Sleep and Grief

 by Christi Neville, LPC

At a recent Kids Who Kare group, when we were discussing a relaxation activity, the kids were asked how they sleep at night, and not surprisingly, about 99% of the group expressed that since their loss, they have trouble sleeping….either getting to sleep, waking up frequently, or having nightmares. Many parents wonder, is this normal?

child sleepingIn grief, absolutely….though sleep disturbance is one of the most common grief “symptoms”, it’s important to understand the potentially adverse consequences on our health. Research has shown us that sleep deprivation impacts: the immune system, resulting in high correlations with various health conditions cognitive functioning, memory, and learning capacity, which all affect school performance mood…..insomnia and depression feed on each other. Sleep loss often aggravates the symptoms of depression; treating sleep problems can help depression symptoms, and vice versa. You don’t need a clinician to tell you that simply put, sleep loss makes us feel worse, and when we’re already struggling with so many challenges of loss, it adds insult to injury.

Though this list is not exhaustive, here are five things you can do as a caregiver to help your child get the restorative sleep they need:

1. Daily exercise Make sure your child gets plenty of good exercise at some point in the afternoon, ideally outside….the natural light affects our seratonin levels. Minimize sugar and caffeine, especially after 3pm.

2. Create a consistent bedtime routine By doing this, not only are you teaching them the importance of self-care, but the consistency factor in and of itself is important for bereaved children. Structure, routine, and consistent expectations help provide children with the sense of safety they need to mitigate grief’s common feelings of lack of control.

bedtime stories

3. Go to bed with peaceful thoughts The thoughts we fill our mind with before bed set the stage for our night. We’ve probably all heard the advice to never go to bed angry… grief, it’s also helpful for children to never go to bed fearful. After loss, it’s common for children to fear something bad happening to them or to their surviving loved ones, and many children are afraid to go to sleep, whether this is consciously verbalized or not. Whatever nurturing communication you can establish with your child in the evening to invite them to share any worries, will be helpful. One idea that we will be doing in group and that can also be done at home is to create a “worry box”…..before bedtime, have your child name and write down on a small piece of paper any worry they may have…together, release that burden by putting it in a small box, and consider taking the box to another room. It’s important to then help them replace that worry with something reassuring before bed, be it a prayer, affirmation, comforting words or images, or a favorite stuffed animal.

4. Create a sleep sanctuary Refrain from tv/computer/screen time an hour before bed, minimize electronic lighting in the room, and in general, make their sleep environment comforting and inviting.

5. Invoke the Relaxation Response Grief is perhaps one of the most enduring forms of stress on our bodies and minds, and especially after a traumatic life event, our cells continue holding that “fight or flight response”, which can have harmful effects. The good news is that this stress response can be reversed by relaxation, and I’d like to offer a variety of ideas to try with your children:

“tummy toy breathing”: this is an exercise we practiced in group….lying flat on their back with eyes closed, have your child place a small toy on their tummy….in silence, practice breathing slowly and deeply for several minutes….have them feel their toy rising with each deep belly breath….you’ll be amazed at the results!

“the spaghetti technique”: another exercise learned in group….child consciously tenses up their body like an uncooked piece of spaghetti, holding in their muscles for ten seconds, then releases into relaxation like a cooked wet noodle….repeat process until they’re fully relaxed!

“pizza massage”: a fun and relaxing way to connect with your child….if they’re confortable with you messaging their backs, pretend you’re making a pizza as a way to experience different massage strokes…”kneading the dough” can feel wonderful on their backs, then ask your child what toppings they want, playfully pretending to add topping to the pizza, ending with a goodnight hug and kiss!bubble bath

a good old-fashioned warm bath: there’s nothing to replace this longstanding remedy, and there are many great aromatherapy bubble bath products made for children these days that can enhance relaxation.

I hope these tips are helpful for your child, and I lovingly encourage you too, as caregivers, to modify and use these practices to take care of yourselves as well!


About the Author

Christi Neville, LPC is The Christi Center’s Kids Who Kare and Peer Support Coordinator:

“My interest in grief and loss began in 1997, when a tragic accident claimed the love of my life, and catapulted me into a humbling journey of healing. An intern counselor at the time,  I  was astounded to realized our culture’s lack of understanding of grief, and as I committed myself to my own personal growth, my thirst for knowledge led me into professional realms as well.  After graduating with my Master’s in Counseling from The University of Denver in 1999, I began a holistic private practice in Colorado devoted exclusively to grief, and from that foundation, have led support groups for children, for surviving family members at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and have run several hospice bereavement programs.  After relocating back to my native Texas, I was lucky enough to find The Christi Center, and am excited to contribute my blend of personal and professional experience as I support the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of loss.  Outside of work, I enjoy music, meditation, and spending time outside with my super-duper son, who reminds me daily to stay present to the magic and wonder of life.”

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