Grief and Insomnia

Grief is its own special kind of hellhole misery. Some of us experience it very early on, some are fortunate to be free of loss until later in life. But there’s no escaping the harsh reality of grief eventually.

I am currently watching my father die. It is not a pleasant death. He is old, so many people think of his dying as inevitable and therefore not so sad. Which is both true and not true. Death is inevitable for all of us, but the grief is no less painful because of his age.

This death is extra hard for me because not only am I very close to one of the most wonderful men who ever graced this earth, but I have experienced so many losses in too few years. There is a triggering fear that losing my dad will be the beginning of a new rollercoaster of unexpected deaths.

And this fear exacerbates my insomnia

I am one of the fortunate people who eventually (after decades of trial and error) responded well to insomnia treatments. I made lifestyle changes and I found pharmaceutical options. I quite frequently sleep really well. It is a heavenly experience.

But as I watch the confronting demise of my beloved father, I find my insomnia returning. I awake brimming with tears and afraid that today will be the day. I awake wondering if he is still in distress or whether the medical team has finally found treatments to ease his suffering. I awake full of ideas I need to put in place so his hospital room is less sterile and more homely.

As my friend said so succinctly, he has nothing but memories now that everything has been taken from him.

No rest, day or night

My middle of the night wakefulness leaves me looking haggard the following day. The last photos of me and dad will show him in physical discomfort and me with enormous bags under my eyes.

Daytime rest is an impossibility because my restless legs syndrome kicks in all day long and the only reprieve I have is after I’ve taken my night time meds.

Managing the best I can

I honestly feel like I’ve aged 10 years in 10 days, and the primary reason is lack of sleep. And crying. There is no simple way to ride the wave of grief and there is no simple way to deal with exhaustion. They are both painful and all-consuming experiences.

The best I can manage, to cope with both situations, is to try and find some self-care. I know that self-care is a frequently touted remedy and we all tire of hearing it. But when there is nothing to ease the distress it is the nearest thing to reprieve.

Cancelling appointments

I find I am cancelling appointments and outings so I can rest in between hospital visits and essential life activities. I will never get this time with my father back but I can go to the optometrist weeks or months from now.

Letting the tears flow

I am allowing myself some “poor me” moments where I cry and bemoan the reality of these days and weeks. Crying is cathartic and I weep not just for my father, but for my fatigue. Crying is also exhausting in and of itself and occasionally leads to a short nap.

This grief will not last forever

I remind myself that trite as it may sound, this too shall pass. The exhaustion will not last forever - I will eventually rest again. The grief will change and evolve as years pass by. The visceral pain of loss will not consume my every day but rather become memories that are both happy and sad. No matter the onslaught of emotional and physical distress, I have to care for myself so I can continue to care for others. Grief has a flow-on effect and so does insomnia. When I let them consume me I lose touch with the many good things in my life that remain untouched by chaos.

One day at a time

Today I will return to the hospital armed with photos and blankets, music and memories. I will hold my father’s hand and pray that his suffering eases.

Today I acknowledge how little sleep I have had and the impact that has on my emotional wellbeing. I will not push myself beyond my ability to cope. I will set boundaries that allow me to endure this time without additional, unnecessary stresses.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is not

For many of us, grief is packaged with insomnia. But the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) concept of radical acceptance reminds us that while pain is inevitable, suffering is not.1

Accepting the reality of this period of time will allow me to quietly navigate the difficult waters and emerge ready to face the new days to come.

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