Dreams During Grief

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A talk presented to the Rita Dwyer Panel
at the International Association for the Study of Dreams
July, 2010, Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina
When someone we love dies, our whole being goes into shock. At first we are numb. Things seem unreal, as if we are watching someone else go through the motions of living. We deal with the things that must be done for the body of the person who has died. We carry out acts that honor his or her memory. With the help of family and friends, or without it, we manage to do the essentials. We hardly eat or sleep. What dreams we have are broken and painful. We barely care about anything because the worst has happened. But this is just the beginning of grief.

The Seasons of Grief

The death of a loved person is probably the most traumatic life event we can experience, worse even than being diagnosed with a terminal illness or going through a divorce. Our life-defending mechanisms shield us from the immediate full impact of our pain by dulling our reactions. We do what must be done in a kind of trance. We act out of love for the deceased person—or duty. We may be surprised that we can function at all given the circumstances. We are in the first phase of grief: shock and numbness
Then the numbness recedes. Suffering sets in. The second phase of grief is chaotic. We have somewhat recovered from the aftermath of the death, funeral or cremation, and/or memorial services. We’ve gotten more sleep and regained enough energy to agonize. The full force of our loss hits us. We weep or rage, according to our personal style. We obsess over what might have been and what will never be again. Our bodies hurt, our hearts hurt, our minds overflow with sorrow. No matter how many loving people surround us, we are alone in grief. It sometimes seems impossible to bear the loss of our loved person.
What can we do? We thrash around for support. We talk with friends. We are bombarded with advice ranging from the “chin up, life goes on” type to the “time heals all wounds” counsel to the more professional stance of “lean into the pain and it will pass.” 
Many of us go into grief support groups, such as those led by hospice, and/or grief counseling. Some of us participate in art therapy grief groups. Some of us turn to religion. We reach out; we struggle to find what eases the aching emptiness. We must act because the alternative is to stop living ourselves, to while away our time on earth in a turbulent fog. We are in the second phase of grief: emotional chaos.
Eventually some of the things we do actually help. At first, just in short bursts of pleasant well being, later in whole days of relative happiness. Misery still sets in again, but not as often, not always as intense. Clinicians call these “grief attacks.” Sooner or later we try new things, new classes, new people, and new activities. We begin to see the possibility, even the probability, of a good life again. Not the same life, not necessarily a better life, but a good one nonetheless. We are moving into the third phase of grief: reintegration.
 It will be a different life. Our loved person is still dead; nothing can change that. Reluctantly, we accept that death. But the love we shared continues. It enriches our present. It is a gift for our future. We have changed. We have begun to integrate, to forge a new life. We are more human having gone through the trial of tears all people must eventually suffer. We have greater compassion for others. We have more to give.
Any worker in the field of grief, any person experiencing grief, will tell you that these three phases—shock, chaotic emotions, and reintegration—are not separate stages. They crash upon the shore of our days, lapping and overlapping. We feel miserable one moment, overcome with missing the dead person, then feel uplifted with laughter the next. Yet these three phases are present, more like great tides that shift and change with the seasons. As time passes, the emphasis is different.
So, too, our dreams. The hidden companion of our days, in our dreams at night we experience the same shifting tides.
Before we look at the specifics of these dream shifts, take a look at the chart titled Common Grief Reactions on the white paper. You’ll notice under the section labeled Mental, dreams of the deceased is listed. These dreams are often part of our sorrow and suffering; they also contain our consolation.

The Dream Seasons of Grief

During the first phase of grief we are so benumbed that sleep is short and often dreamless. Many people in grief deaden their unhappiness with sleeping pills that suppress dreaming. As medication is withdrawn, or simply as our emotional reaction to the death of our loved person resurfaces, so do our dreams about the death return.

