Panic, Insomnia and Nightmares


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All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind
that walk in darkness
. Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


The death of a loved one brings home how little control we really have over our lives. Major changes often produce panicky feelings. Panic is similar to the feeling of fear. It is a time of high anxiety as we worry about all the changes, perhaps getting the legal things done, having enough money to live on, or wondering if we can live on our own.

It is hard to focus on one thought or task if your mind is racing. You may be forgetful and disorganized and have feelings of losing your mind. You are not losing your mind. You are grieving the death of someone you love.

One of the most disconcerting elements of panic is not being able to remember what your loved one looked or sounded like. All of this is a normal part of grief and there are things you can do to help yourself.

Have patience with yourself by giving yourself permission to operate at fifty percent for a while. If your mind is racing, or you are running from one burdensome chore to another accomplishing nothing, the most helpful thing you can do is to slow down.

Please remember this: Not everything has to be done today. What can wait? Make a list of the tasks you must complete. Prioritize the list, putting a number one by the task that needs done first, then a number two by the next job, and so on. Focus on one item on your list at a time.

Sometimes we become panicky because we think we are forgetting our loved one. If you find that you can’t remember how your loved one looked, set out some photos to reestablish his or her face in your mind. If you are lucky enough to have a video or recording of your loved one, play it and the sound of your loved one’s voice will come back to you. Believe me, you will never forget the face or voice of someone who was so dear to you, but in the beginning, thinking about our loved one can be so painful, our minds blot out sights and sounds.

It is very common not to be able to remember the funeral or events at the time of the death. Ask another family member or friend to fill in the blank spots for you. Sometimes, they will fill themselves in naturally over just a few months.


Insomnia / Sleep Disturbances


Troubled sleep is very common in grief. You may have had a busy day and you feel tired, but your mind starts churning as soon as you lie down to sleep. As you toss and turn, you think about your loved one and how your life has changed. Or, you may fall asleep quickly, only to awaken a few short hours later, wide awake, restless and unable to fall asleep again. Grief is exhausting and going without sleep adds to the fatigue and increases your risk for illness.

If you are not sleeping well, here are a few suggestions that may help:

Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.

If you awaken in the night it is probably best to not fight it. Get out of bed, read for a while, watch some TV, write in a journal, have a warm drink without caffeine or alcohol and go back to bed. It is best to stay off the computer if you are having trouble with sleep because computers are stimulating and can make sleep even more elusive.

Experiment with exercise. Some people find it relaxing while others feel it interferes with sleep. If it relaxes you, establish a mild exercise routine before bed.

Try a hot bath, a good book or soothing music before bed to see if this relaxes you.

Lie down while you watch TV because this may cause you to fall asleep. The more boring the program, the better.

If you feel fearful at night, experiment with leaving lights on or install a security system for peace of mind. Take whatever steps you need to make you feel more secure, as this can help you sleep better.

Determine if sleeping in your own bed is comforting or a painful reminder of your partner’s death. Sleep somewhere else if your own bed does not comfort you.

Experiment with the temperature in your home. Do you sleep better when it is warm or cool? Find the temperature for sleeping that is best for you.

Avoid caffeine at bedtime such as coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate milk and most colas. Drink herbal tea or juice but not too much or you will find yourself getting up several times during the night to use the bathroom. Warm milk contains tryptophan, a naturally occurring amino acid that induces sleep. Alcohol and cigarettes may help you fall asleep, but as soon as they are out of your system you will probably wake up again. It is best to stay away from them at bedtime. Try an environmental CD, such as soothing music with the sound of the ocean and sea gulls, birds in the forest, rain on the roof or wind in the trees. You may also find that the white noise of an air conditioner or fan makes you sleepy.

Meditation and prayer help some people relax and fall asleep. Try a meditation tape if you are unfamiliar with the practice. Prayer is a form of meditation for some.

Spend some time alone. Take the time to sit and think about what has happened. Friends and relatives may be uncomfortable about this, but you need the time to grieve. This is accomplished by devoting some real time to it. Active grieving may help you sleep better at night because you have allowed for the expression of sad feelings during the day.

Sleep cannot be forced. If you have been in bed for a half hour and cannot fall asleep, get up for a while. Use the time to read, watch TV or write about your insomniac thoughts. When thirty minutes to one hour have passed, start your bedtime routine all over again.  

If all else fails, ask your doctor for a mild sleeping pill. This should be a last resort because dependency on sedatives can actually have the rebound effect of causing more insomnia in the long run.

Take any of the ideas presented here and establish a bedtime ritual. If you do the same things every night before you get in bed, eventually the routine will signal your body and mind that it is time to sleep.




Dreaming about your deceased loved one is normal and sometimes very pleasant. Many people have dreams of their loved ones appearing to them and letting them know that they are well and in a better place. I believe in the power of dreams and I take a brief look at after-death communication on the Soulful Signs page.

At times, the dreams are anything but pleasant. For example, if the death was an accident, the dreamer may try in vain to get somewhere or do something to save the loved one’s life. This type of dream is very unsettling, making it hard, if not impossible, to sleep.

The origin of the nightmare may be fear of the future, or fear of life without the loved one, but usually, the underlying reason behind a nightmare is guilt or regret: torturing yourself with all the should haves and if onlys. Please consider the help of a professional therapist if you are suffering from recurring nightmares. For more on the benefits of grief support, refer to
An Act of Courage.

Or, try an exercise on the
The Gift of Forgiveness page. Love makes all kinds of allowances and keeps on loving.

Resource for Panic, Insomnia and Nightmares:

Fitzgerald, Helen. The Mourning Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster,
A Fireside Book, 1994.



Go to next page: An Act of Courage


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How complicated and individual mending is,
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Mary Jane Moffat
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