I had the most disturbing dream when my mom was sick. She was sleeping in the big reclining chair that had become one of the few spots where she could rest during her illness. And suddenly, she woke up and distressingly said, “I’m not gone yet!”
It doesn’t sound like much when I describe it, but she died the following morning, so the dream has always stuck with me. I’ve never been able to shake the sense that it was real somehow. Like it metaphysically coincided with her real-life struggle not to leave us. It would be easy to dismiss it as some thought surfacing from my subconscious, but it seemed far more significant even before I knew she had died.
Since my mother’s death, I’ve felt uneasy about seeing her dreams. In theory, I want her to appear because I desperately want to be close to her. But for years, whenever I dreamt of her, she was still sick and dying. I realize now these dreams weren’t about my mother, so much as they were about cancer and the physical and emotional pain it caused.
It wasn’t until recently, 17 years after her death, that I’ve dreamt about my mother in her pre-cancer form. Now that she’s reappeared cancer-free, a part of me would like to have one of those significant metaphysical feeling-type grief dreams again, but it’s never happened. My dreams are just run-of-the-mill mundane weirdness.
Perspectives on Grief Dreams
People have long theorized about dreams, but we’ve yet to solidify our understanding of their function and purpose. From culture to culture and person to person, people believe different things about the meaning and significance of dreaming.
There is a similar difference in perspective about dreams amongst grieving people. Dreams can be a mixed bag after someone you love dies. While some people long to sleep, hoping to see their loved ones, others dread the nighttime hours because they find their dreams distressing. Some say they dream of people who have died often, while others share they never do.
The potential upside of grief dreams
Many people report having pleasant dreams about people who’ve died, and these dreams may take many shapes. One of the most fundamental experiences that most of us can relate to is dreaming about people and places in the past. In a world where visiting these people and places is no longer possible, it’s nice to think they still exist in your conscious and subconscious memory.
Some people interpret grief dreams as “visitations” from the deceased. In these visitations, the person may be free from illness or injury, appear in the afterlife, or seem comfortable or peaceful. These dreams may be pleasant and reassuring because they see the deceased as they once were before experiencing illness.
Other times, grief dreams may feel meaningful because of an interaction or message the person takes away. Perhaps it’s the interpretation of the dream that feels significant, or maybe they specifically dreamt that the person who died shared an important message with them.
It does seem worth mentioning that even positive dreams such as these can have an element of sadness and yearning because you must eventually wake up. Although a person may wake with a feeling of comfort, they may also experience an increased sense of loss because they once again lost their feeling of closeness.
The potential downside of grief dreams
Grieving people often have dreams they don’t want, like nightmares or dreams that bring them back to distressing moments filled with sickness, fear, or pain. Upon waking, these dreams may feel vivid and clear and leave you with a residue of sadness, uneasiness, anxiety, fear, etc
Death and loss often involve potentially traumatic events, and a person may have recurrent or occasional dreams related to these experiences. Research shows that those who experience more significant post-traumatic symptoms after the loss or struggle with things like unresolved guilt or blame are more likely to have negative dreams.
We often hear from people who wish to have dreams of people who’ve died but don’t. Whether it’s rational or not, those who don’t dream of the deceased may wonder why the person doesn’t come to them. Why does someone else receive visits in their dreams, and they do not? They may even go so far as to question their connection, wondering if this is a sign that they weren’t as close as they thought or aren’t connected enough in death.
Others may feel a little cheated like they’re missing out on something that would bring them comfort. They may wish for their loved one to visit them night after night, only to wake up frustrated when they don’t.
Putting it in perspective
Due to different beliefs about dreams, it doesn’t feel like our place to try and talk you out of the conclusions you draw about them. However, we can reassure you that not dreaming of the person who died or not having the type of grief dreams you would like is incredibly common. Many people, with perfectly healthy levels of attachment, closeness, and connection, do not have dreams they interpret as meaningful or that bring them a sense of closeness or clarity.
It’s important to note that if we dream, our dreams change with us and are likely influenced by our present-day thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences. Patricia Garfield, who wrote Dreams in Bereavement, notes that many factors may influence the types of dreams a person has including time since the loss, their relationship with the person who died, and how the person died (including your experience around the loss). As your grief evolves and changes, the content of your dreams may as well.
Finally, if you are consistently experiencing troubling dreams night after night, consider speaking with a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor should be able to help you explore your experiences and strategize ways to cope with troubles related to sleeping.
What is your experience with with dreaming since your loved one died? Share in the comments below.