The missing puzzle piece for healing sleep
You might be one of those that feels grief heavily at night even months or years after the loss. You manage to keep yourself together during the day, but when night comes you know what is waiting for you: the emptiness and bleakness, crying on the kitchen floor…
What you are experiencing is normal because elevated stress hormones in your system like cortisol and adrenaline are keeping you revved up at night and hyperarousal causes insomnia. Grief erodes the foundation of your life, and rituals can give you a sense of balance when your world is tittering dangerously.
I found out that bedtime rituals can act as a boat that transports you into the healing arms of sleep and dreams where healing and integration of memories too traumatic to process when awake can be digested.
In this article, I show you how to create your own personal bedtime rituals designed to meet your unique needs and assuage grief symptoms.
Please note that I have included products that I think can support you in your grief journey and if you choose to purchase any of these, I'll earn some coffee money which I promise to use while making helpful content like this one for you.
What Exactly is A Bedtime Ritual?
When you do a google search on bedtime rituals, what you will usually see is a checklist of activities that you need to complete to help you fall asleep. They are all helpful, but a bedtime ritual is something different. It is not just a checklist of things you can do to help you fall asleep, but rather a nurturing and mindful practice that supports and offers you safety at a time when you need it most.
The art of ritual
As Renee Becker says, “rituals are actions done in purposeful ways that symbolize something much more than the acts themselves. Rituals give purpose to action and always serve to connect us to something else, generally something greater than our own solitary lives.” This is very different from routines or activities.
Based on my African cultural roots and personal experience, a ritual consists of the seven steps below and depending on the type of ritual you are performing, you might not need to include all of the steps or the order of steps might change.
- Step 1: Create a sacred space
- Step 2: Write or say your intention
- Step 3: Invoke energies greater than you
- Step 4: Enact ritual steps
- Step 5: Express and release
- Step 6: Close your ritual
- Step 7: Reflect and root the experience
In this article, we will be focusing on step 4 where I will provide you with the components of a bedtime ritual and how to create one that meets you at your point of need.
Why you cannot sleep
When you lose a loved one, most people think the pain of loss is only emotional. In reality, grief affects you at all levels of being: physically, emotionally, cognitively and psychospiritually and research shows that grief causes sleep disturbances and insomnia. Because all parts of you are grieving, it is important that you offer support and healing to your whole being, and you can only do this if you know the reasons why you cannot sleep.
As you read through some of the reasons below, notice which ones apply to you as this is valuable information that will serve as input when you design a bedtime ritual to cater to the unique reasons for your insomnia.
You cannot sleep because:
- Physical Level: You feel revved up, restless, and in a constant state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance. You feel anxious and agitated, your muscles are tense, and you cannot relax your body
- Emotional Level: You are overwhelmed with emotions like excruciating sadness, loneliness, crying, anger, regret, guilt, blame…
- Cognitive Level: You cannot quiet down your mind. It is racing at the speed of light. Your brain is filled with images of your person’s last 24 hours, questions keep popping up, and scenarios of what you could have done differently keep running through in infinite loops
- Psychological Level: You miss your person like crazy, and this can sometimes translate into waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat from a nightmare. On the other hand, perhaps it is your life partner that died, and you shared a bed with them, and now your bedroom has become a place of stress and sadness.
- Spiritual Level: You now experience what is called death anxiety and are afraid to fall asleep. All your core beliefs about yourself and life are challenged. You are in a state of crisis of faith and identity and the world now feels dangerous and unpredictable.
The Anatomy of a Bedtime Ritual
I found out that a bedtime ritual with these 6 components can provide the succor and healing needed to help a grieving person to release the day and enter into a space ready for healing sleep.
1. Early evening activities
The way you spend the early parts of the evening will begin to set the tone for your night and contribute towards getting sleep that can rejuvenate and restore your depleted resources. Depending on your grief symptoms and what tends to keep you awake at night, you can perform different activities that soothe the different aspects of yourself.
I have included a list of activities that cater to the needs of your different bodies to help plan your evening especially if you live alone and know that your grief is heaviest at night when all the distractions of the day fall away.
