Grief is a complex issue to treat. The practice of mindfulness meditation can give the client a greater sense of awareness and well-being in a grieving client’s waking life, but trouble sleeping due to disturbing dreams is a common symptom that can take a toll on her emotional and physical reserves.
After a client loses a loved one, she may experience increased difficulty sleeping. When she does sleep, her sleep may be complicated by the quality of her dreams. She may be bothered by the presence of absence of her loved one during her dreams. Sameet Kumar, PhD, author of Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief: A Guide to Healing After Loss When Depression, Anxiety, and Anger Won’t Go Away, reports that in his clinical experience, the more intensely people experience grief, the less likely it seems that they will dream about their deceased loved one, especially in the first weeks and months after death. It is often comforting for the client to dream about their lost loved one, but as a therapist you can encourage them to be patient with the dream process.
In other situations, if the client’s symptoms are consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder or if she witnessed the loved one undergo intense suffering, she may have nightmares related to her experiences. If her loved one died traumatically, she may also be troubled by disturbing dreams that grow out of her loved one’s pain.
It is not uncommon for those who are grieving to assign certain meanings to dreams, to see them as prophetic or intuitively accurate about an afterlife. As a therapist it is important to help the client remember that we cannot know exactly what the purposes or meanings of our dreams are, so it’s important not to take her beliefs or thoughts about dreams too seriously.
In contrast, as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1969) pointed out, certain dreams may be tremendously powerful, presenting the client with guidance or a deep feeling of rejuvenation. Such dreams do carry life-changing potential, guiding or steering her closer to her life’s purpose.
See also: Research Round-Up: Exercise and Depression during the Grieving Process
Your client may have had dreams that later came true or provided her with valuable information she didn’t even know she would need. Other dreams may just be her mind decompressing from the day with random events connected to her most intense feelings. Dreams can be a space where the client builds events around a particular feeling or thought. Or distressing dreams may just be part of the distress she feels during waking hours, carried over into sleep.
If your client is troubled by her dreams, it’s only logical that she won’t sleep well. All of the above concerns about dreams are normal during the grieving process, and can definitely affect sleep quality. Distressing dreams may make dreaming something she would prefer to avoid and, as a result, lose sleep over.
Ensuring healthy sleep is an effective way to balance out the fatigue that can come from the chronic stress of prolonged grief. Next week, we’ll take a look at the evidence-based Mindful Sleep Induction technique outlined in Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief. Stay tuned!