Answers in Dark: Grief, sleep and how dreams can help you heal

By Delphi Ellis /

The 4am mystery.  That’s an actual thing by the way.  If you’re one of millions of people around the world who finds themselves awake in the middle of the night – even though you may have tried everything to help you sleep – you’re not alone. 

We are a Sleepless Society.  

In my new book Answers in the Dark, I aim to join the dots between sleep, dreams and our mental health, specifically how grief shows up even when no one has died.

You see, I believe that grief doesn’t just belong to death; it can be the loss of anything that matters to us that’s no longer there.  

It might be the job you loved that you can no longer do.  

A relationship that you miss.  

A child that’s left home.  

As we navigate our losses during our life time, especially if we haven’t recognised their impact or given ourselves permission to grieve for what they meant, our grief can go underground.  It rests underneath our awareness, only for it to come to the surface in the stillness of night.  I can relate to this.  

In the book I talk briefly but candidly about my own experiences of loss, and also being subjected to male violence through domestic abuse.  I talk about the significant impact of that period in my life and explain how one of my answers came from an unexpected place in the middle of the night; it’s one reason I believe we might be able to make friends with the dark.  

Another reason is that over the last two decades, in my work as a counsellor and trainer, I’ve worked with hundreds of people, mainly those who have been bereaved by murder and suicide.  During my career, I’ve supported people at some of the darkest moments of their lives, and when the time was right for them, offered insights that might help (as I call it) get their sparkle back.  For many, this has meant bringing their grief to the surface in a safe way, often exploring the dreams they’ve had, as well as offering a toolkit to help them get a better night’s sleep.  I now call this the Sleep Cycle Repair Kit.

In the book, I also tackle three of what I refer to as the Big Myths of Sleep.  One big myth is that we all need eight hours every night.   Here’s how I unpack it:

Everyone is different, so the amount of sleep you need will vary (we know young people can need more sleep than the older generation, just as you might need more sleep when you’re ill).  Ironically though, the idea that we have to get eight hours in every night means that people try to build their lives around it.  They structure their bedtime by working out when they need to get up and then subtract eight, but we just don’t work that way.  It means inevitably you end up forcing yourself to be in bed before you’re sleepy, and then stare at the ceiling becoming more and more frustrated that you can’t seem to nod off. It’s why I tend to focus on quality over quantity instead.

I think it’s also fair to say that how we think once we find ourselves awake at night can be, ironically, the reason we stay awake.  If you’re someone who finds the moment you try to sleep, your bed becomes a magical place that reminds you of all the things you haven’t done today, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  I call this ‘Going Down the Plughole’, and it’s dark down there.  Our minds swirl with thoughts and worries and honestly, there’s no way our brain will authorise sleep when there’s all that going on.

So, I talk in the book about the intelligent philosophy behind mindfulness; the idea that we can learn to become the observer of our thoughts rather than the participant.  Mindfulness is not really about clearing the mind (imagine how we’d all look if we had empty heads all day.  We’d never enjoy a single sunrise for a start because we’d just have no thoughts about it at all).  Mindfulness is more about managing the mind and directing what gets our time and attention. It’s not easy (that’s why a teacher can be so useful) and why I tend to say “practice makes peaceful”.  We might need to engage in other helpful strategies, like talking to someone during the day about what might be keeping us awake at night.  Mindfulness isn’t for everyone, but it is a proven strategy for helping to get some decent kip, once you know how. 

Of course, grief can speak to us in other ways, and that includes in our dreams.  Whilst specifically not a dream dictionary (and actually only a relatively small part of the book), Answers in the Dark explores some of the different types of dreams we can have, and why I think they matter.  

Many people grow up being told that dreams don’t mean anything, but on exploration we may find an encrypted message that could help us find some answers that might help.  One type of dream is that we find ourselves lost – it might be that you can’t find your way home, or even something as random as trying to find a parking space.  This is common if you’re not sure where you “fit in” at the moment, especially after retirement just as it would be after the death of a loved one.  In the same way you might wonder what it means to have a lucid dream (where you might be able to control what’s going on), or a dream you feel sure predicts the future – I also cover these in the book.  Essentially, I believe dreams are important, because (like our emotions) they’re trying to tell us something.  They have their own intelligence, we just need to work out what they’re trying to say (I help with that in the book too).

Exploring these things are uncomfortable, I know, and I’ve become well known as someone who has conversations that definitely border on the ‘taboo’; talking about death or darkness certainly doesn’t come ‘easy’.  It’s especially tricky when I ask you in the book to consider your own dark side. Not Darth Vader dark but the parts of you (like you’re the one that secretly enjoys Jazz but doesn’t want to tell your mates who like Metal, or that you ate your kid’s Easter Egg and then helped them look for it later) that you’d rather other people didn’t know.

You might also have a good reason to be afraid of the dark, and that’s why it’s so important that you only take this journey of discovery when you’re ready.  But I encourage you, when the time is right, to consider taking a small safe step of exploration, to consider what it might have to offer.  When we understand just how grief shows up, whether it’s when we can’t sleep or through the dreams we have when we do, we might find some answers come to us in the dark.

Answers in Dark by Delphi Ellis is available from and from wherever books are sold.