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Illustration by Maya Chastain

Grief is an incredibly difficult experience. You may feel a range of emotions as you move through the grieving process. Not only that, but you may also experience other issues, like trouble sleeping or depression symptoms.

Grief looks different for each person, so how you experience it and how it affects your overall health is highly individual.

Here’s what you need to know about grief and its effect on sleep. Grief may cause other physical and mental health issues as well. Be sure to speak with a doctor or another trusted person whenever you need help.

Grief is a difficult but normal process a person may go through after a loss, such as the death of a loved one or some other trauma.

There are many reactions a person may go through with grief, including shock and denial, anxiety, anger, sadness, and — yes — loss of sleep (insomnia) and appetite.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder where a person has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting quality sleep. Anything from poor sleep hygiene to changes in a person’s schedule can cause it. Stress, the kind you may experience with grief, can also cause insomnia.

Insomnia can last from just a few days to several weeks. However, chronic insomnia happens when the sleep loss becomes regular and lasts a long time. Generally, chronic insomnia is defined as trouble sleeping 3 or more nights a week for at least 3 months.

“Acute grief” is the grief a person feels soon after the loss or event and up to 1 year after. Symptoms may include sadness, crying, and insomnia.

In severe cases, a person may also experience a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Broken heart syndrome (Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) — when the left ventricle of the heart stops pumping blood efficiently — is another possible heart complication. It may mimic heart attack symptoms.

Other symptoms of grief can include:

A person may develop new or worsening symptoms if their grief lasts longer than 1 year. This is sometimes called complicated grief.

The American Psychiatric Association recently updated its handbook for mental health professionals. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR)” now includes the term “prolonged grief disorder” for people whose grief comes with intense emotional pain and can be disruptive to their lives.

What does insomnia do to the body?

In the short term, insomnia may start to affect a person’s ability to concentrate or remember things. With time, experts share that loss of sleep can lead to many chronic health issues, including:

Other research from 2019 on grief and sleep suggests that not getting enough sleep may lead to inflammation in the body, a common increased stress response, and various chronic inflammatory health conditions.

When to talk with a doctor

If you are experiencing grief and having trouble managing it, it may be hard to reach out and tell someone you’re struggling. Whether or not you have sleep loss with your grief, though, it may be a good idea to let a doctor know what you’re going through.

Along with assessing your physical health, a doctor can offer resources to help you process your grief, like support groups or individual therapy.

Other reasons to talk with a doctor include:

  • having more than 3 months of trouble sleeping
  • difficulty carrying out everyday activities and obligations
  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • symptoms of grief lasting more than 1 year
  • other physical symptoms (like headaches or upset stomach) that interfere with everyday life
  • substance misuse
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It can be hard to sleep, and sleep well, when you’re grieving. The first step is to not be frustrated with yourself if it’s happening. Give yourself grace and patience to get through this challenging time.

When you’re ready, consider trying some of these tips to see whether they help you get more rest and improve your overall sleep:

  • Create a routine: You may not be going through life with the same schedule while you’re grieving. But getting back into a predictable pattern of eating, sleeping, and activity can help when it comes to rest.
  • Set a bedtime: Part of your new routine can involve setting a predictable bedtime (and wake time) so your body can get back into the habit of feeling tired around the same time each day.
  • Get rid of distractions: Remove things from your bedroom space that distract you from sleeping. This may include a television or smartphone. The blue light from screens can sometimes disrupt your sleep.
  • Optimize your bedroom for sleeping: Use blackout curtains to make the room dark and a white noise machine to drown out outside noises. Good ventilation is also important for good sleep.
  • Exercise: Working out may be the last thing on your mind these days. Still, walking or getting in other movement each day may help you more easily fall asleep at night. Just make sure not to exercise immediately before bed.
  • Avoid large meals, alcohol, and caffeine close to bedtime: Avoid large meals before going to bed. Consuming alcohol and caffeine soon before bed may also make it harder to sleep. A cup of tea might help you get to sleep. Just keep in mind it could also make you get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Take our sleep quiz to see how well your current sleep hygiene stacks up.

It may feel overwhelming to make all these changes at once. Try starting with one and then working your way up to more with time.

You may find out that doing one thing, like creating a routine, lends itself to others, like regular exercise. Stick with it as much as possible. Over time, you may find that you are sleeping better.

If not, get in touch with a doctor for additional advice and medical care. For example, a doctor may suggest cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or prescribe medications to help you sleep in the short term.

Researchers share that the grieving process is typically moved through in the course of a year. For 7% to 10% of people, though, the process may take longer.

If you are going through grief and loss, there are resources that can help. A good first step is speaking with a friend or family member you trust about how you are feeling, both mentally and physically.

If possible, reach out to a doctor too. They may suggest lifestyle modifications or medications, depending on what is most affecting you.

Therapy is another option you can try in either an individual or group setting. A doctor can connect you with therapists in your area. You can also find a grief support group near you by searching online databases, like

Other resources that may be helpful:

Trouble sleeping is common with grief. A few lifestyle modifications may help your body get back into a better rhythm and make getting a good night’s sleep easier. If not, there are medications that may help along with other methods, like therapy.

While it may be hard to see when you are in the depths of it, you are not alone in navigating the grieving process. Reach out to friends, family, or a doctor. With time and some support, you can overcome grief and improve your mental and physical health.