Monday, May 31, 2021

Coping with Dreams in Grief

[Reviewed and updated May 17, 2024]

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.  ~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

A reader writes: I'm pretty sure there are a lot of topics about this but I wanted to ask if others have these really vivid dreams in which their lost loved one was still alive, but after waking up you realize she's not there anymore. How do you deal with that and when did the dreams go away? The dreams are strangely comforting but the feeling when you wake up is just devastating.

My response: As you have observed, dreaming about a loved one who has died and feeling their presence while we are asleep can be comforting and even reassuring, but waking up to the harsh reality of their absence and the empty space they've left in our world can feel as if we've lost them all over again. It is at best a mixed blessing ~ but one which today is being studied by scholars and researchers who believe that such dreams can be used effectively as tools for healing.

Following the sudden and unexpected death of his father, psychologist Joshua Black experienced his first grief dream, which sparked his initial interest in the topic and led to his pursuit of a doctorate in psychology. As he explains on his Grief Dreams website, "I continued to have dreams every 3 or 4 months after that, which were very comforting. Shortly after, I began providing one-on-one bereavement support and the topic of dreams was common. People had questions regarding their dreaming and I was unable to find answers. What I found is that bereavement research has overlooked the topic of dreams, and therefore there is little understanding about them. This is when I decided I needed to go back to school and research the topic." Dr. Black is now considered one of the leading academic researchers in the field of grief dreams, offering information and support to the bereaved through his writings, workshops and presentations. Read more about his work in his article, Grief Dreams/The Power of Love.

I also want to recommend to you a book that you (and others reading this) may find quite helpful. It's entitled Grief Dreams: How They Help Heal Us after the Death of a Loved One, by T.J. Wray and Ann Back Price. (T.J. Wray is a professor at Salve Regina University, a bereaved sibling and creator of a website offering support and understanding for adult sibling loss (now The Grieving Sibling); her colleague is a Jungian psychoanalyst on the faculty at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island.)

The authors assert that, "Because grief dreams are a fairly universal phenomenon among the bereaved, they offer the opportunity, when affirmed as important and properly understood, for healing." They guide readers in ways to understand and value their dreams, how to keep a grief dream journal, and how to use dreams as tools for healing. They explain that most grief dreams fall into four rather broad categories (visitation dreams, message dreams, reassurance dreams and trauma dreams), although there are other grief dream types such as prophetic dreams and dream series. The book offers real-life examples of each type, including their symbols and other important features. Wray and Price show how dreams can be affirming, consoling, enlightening, and inspiring. Grief dreams, they say on page 37, "offer a way through pain to memory and meaning." Grief dreams act as shock-absorbers, help us sort out our emotions, enable us to continue our inner relationship with the deceased, and make a creative bridge to our future: "Grief dreams often bear meaningful images of a hopeful new life for the mourner [p. 181]."

The authors offer step-by-step guidance for understanding and valuing the various messages from grief dreams ~ even the nightmarish and shock-absorbing ones. They even give examples of how we can ask for a dream to help us, and suggest a method to use as a possible technique for inducing a reassurance dream. Following each dream story is a "Toolbox" designed to assist the reader to gain the confidence necessary to interpret his or her own dreams. "This confidence is enhanced by the easy-to-learn methods of interpretation that center on the concept that you, the dreamer, are in the best position to accurately interpret your own dreams. After all, your dreams are as unique as you are [p. 6]."

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