Their work showed that consumers who have trouble sleeping after losing a loved one are more likely to experience "complicated grief;" this occurs when someone struggles to heal and process through their grief, which prolongs the mourning process.
“We know that, for many people, experiencing the death of a loved one is followed by sleep disruption -- not surprisingly, given how stressful it is to lose a loved one,” said researcher Mary-Frances O’Connor. “We also know that people who have a more prolonged grief disorder tend to have persistent sleep problems. That led us to ask: What if the reverse is possible? Could it be that people who have had sleep disruption and then experience the death of a loved one are more likely to develop complicated grief?”
How grief and sleep complicate each other
To better understand the link between sleep and the grieving process, the researchers followed participants enrolled in the Rotterdam Study across several years. Over the course of several interviews, the participants answered questions about their mental and emotional wellness, documented their sleeping patterns in a diary, and wore devices that tracked the quality of their sleep. The researchers then compared their responses from the start of the study to their responses six years later.
While traumatic events greatly impacted consumers’ sleeping habits, the study showed that persistent sleep troubles after the loss of a loved one were also problematic long-term. In looking at both the participants’ sleep diaries and their tracked sleep activity, the researchers found that having trouble sleeping was often associated with complicated grief.
“What we saw was that if at the first time point you had sleep disruption -- both objective and self-reported -- you were more likely to be in the complicated grief group than the non-complicated grief group at the second time point,” said O’Connor. “So, poor sleep might not only accompany grief, but also be a risk factor for developing complicated grief after a loss.”
Sleep affects so many of the body’s processes -- both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, it can become disrupted when the added stress of losing a loved one is factored in.
“We know that sleep is important for processing emotional events that happen during the daytime,” O’Connor said. “Sleep also helps us to rest and restore our physical body, and grief is a very stressful experience for the body. Being able to rest and restore probably helps us wake up the next day a little more physically prepared to deal with the grief.”
Moving forward, the researchers hope that more health care providers consider the relationship between grief and sleep to ensure that their patients are receiving the care that’s best suited to their needs.