Early Evening Activities for Sleep Issues – when you are anxious, revved up, and cannot relax
- Take a restorative yoga class like yin yoga
- Cook yourself a nourishing and grounding dinner or take on a grief recipe project
- Take an evening class like pottery, dance, or something that involves some movement
- Do some organization or cleaning around the house
- Work on some craft or house project
- Watch a movie or a comedy show
- Play some video games or board games
- Read a book – preferably a physical book
- Listen to music that grounds and soothes you
- Go for a walk in nature
Early evening activities for Sleep Issues - when you are emotionally overwhelmed
- Have a cuddle session with a loved one or pet
- Connect with your family members at home, call someone close, or connect with other grievers on social media
- Connect with your emotions by setting aside 30-minutes to have a crying session followed by a warm shower
- Read a few chapters of a book to induce sleepiness or listen to an audiobook or a podcast
- Take a soothing hot bath in candlelight with lavender essential oils and bath salt
- Slowly drink a glass of red wine and nibble on dark chocolate
- Create a calming and soothing music playlist to listen to
- Give yourself a massage. You can use your hands to massage your feet or ask a loved one
- Spend some time grooming or nurturing something – it could be plants if you have some or it could be yourself e.g., painting your nails, washing your hair, grooming your beard etc.
Early Activities for Sleep Issues - when your mind is on overdrive and racing with thoughts
- Watch a comedy show or binge a tv series
- Set aside some time to do some grief journaling. You can also do scrapbook journaling
- Color-in an adult coloring book
- Go out for a jog or a walk
- Sit and do a simple jigsaw puzzle
- Listen to binaural beats or soothing ocean sounds
- Do some crafts, cleaning, or organization around the house
- Plan and cook one of your loved one’s favorite foods or a recipe you have been wanting to try
- Spend time on a hobby like drawing, painting, sketching, doodling in a notebook or working with silly putty or playdough
- Get out of the house – go grocery shopping, window shopping, dinner, a show, movie or just socialize
Early Activities for Sleep Issues - when you feel depressed and/or are in a state of fear
- Reach out and connect with friends either in person or over the phone. If you have no one you can turn to, try reaching out for support to social media grief support groups
- Listen to a grief podcast or to other people’s grief stories that can offer you a sense of support
- Listen to music that is uplifting and makes you feel safe
- Watch an inspiring movie or documentary about death, the afterlife or visitations dreams that can provide additional context
- Go for a long walk in nature and sit next to a tree or a body of water
- Listen to audiobooks or poetry that instill a sense of peace and hope
- Spend some time creating. Express your grief using art
- Connect with something bigger than yourself through things like nature, prayer, meditation, and art
- Do some gentle movement and yoga that helps with depression
2. Wind down activity
As the evening progresses, you will want to start winding down in preparation for sleep. This is really the beginning of your bedtime ritual, and you will want to spend about 15 minutes or so doing an activity that can mellow you out and stimulate the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to initiate the body’s 'rest and digest cycle'.
You will want to start by setting your intention for sleep and selecting practices that can help you digest your mental and emotional experiences so that you can get grounded enough to release them before it is time to sleep. See some examples below
permission to my body to release all anxiety and stress, and enter a peaceful
space ready for deep sleep
allow all emotions to flow through me peacefully and I heal through my sleep
self-soothing like self-hugging, massage
I give permission
for all thoughts and worry to empty out as my mind quietens down and synchronizes
with the grounding frequency of the earth
enter a safe space in sleep where I have healing dreams and I wake up fully
regenerated and recharged at all levels of my beings
myself permission to enter a space of deep healing sleep where I am nourished,
nurtured, and regenerated at all levels of my being
poetry, art, prayer, uplifting book
3. Reflect & release: Journaling
At the end of the day, when all distractions are gone, for most people grief comes to the forefront. Journaling is a great way to offer yourself space to be present with yourself and in many ways, you can think of it as taking an emotional and mental bath.
Research shows that it helps you sleep better and is also beneficial for the grieving process because it helps bring awareness, articulate, and express difficult emotions and thoughts. This is especially helpful before sleeping because it is most of the unprocessed material from the day and grief that keeps you awake at night.
For example, if you have been ruminating about the things you could have done differently, you can use journaling to empty your thoughts on paper so that your brain cycle can stop. On days when your grief is heavy and insurmountable, your journal becomes your personal confidant that gives you a safe space to vent about all that you experienced during the day. This can be a very cathartic process – a sort of inner cleansing where you pour out all the heavy thoughts and emotions into the container of your journal. It also provides you additional distance that allows you to see your day and grief from a different vantage point and perhaps gain additional perspective and context. just slow down enough to relax and wind down.
In my own journey, journaling has proven to be very nurturing because as you might know, after a few weeks or months, most of the people in your life tend to distance themselves from you or are unwilling to hear you tell your story or express your grief in their presence. In such cases, at the end of the day, you know that even if people cannot offer you space to share what’s raw and alive inside you, you can offer yourself that space before bed and reflect on your day and create space to validate yourself and your experience.
