Grief fatigue is real. You’re not alone if you’re exhausted in loss. Grieving is all-consuming and leaves us tired as we navigate the hard emotions and long to-do list that often follows loss.
Grief exhaustion isn’t solved simply with more sleep. While good sleep is crucial, it doesn’t address the other kinds of rest we need. Dr. Saundra Dalton Smith says we need seven types of rest. As I read her work, I found it especially applicable to grief.
Let’s look at seven types of grief exhaustion and seven ways to rest.
7 Kinds of Grief Exhaustion and 7 Ways to Rest
1. Physical exhaustion in grief
Grief is surprisingly physical. It affects our eating, sleeping and energy. It can show up in headaches and stomach aches. For months after Dan died, I carried a painful, physical ache like someone had hollowed out my insides with a carving knife.
Sleeping is the primary way to help with physical tiredness from grief. Ask someone to specifically pray that you’ll sleep deeply each night. Several people covered my sleep with prayer and as hard as grief was, I never had trouble sleeping.
Other restful activities like breathing exercises, long baths or prayer walks can help us physically rest. Give yourself permission to pause during the day, to lie down or nap and let your body rest.
Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10, ESV)
(More on what “Be Still and Know that I am God” means here.)
2. Mental exhaustion in grief
Grief takes up enormous head space. There’s fear for the future and regret over the past. Worry about how to navigate loss and second-guessing whether we’re doing it right.
Memories, conversations and the details of Dan’s death were on constant replay in my mind. I was fighting decision overwhelm while trying to wrap my mind around the reality of loss and the enormous changes it brought.
“Mental fatigue sets in when overactivity of the brain leads to brain cells becoming exhausted,” says Dr. Dalton-Smith. That grief fog makes it hard to remember, focus or think through a problem. And mental fatigue keeps us from peace.
We can find mental rest in three practices. First, we need to offload our negative thoughts like worry, fear and regret to God. Second, we need to feed on truth daily in God’s word. And third, we need to turn up some praise music. Whether it’s singing at church or listening to Alexa at home, praise music helps me clear my mind and refill on God.
You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts you. (Isaiah 26:3, ESV)
3. Emotional exhaustion in grief
Processing hard emotions in grief is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. Emotions when grieving run the gamut and include sadness, loneliness, regret, despair, shock, anger, guilt, helplessness and more.
We were not made to carry the emotions of death or divorce, caregiving or devastation alone. We can take our emotions to God through what the Bible calls lament. In lament, we take our hardest emotions to God. We don’t have to fake that we’re fine or stuff our grief. Our emotions are safe with God.
Like the psalmist, we can share our honest emotions with God and ask for his help. In my grief, my lament often looked like simple prayers: “God, I’m overwhelmed with sadness. Help me,” or “I am in despair, God, will you give me your strength?” These are prayers God will always answer.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction. (2 Cor 1:3, ESV)
4. Spiritual exhaustion in grief
Hard circumstances stir up hard questions. After Dan died, I never questioned my faith but other hard questions surfaced. I questioned why God would take such a good dad or how in the world he could heal eight broken hearts.
I sifted through tidy platitudes that no longer held — like God won’t give us more than we can handle. I uncovered expectations I’d made of God and chiseled out idols like self-reliance and control I’d unknowingly nurtured.
Even John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest prophet ever born, had hard questions as he languished in prison. And yet Jesus never rebuked him.
The questions aren’t the problem but what we do with them. Like John the Baptist, we need to take our questions to Jesus. He may not answer every question and we may never fully understand. But we will learn to trust him alone, to be satisfied in him alone and to see him revealed in ways we never would otherwise.
Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28 CSB)
5. Social exhaustion in grief
After Dan died, I had to pause time with an acquaintance. She’d heavily leaned on me in her own difficulty, but I no longer had emotional reserves for her pain and mine.
It’s okay in grief to pull back from those who are negative or overly needy for a time. It’s okay to pull back from volunteer work or social gatherings that drain you.
Even Jesus pulled away from the crowds and those who needed him to rest and pray. He shows us pushing pause isn’t selfish but good for our own wellbeing.
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31, NIV)
6. Sensory exhaustion in grief
Sensory overload comes from too much external input from computers and phones, television and earbuds. I know firsthand we can often turn to screens and feeds to numb our pain and loneliness. My grief was excruciating at night, in the quiet hours after my kids were in bed and I’d spend the evening scrolling social media or watching Netflix until I was tired enough to sleep.
Dr. Dalton-Smith says our senses need a break. Otherwise our nervous system becomes overloaded making us feel discontent and mentally restless. The solution is to unplug, to welcome a slow pace when possible and to do things that let our brain rest like a walk after dinner instead of screen time.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. (Psalm 23:2-3, ESV)
7. Creative exhaustion in grief
Creativity isn’t just for painters and writers. All of us need and use creativity in our parenting and work. And the exhaustion of grief can deplete that creativity.
One way to refill our creative bank is to get into God’s beauty through a hike, walk or bike ride. Grief journaling is another way to offload our hard emotions without having to produce something.
One of the best ways to find deep rest is a sabbatical practice. Starting the week worshipping the Lord and away from work gives us a regular space to rest in grief.
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, ESV)
Charles Spurgeon said, “Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength. It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less.”
NOTE: I’m deeply grateful to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith for her research and work in developing thought around seven kinds of rest that provides the basis for this piece. You can find her book Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity here.