Illustratie: Rozemarijn van der Steen

Illustratie: Rozemarijn van der Steen

Sleeping and dreaming play a vital part in mental processing. So it would stand to reason that when you have a lot to deal with, your dreams reflect this. Grieving isn’t confined to the day, and maybe it can be even stronger in the night, because when the world is silent there is time for the core of our feelings to come to the forefront.

When grief strikes, dreams may reflect the mourning, sometimes coming with the intense emotions you’re feeling. Sometimes confusing, nightmarish; sometimes hopeful, inspiring, consoling, a moment of being together once more.

Psychology of grief dreams

Clinical psychologist and dream expert for Patricia Garfield studied over 400 dreams of people in mourning. Though every dream was unique, she saw a pattern emerge. After the first feelings of shock and numbness, where sleep seems to be an impossibility, people had (next to their normal dreams) dreams with intense emotions that they connected to their grieving process. Usually with metaphors as images of the feeling experienced in the day. A figuratively collapsing world dreamt as natural disasters or chaos, or being wounded in the dream as a reflection of the physical pain that grief can give. Sometimes the dreams were more literal: seeing the deceased, but being unable to contact them.

Garfield recommends using grief dreams as a barometer for the grieving process, but also as something that can be used to actively meditate on. She recommends to keep a grief journal. A place to write down dreams, memories, random thoughts. To be mindful of them, and accept your feelings.

Usually dreams change over time when the grief becomes less, she says. Dreams have a lighter atmosphere and more positive images. A glimpse of hope emerges. This is of course not a linear process, and grief can bubble up after 5, 10 or 20 years. The loss of a mother can suddenly become strongly felt when a person becomes parent. Grieving is a part of life, not a problem to quickly solve.

Spirituality of grief dreams

A lot of people experience an extra dimension and dreaming after the passing of a loved one: contact, that feels as real as it gets in waking life. Being together once more. Asking for forgiveness, healing old wounds or expressing old hurts. A parents who asks concernedly if all went well with the administration of the inheritance. A cousin that come that comes to tell that he is fine even though he passed so young. Grandma who stresses once more at the farm really should stay in the family.

Most religions approach this dream contact as real, instead of coming from the subconscious of the dreamer. for those who believe in life after death, and see passing as the transference from one world to another, contact between worlds is a reality.

Dream expert Robert Moss writes about dream contacts in ‘The Dreamer’s Book Of The Dead’ (Destiny books 2005). He recommends to openly welcome this contact, and describes movingly how nice it can be to get counsel from deceased loved ones – or to give it.

But he also gives a warning to be vigilant: if we can open our minds to our loved ones, logically we will be able to accidentally make contact with less desired energies. Sometimes even in disguise – it looks like Grandpa, but he acts so strangely. What doesn’t feel right, one doesn’t need to accept, Moss states. Wake up from the dream, or ask for help.

Good advice, even if you see dreaming as a psychological phenomenon. Not all thoughts are equally constructive after all, and sometimes it is necessary to give yourself a ‘waking call’.

The comfort of grief dreams

Having said that: Most dreams about deceased that people tell me are peaceful and have an optimistic feeling about them. Though not everybody has these kinds of dreams, people who have had them tell me about the comforting affect they experienced.

Maybe it is wiser to put the ‘why’ question aside for a moment, and focus our attention to the dreams themselves. Write them down, and reflect on the images. Talk about them with each other. To gain insights, to find hope and to create some extra space for healing.


A Dutch version of this text was previously published in magazine ParaVisie, where Nicoline writes a two-monthly column on dreams.