Journaling offers you a safe space to shower yourself with self-compassion and forgiveness and express those sensations, feelings, needs or thoughts you might have wanted to during the day, but did not have the opportunity to.
For this part of your bedtime ritual, you will want to create a calm and cozy space.
- Space: You can snuggle under covers on the sofa with your journal
- Lighting: Create a cozy space by dimming the lights or lighting a candle.
- Tea: Prepare a cup of lemon grass, valerian root, or chamomile tea which will further help relax you and reduce anxiety symptoms. If you are feeling experimental, try the sleep elixir recipe of holy basil, oat milk, and raw honey, or this banana tea recipe
- Music: You can also put on calming music as you spend about 10-15 minutes getting all your emotions on paper with the journal prompts above.
Sample Journal Prompts
These prompts are just suggestions to help you reflect and release your day, plan for tomorrow and express gratitude or whatever is alive in you at the moment.
- Write down one word to describe your day e.g., sad, lonely, flat
- What physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and worries did you experience, and what caused them
- What was your biggest challenge today?
- How was your grief today and what did you miss most about the person who passed?
- What did you do today that you are proud of and would love to share with them?
- 3 beautiful moments from the day that stand out
- What are you grateful for?
- How are you feeling now that the day is over?
- What do you wish you had today or feel you need more of?
- What would you like to take from today into tomorrow?
- What is one thing you would like to achieve tomorrow
- Write down one word to describe how you want your day to be tomorrow
4. Personal hygiene
Your normal pre-bed personal hygiene routine should be part of your bedtime ritual as it begins to cue your body for bed. In addition to the normal things, you do like brushing your teeth, removing makeup, washing your face, etc. You can add any of the additional items below to further help you relax in preparation for bed.
- Have a cooling shower to reset your body temperature or a warm shower to soothe
- Put on some clean, soft, comfy pajamas
- Massage your face with a soothing and relaxing night oil like Sea Buckthorn Seed oil working your way through your temples and around your eyes
- Apply hand cream and/or lip balm
- Put on a face and/or hair mask
- Brush your hair and apply serum to the ends
- Massage your feet to get the blood flowing
5. Sleep hygiene
Your bedroom should be a sanctuary, a safe space that allows you to unwind, enter and remain in deep sleep. In addition to transforming your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary by changing the décor, and upgrading your mattress and beddings, there are also sleep hygiene practices you can do daily to enhance your sleep environment and experience.
- Touch: Make sure your bed is comfortable and cozy – straighten your sheets, fluff your pillows, arrange your blankets, etc. consider using a weighted blanket. If you have lost your partner, you might rearrange your room, get a new bed, sleep in a different room, or get a body pillow to help with sleeping
- Smell: Research shows that smell affects sleep and so you can further enhance your sleep experience by using essential oil diffusers with oils like lavender, patchouli, or myrrh which are known to induce a sense of calm and relaxation. You can also sprinkle a few drops of lavender on your pillow
- Sound: Consider having soothing sounds or white noise in the background
- Temperature: Ensure that your room is cool. 60 – 68 degrees is usually ideal
- Light: Block out as much light as possible by using blackout curtains or eye masks. You can also use things like the Casper glow light to help with sleep
- Blue Lights Out: Turn off all screens at least 30 minutes to 60 minutes before you go to bed or at this point before your sadhana practice. Blue light suppresses the release of melatonin which you need for sleep and affects your circadian rhythm. Alternatively, if you need to use your smart phone to listen to guided meditations or for music, you can update your settings to schedule Night Shift On at a setting time
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Display & Brightness>Night Shift. On the same screen, you can schedule a time for “Night Shift” to turn on automatically and adjust color or temperature
On Android: Go to Settings >Blue light filter. You can create a custom schedule for when you want to turn on the filter every day or you can manually turn it off or on here.
- Alarm: Set a gentle alarm for the next day
6. Sadhana practice
Sadhana is a Sanskrit word that means daily spiritual practice. You don’t have to be a spiritual person to have daily practice. You can simply consider it as the time you set aside to sit with yourself and tune in internally.
