Monday, May 20, 2024

Coping with Bad Dreams and Nightmares in Grief

There are many who don't wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don't wish to wake for the same fear.  ~ Richelle Goodrich

A reader writes:  It's now been six months since my mother died. In many ways it seems like worlds and eons since then, but in some ways not at all. I really miss her and talking to her every few days, as was our old routine.  The problem I’m having is that I dream about her almost every night.  It's never the same scenario, except that she's always sick, like she was toward the end. Sometimes I wake up crying. This has been going on for pretty much the entire time since she died. Is this normal???  I think of her from time to time during the day, but not obsessively so. I'm able to function pretty well. So I'm wondering if this is normal and how much other people have a similar experience.

My response: Yes, my dear, this is normal, especially now, when you are around six months into your grief. This is the time when all the initial shock and denial have fallen away, and you are confronted with the brutal and painful reality that your mother really and truly is dead and not coming back – at least not in the ways you've always known her.

You say that during the day you think of your mom "from time to time but not obsessively so," but you're still dreaming of her at night, when she always appears to be very sick. It seems to me that during the day your conscious mind is preoccupied and distracted by all that goes on during a normal day, but at night your unconscious mind is free to process whatever is "on your mind" – and that is a very necessary part of the mourning process.

You need time to come to terms with the awful reality that your precious mother is no longer physically present in your life, and dreaming serves an important function in that process. Each time you "see" your mother so sick and dying in your dreams, you are confronted once again with the reality of her terminal illness and the undeniable fact that she has died. Your mind is struggling to accept that brutal reality, and in a very normal way, your dreams are helping you to do that – gradually and indirectly enough that you are able to take it in and tolerate it, in more manageable doses over time.

Many of us don't even remember our dreams, but at a certain point in the sleep cycle we all still dream, and it is one of nature's ways of helping us confront and work through whatever is troubling us. Take comfort in knowing that as you move forward in your grief, the content of your dreams will likely change over time, and you can expect that one day you'll find yourself dreaming of your mother in a healthier, happier state.

If you're so troubled by nightmares or recurring disturbing dreams that your ability to function during the day is affected, it's important to know that effective treatment is available.  One method, known as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, was developed by Dr. Barry Krakow of the Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center.  The treatment involves learning some basic guided imagery techniques, recalling the bad dream, consciously imagining and deliberately rewriting the script of the dream, and then rehearsing the altered version of the dream several times during the day.

The technique of imagery rehearsal is simple enough and safe enough for you to try on your own, if you are so inclined.  Instead of picturing your mother on her deathbed, for example, you might think of her in happier, healthier days, capturing one of your most pleasant memories of a special time you had together.  Write down that memory and read it over several times throughout the day, and once more before you go to bed at night.  Looking at photographs of your mother when she was in a healthier state is another thing you can try.  (You can learn more about guided imagery in the article, Guided Imagery or Visualization, and more about Imagery Rehearsal Therapy in this New York Times article, Rewriting Your Nightmares.  See also Getting Rid of Repeating Nightmares: A Simple, Potent, New Recipe by Belleruth Naparstek, and Following a Script to Escape a Nightmare and Guiding Your Sleep While You’re Awake, both by Sarah Kershaw.)  Other resources you may find helpful include Healthful Sleep: Guided Imagery with Belleruth Naparstek,  Tips for Coping with Sleeplessness in Grief, and Looking for Sleep in All the Wrong Places.

If you want to explore ways you actually can work with your dreams, you may wish to read the book, 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 an assistant professor at Salve Regina University, a bereaved sibling and author of the book Surviving The Death of a Sibling: Living through Grief When An Adult Brother or Sister Dies; 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).”

While her work is aimed primarily at reconciling the conflicts and challenges arising from the profound loss of the death of a child, certified dream work facilitator Carla Blowey uses dreams as a tool for healing through loss and transition. Author of the book Dreaming Kevin: The Path to Healing, 2014 Expanded Edition, Carla offers experiential workshops and conferences to help bereaved parents move toward the same forgiveness, healing, spiritual growth and new life she found following the death of her five-year-old son Kevin. Visit her website here: Dreaming Kevin: The Path to Healing.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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