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When Your Heart Won't Let You Sleep

Updated: Apr 16

Henry-Cameron Allen, CTAA, IHTCP
LTC Founding Director, Papa Peregrine

Outliving our beloved children rips away the very fabric of a parent's existence. In the aftermath, the nights can feel interminable - a battlefield where panic, guilt, and heart-wrenching memories wage war against any possibility of rest. If this resonates with you, you are not alone. Sleep disturbances and nightmares are incredibly common among us Peregrines.

As a Peregrine myself, and an internationally certified specialist in the life skills of Grief and Survival, I have walked alongside many fellow Peregrines struggling to find peace at night. The good news is that there are evidence-based tools and practices that can help reclaim precious sleep. However, there are no quick fixes - healing is a journey of patience, self-compassion, and exploring what works for you.

The Science Behind the Sleeplessness

Research shows that grieving parents experience rates of clinical sleep disorders like insomnia and nightmare disorder at 3-4 times the rate of the general population. This disrupted sleep is closely intertwined with the traumatic aspects of child loss and subsequent PTSD symptoms. Intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, and the deep existential anxiety fueled by grief make it extraordinarily difficult for the mind and body to calm down at night.

The vicious cycle then reinforces itself - when sleep deprivation takes hold, it exacerbates the very symptoms of trauma, depression, and anxiety that are robbing us of rest in the first place. Breaking this cycle becomes paramount for both psychological and physical healing.

Reclaiming Rest: An Integrative Approach  

While there are no known “miracle cures”, a multidisciplinary approach combining natural therapies, counseling, and potential medication can provide a lifeline of support.

Develop a Calming Nighttime Routine: Warm baths, gentle stretches, mindfulness exercises, and other relaxing rituals can help train your physiology for sleep. Avoid screens for 1-2 hours before bed.

Explore Mind-Body Practices: Modalities like yoga, qigong, guided imagery, and breathwork have been shown to reduce insomnia and nightmare frequency while enhancing mind-body awareness.

Optimize Your Sleep Environment: Keep the bedroom cool, dark, quiet, and free of blue light. Consider white noise, blackout curtains, and other tools for enhancing restful conditions.

Regulate the Stress Response: Anti-anxiety supplements like glycine, tryptophan, theanine, and magnesium can gently nudge the body into a more relaxed state before bed.

Process Through Therapy: Trauma-informed counseling is invaluable for unpacking the complexities of grief and learning healthy coping strategies. EMDR and CBT-I are particularly helpful for nightmares. Talk to a qualified professional about options.

When Appropriate, Medication: In some cases, short-term use of prescribed sleep aids or nightmare-blocking medications can provide a foundation for better rest as you implement lifestyle and psychological interventions. Talk to your doctor about safe options. Note: certain medications can cause depressive symptoms and/or suicidal thoughts in some patients. Please be extremely careful and work only with a qualified professional.

Be Gentle With Yourself

Most of all, fellow Peregrines, be infinitely compassionate with yourselves on this journey. The trauma we have endured is immense, and healing happens at its own sacred pace. Celebrate small victories, allow emotions to flow, and never hesitate to reach out for support. Reclaiming restorative sleep is possible, one night at a time.

Surviving Parents Getting There Together

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