Season 1: Winter

Death and Destruction Images

Naturally, the earliest dreams after the death of a loved person are pain-wracked, containing many references to death. Corpses, funerals, cremated ashes, graves, references to fate and time are plentiful. Here’s a sample dream:
First I’m traveling on an airplane that is coming in to land while I lean sadly against the shoulder of the girlfriend beside me. Then I’m playing cards with some women who draw a card. Finally, I am lying in a bed just like ours, with my husband lying beside me, inert, probably dead. I feel sad to see his corpse but not frightened.
Images of travel, sadness, fate (drawing cards), and a corpse in this dream are common in early grief. This was the first clear dream image of her husband the woman had—as a corpse—since his death two weeks earlier.
Dreams during the entire first phase of grief are filled with images of death, injury, and suffering. People die or are wounded, animals are hurt or are in danger, and plants are withered or dead. Living things in dreams are often hungry or thirsty. 
Notice that these dreams are similar to those that occur after a dreamer has been ill or injured. Indeed, the dreamer is emotionally wounded after the death of a loved person. In the aftermath of a death, these images seem to reflect not only dreamers’ concerns for the deceased, but also their own suffering over the loss, their own damaged vitality level, and impaired life force.
During these early phases of grief, dream buildings and other structures are damaged and objects are broken. Cars and other vehicles break down, are deliberately harmed, are at risk, or are totally ruined. These dream images suggest damage to dreamers’ self-structure, sense of wholeness, and ability to function.
In the third week after her husband’s death, the same dreamer wrote these lines based on dream images:
                                    In a wooden chest,
                                    Sweeping shattered glass,
                                    Where are you?
Often the dreamer is trapped in dreams during the early phases of grief, unable to move, or carried away in some vehicle, unable to escape. Many images are murky, dark, dim, foggy or misty, reflecting dreamers’ inability to see their way out of the dismal situation.
Messy, crowded, or rearranged conditions in dreams likewise echo dreamers’ confused reactions to the death of their loved one and its “messy” consequences of financial matters, legal papers, and general headaches.
Other common dream images during the first two phases of grief are those of coldness, snow, ice, or sleet. These bad weather images appear to express dreamers’ fear, and, perhaps, their unshed tears.
Those dreams characteristic of recent grief often contain scenes of the dreamer or some other person in great sorrow. Dreamers report being separated from their loved person, and then, becoming aware of their absence, search to find him or her. In such dreams, we mourn our loss and also feel sad for ourselves. We yearn to seek and find the dead person again.

Season 2: Spring

Travel and Transition Images

Some of the dream images during the early and middle phases of grief are not so harsh as death and destruction but rather seem to express the change underway in the dreamer’s life. There are numerous scenes of travel and its associated terminals, airports, and stations, as well as suitcases and packing.
Broken or unsteady staircases or elevators, in which the dreamer is trapped between floors, appear. Bridges, gates, doors, and revolving doors in dreams at this time seem to represent the dreamer’s transition to another psychological space.  Monetary coins, “change,” which often appear in dreams when the dreamer is undergoing psychological change, emerge in grief dreams as well. 
In dreams, any ceremonies surrounding a death (funeral, cremation, burial) are quickly recognized as relating to the recent death of the dreamer’s loved person, but weddings and birthdays are also transition points that occur in dreams during grief.

Generally, then, during the first two phases of grief, dreams are filled with death, destruction, and damage. Dreamers are trapped, cold, and in dark, messy conditions. They struggle to climb rickety staircases and cross bridges that are unstable. They travel or say goodbye. There is too much change in their lives.