Your practice can be your daily source of inspiration and guidance giving you the space to connect with yourself at a deeper level as well as your inner intelligence. It can help further support you in your journey with grief by creating space for stillness in your life where you can offer yourself some mercy and self-compassion, as well as receive succor from perhaps the place Rilke, says where all your tears have already been cried and comforted.
when everything is tilting dangerously
my opening you up to connecting with something bigger than yourself to support you in your grief journey
You can use this time to initiate the process of replenishing depleted resources by first getting connected to something bigger than yourself through invocations and then performing any of the practices below
- Invocation: A key part of any ritual is opening to receive support from something that is greater than yourself. If you are religious, you can invite the main spirit of your religion and if you are not, you can invoke transpersonal energies such as the body intelligence, nature, life, Jungian archetypes like the self to support you as you move through your day
- Practices: During your sadhana, you can perform practices like meditation, visualizations, breathwork, mantras etc.
How To Create Your Personal Bedtime Ritual
Now that you know all the components of a bedtime ritual, create one for yourself by following the steps below.
Step 1: Diagnose the reason for sleep issues
It is important to understand why you can’t sleep in the first place. Look at some of the reasons in the earlier part of this article and determine if your insomnia is because of physical anxiety, emotional overwhelm, mental chatter or a general existential fear and depression.
One you identify the main factors at the root of your your issues with sleep, it will be easier to create a bedtime ritual that offers solutions that are specific to your needs. Treat this first step as if you are taking an inventory of your nighttime habits and reflect on the questions below
- How do my evenings typically look – what do I spend my time doing?
- When do I go to bed every night?
- How long does it take me to fall asleep and if I stay up long, what is keeping me awake
- Do I wake up in the middle of the night and why?
- How do I feel in the mornings?
- What am I missing in my life that I can incorporate into my bedtime ritual that can help me sleep
Note that there might be multiple reasons why you cannot sleep, for example, you might not be able to sleep because you feel overwhelming sadness at night at the same time your body is also racked with anxiety, and you cannot relax. As you design your ritual in the next step, make sure it is agile enough to accomplish multiple symptoms.
Step 2: Design your bedtime ritual flow
Begin by creating your ritual flow by selecting activities from each of the different ritual components making sure to choose practices that cater to the reason for your insomnia.
For example, if you can’t fall asleep because your mind refuses to quieten down, here is an example of how you can design your ritual flow
- Sleep Issues root Cause: Mental chatter & ruminations
- Evening Activity: Color in an adult coloring book or watch a comedy show
- Wind down Activity: Spend some time doing some automatic writing
- Sleep Hygiene: Decide how you want to enhance your bedroom to transform it into a sleep sanctuary. For example, buy an essential oil diffuser with essential oils
- Sadhana Practice: Decide what your practice might look like. Pick something that feels wholesome and true to who you are
- Timing: Now that you have an idea about all the things you want to do, determine your bedtime, and then work backward to allocate how much time you want to spend on each component of your bedtime ritual
See a sample below.
Bedtime: 10:00 pm
7:00 – 8:30
comedy or tv show
8:30 – 8:45
Scrap book journaling
8:45 – 9:00
9:00 – 9:15
Brush teeth, take shower
9:15 – 9:30
turn on diffuser
Blue screen lights out
9:30 – 10:00
Invocation, breathwork, meditation
Go to Sleep
Put on eyeshades and white noise
Step 3: Curate your ritual flow
Now that you have designed your bedtime ritual, you will want to make sure you have everything you need beforehand.
- Make a List: Create a list of all the items you need to purchase and create. For example, you might need to make a list of evening activities you would like to do, and the books you want to read.
- Purchase: Next purchase any of the items on your list. For example, you might want to buy a sleep journal, essential oils, adult coloring books, puzzles, etc.
- Curate: Finally curate the items you will need for example create any sleep playlists you might need, download sleep apps, books, podcasts, guided meditations, or visualizations you want to use. Check out this sleep resource article for ideas about things you can use for your ritual
Better Sleep is Coming
I am sorry that you have not been able to sleep which is one of the very frustrating physical symptoms of grief because when we are sleep-deprived, even more cortisol is produced in the body creating a positive feedback loop. Grief causes sleeplessness and in turn sleeplessness exacerbates the symptoms of grief because your body is in a constant state of stress.
As you begin to use a bedtime ritual, in addition to other rituals in your daily lives like grounding, self-soothing, and morning rituals, your body will begin to come back into homeostasis as the stress response is shut down and your circadian rhythms stabilizes.
In addition, as you gather more of your internal resources, make sure to spend some time tending to your grief because ultimately unattended sorrow is the root cause of all grief symptoms.
Please remember that it will not always be this way. This is just a season in your life and with every season, it always passes.