week until they get through the initial stages of their loss. 

Offer healthy distractions

Allow your loved one to go out and do something to take their mind off of their loss. Everyone benefits from taking a break from their grief once in a while. Consider taking your loved one out for an evening meal, a movie, or a long walk somewhere that’s safe at night.

If you live near the water, you might include a walk along the shoreline or maybe even a hike at a nearby trail. Any activity that combines physical movement with connectivity will benefit your loved ones as they struggle with grief. 

Buy them a book

Books on grief make excellent gifts for someone who has grief-related insomnia. The benefits of reading about grief are numerous as they provide knowledge and education on an often neglected topic. Some more practical reasons why you might want to get your loved one reading at night are that it:

  1. Provides a distraction from their grief
  2. Gives them something productive to do
  3. Allows opportunity to learn and understand about grief
  4. Offers a soothing way to wind down at night

Increases in Nighttime Suffering

Grief and insomnia create stress and anxiety in many individuals who’ve experienced a life-altering loss. Each of these consequences can make grief-related symptoms worse as the lack of sleep and proper rest increases. Finding ways of overcoming nighttime suffering is essential in restoring mental and physical wellbeing. 

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