Season 3: Summer

“Newness” Images Bloom

A striking shift in dreams during grief occurs in the form of a baby or a pregnant woman. This baby or pregnancy seems to represent the dreamer’s “new life” without the deceased. As such, it is often in danger, hungry, thirsty, or even deformed. Here’s an example from the same woman’s dream almost three months after the death of her husband:
A man thinks a baby carriage might be empty, but then he hears a baby noise coming from inside it.
Next, I am pushing a baby in a carriage in the toy section of a department store. The infant is a few months old, with a half-formed face, as though unfinished. “Do you feel better?” I ask the baby. “Not better,” it replies, “even.” 
The dreamer’s new life is fragile, may feel deprived, and is, as yet, unformed or misshapen. But it is not falling into icy water, or in danger of dying, as did babies her in earlier dreams. It is new life.
This dream baby grows. The baby’s age in the dream, or the length of a dream woman’s pregnancy, matches the time since the loved person’s death. When a woman whose husband died six months ago dreams that a baby of five or six months is sitting up, adorable, laughing, she is expressing hope for her new life.
Newness takes multiple dream forms. When a man in grief dreams that he is driving a brand new car, with every possible desired gadget, he is expressing the possibility of regaining his ability to function well despite the loss of a loved wife.
When a dream garden is replanted, a dream park brims with trees in bloom, or the dreamer sees flower blossoms filling a beautiful crystal bowl, new possibilities are emerging. Dreamers express the presence of hope in such images.
Artwork undergoes restoration, a house is rebuilt, and a building project is renovated or redecorated as dreamers move into the third phase of grief, reintegrating with the world. We might call it summer.
In the early dreams of grief we saw scenes of bereaved persons or of dreamers themselves weeping. Now when a person in a dream is sad, it is the dreamer who comforts that person. This shift from sufferer to comforter indicates the dreamer’s increased ability to comfort the self.
Earlier scenes of the deceased often involved suffering, sickness, or sorrow. Now dreams sometimes depict the deceased as radiantly healthy or giving a loving embrace. Dreamers awaken consoled, uplifted, and even joyful. They sometimes gain new understanding of their path in life and feel sure of eventual reunion.
 At times dreams in this phase of grief are infused with incredible beauty. For instance,
I’m in an area in the foothills crowded with people and houses but beyond a certain street and elevation it’s not too bad. At one point, some mist clears and I can see the spine of a high mountain. On its flank is a field with a horse with a black mane, running free.
Compared with an earlier dream (about three weeks after a death) in which horses were being strung up in trees, their bodies tied with lashes, this dream from the same dreamer nine months after the husband’s death represents a monumental shift in the strength of the her life force. It is the natural pattern of recovery, an expression of the resiliency of the spirit.

Focus on the Transformative Image

As we work with the dreams of grief, our own or those of our clients, we are seeking the image that embodies change for the better. The pictures in our dreams are shaped from our deepest emotions. There is a healing force, a drive to live operating within us. It answers our needs when we stay aware of its presence. It supplies us from our depths. Await it. Expect it. Welcome it.
We seek the transformative image, the image that heals. Watch for the images of new life in dreams during grief. When you seek and find the transformative image, bring it into the waking world.

Use the Healing Image as a Meditation Focus

As you encounter a dream image such as the adorable, laughing baby, the freely running horse, or the crystal bowl filled with beautiful blue flowers, carry that picture into your waking hours. Use it in some way that will enhance its healing power for you. 
You might replicate the image if possible, such as getting a crystal bowl to fill with flowers like those you saw in your dream. You may wish to sketch it or paint the image. You may prefer to find a magazine photograph, a postcard, or picture from a book, something that captures the essence of your dream. You might study the printed image before you fall asleep or use it as a focus for a meditation session. Or just let it rerun in your mind during the drowsy period prior to sleep. 
In your imagination, keep the healing image alive within you. Let the joy of the infant, or the free spirit of the horse, or the beauty of the blossoms, or whatever the emotional essence of your transformative image is, let it imbue your being. Allow it to inspire your daily life.
Our dreams help heal our grief. Even the painful ones teach us where we are at the moment. They help us to accept our loss. They light our path toward a new life. By integrating them we can become whole. Gradually our dreams return to more or less normal, with occasional flashes of inspiring or comforting contact with the deceased person. 
            • Watch for any healing image that arises in your dreams
            • Give it waking form
            • Use your imagination to keep the transformative image alive
            • Focus on the emotional essence of your healing images
            • Allow yourself to absorb and embody their essence in your everyday life
We all carry the power to heal ourselves while we sleep each night. Open your hearts in your dreams and your hearts will open to life.