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We asked three experts to weigh in on one reader's sleep problem. Here's what a neuroscientist and two psychologists had to say about losing sleep after losing a pet. 

The Problem

Sarah, a 31-year-old attorney in Brooklyn, asks:  

My cat Reggie died a few months ago. He was 20 years old, so it wasn't unexpected. But, even though I was somewhat prepared for his loss, I've had a really hard time dealing with it, and haven't been able to sleep well since he passed away. Reggie was a fixture in my life starting at age 11. And, especially towards the end of his life, he became intertwined in my bedtime and sleep routines. Every night, I got ready for bed, gave Reggie his meds, and fell asleep with him curled up next to me (and my now-husband). In Reggie's absence, I've tried to create new bedtime routines, such as diffusing an aromatherapy spray, to replace the routines that centered around him. But nothing's worked. Falling asleep remains a nightly challenge. Any suggestions?

The Advice

1. Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist who studies sleep and memory, says: 

I’m sorry for your loss of Reggie. You are possibly correct that his role in your bedtime routine is causing your insomnia after his loss. Creating new sleep routines, as habitual as you may be making them, nonetheless takes time to establish. So keep it up. I advise that aromatherapy doesn’t work for everyone, so perhaps replace odor cues with sound cues, such as low volume white noise, instead.

However, also consider that it isn’t the loss of a critical player in your routine that has left you sleepless. Perhaps you are still paying an emotional toll for losing what has been with you for 20 of your 31 years on this planet! It is understandable if you are depressed. You might feel fine during the day when you’re busy and distracted, but his absence becomes notable at bedtime, which brings out symptoms of depression leading to this insomnia. Seek help from a therapist or physician. Insomnia for a few months should be addressed. A brief clinical intervention may be necessary to get you back on track. 

2. Cori Bussolari, a psychologist whose research and clinical work focus on bereavement, chronic illness, the human-animal bond and positive coping, says: 

First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Even when we expect and prepare for our pet's death because of their advanced age, it quite often can still feel incredibly difficult and disrupting.  

You stated that Reggie became "intertwined" with your bedtime rituals and, as he got older, how your sleep has been impacted by this loss. This is absolutely normal. He was part of your life, for what seems to be, for over half your life. We also have such a physical relationship with our pets. That is, we pick them up, hold them, and like Reggie, they curl up next to us. Our bodies sense their loss, even when we are not consciously thinking about it. Here are some suggestions to help with sleep:
  • Our bodies can experience trauma from a profound loss, which can definitely affect sleep. It might be helpful to try to get some exercise in during the day, whenever possible, even if it is just a walk around the block a few times.
  • Try to do some type of relaxation before bed, such as stretching, having a quiet cup of hot herbal tea, or even yoga. There are many good phone apps, such as Digipill, that specifically help with relaxation.
  • Stop engaging with electronic devices, including television, at least one hour before you go to sleep. Also, if you are reading, do that somewhere other than your bed. When you get tired enough, then you can move into your room. Sometimes people say that reading keeps them up, especially if it is work related. If this is the case, adult coloring books can work really well.  
  • Keep a Grief Journal, if that works for you, next to your bed. If you find yourself not sleeping because you are having feelings and thinking about Reggie, see if sitting up and writing in the journal for a bit helps. Sometimes, putting our thoughts on paper gives them less power and control.  
  • If a routine isn't working, do something different. It is okay to try many different things until you find one that works. So, if aroma therapy isn't helping, use a different scent or stop it completely. 
Most importantly, be kind and gentle with yourself. Sleep is the number one thing affected by grief. Know that you are grieving, this is normal, and that you will get through this. 

3. Doug Symons, a clinical psychologist who's studied pet bereavement, says:  

There are two literatures on pet bereavement rooted in attachment theory. [Ed. note: Attachment theory explains how people handle interpersonal relationships when they feel hurt, become separated from their loved ones, perceive threats to their relationships or manage distress in general.]

The first comes from research on pet attachment security, which essentially says the relationships we have with our pets can be structured in the same way as those with other human attachment figures, such as mother, father, intimate partner and best friend. The researchers who have done much of this work argue that pets can meet many of the same needs as other attachment figures.

The second has to do with pet loss. Attachment theory proposes that depression and complicated grief can arise in response to the loss of attachment figures, and the same thing can happen in response to the loss of a pet. [Ed. note: Complicated grief is that which impairs normal functioning beyond a six-month bereavement period.] Our own research found that attachment anxiety towards a pet relationship in fact was related to symptoms of complicated grief towards the loss. There are additional factors to this relationship, [such as] how important the pet relationship is to the person and whether the person has experienced other losses. In our study, we did not find differences between cat owners and dog owners, or between different circumstances of death (e.g., sudden, tragic, predictable from old age).

So how does all this relate to sleep? Complicated grief can be related to a form of depression, and one of the symptoms of depression is sleep disruption. This could be through ruminative thinking about the loss in the night. If you google symptoms of complicated grief, there are some examples of ruminative thinking such as guilt, bitterness, and non-acceptance. Finally, whereas we have attachment relationships with pets, we also have another one — that of a caregiver, as we meet the needs of pets. Your vignette reflects this very well.

 

Want experts to shed light on your sleep problem? Email your question to fisher@vanwinkles.com with the subject "my sleep problem."
 
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Please note that the information provided in this article is not intended to replace professional help. If sleep issues are causing you mental or physical distress, or inhibiting your ability to function in any way, reach out to a doctor, therapist or other licensed health provider.