I had once been told you can’t die in your dreams, but I learned years ago that you can.
In my own death dream I was on an airplane and the landing went really badly. One wheel touched down and the others didn’t. The plane began twisting and sheering. I was terrified, waiting for the impact when the plane would explode.
The plane began to rip apart from the front to the back, where I was sitting. As seats and luggage flew through the air, I chose to accept my imminent death. Leaning back, I closed my eyes as the cloud of dust and debris washed over me. I knew that I wanted to die thinking about what I love, so I brought to mind my young son, and waited for death like we wait for sleep. I felt euphoric, knowing I was going to join everything I love.
When the moment came I felt no pain, and never lost consciousness. It just seemed like I was passing through purplish space into the stars. It felt like the spirits of everyone I loved, dead and alive, were there, and I was joining them. When I woke up I was crying, not because dying was sad but because it was sublime.
Dream interpretation has been important in psychotherapy since at least the time of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious” (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900), allowing a glimpse into the deepest workings of the psyche that wasn’t possible during our waking hours. For Freud, dreams opened cracks through which we could see our darkest secrets—secrets that we kept even from ourselves.
In the backlash against Freud, many rejected this view of dreams as rubbish. One of the best known alternative theories of dreams is the activation-synthesis model. According to this theory, the brain produces patterns of activity that the "meaning-making" parts of the brain then try to "synthesize" and make sense of. However, the resulting stories are a mash-up of strange content and connections because the activation patterns during sleep don't reflect experiences that the waking brain recognizes. Under this view, there’s no real “meaning” for us to find in dreams, no deeper message we can decipher.
If most of us found Freud’s ideas far-reaching, we might find the “random activity” view uninspiring. Is there nothing more to these bizarre fantasies than nonsensical stories triggered by the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, serotonin and glutamate?
Regardless of how we explain dreams, we basically agree that the events in our dreams didn’t actually happen. It’s precisely for this reason that we’re relieved after waking from a bad dream, and disappointed after waking from a good one. They are, in a sense, the unconscious equivalent of television—no more than fantasies.
And yet dreams hold such a grip on our imaginations. How could they not, these magical events that happen while we sleep, somewhere between this world and another? No wonder sacred texts repeatedly use dreams as a way for God to speak to humans. In the Book of Genesis, Pharaoh's dreams were prophetic, and led to preparations for famine. Like death, heaven-inspired dreams offered a connection to the eternal, the divine. Even today many people believe that a deceased person can visit us in our dreams, perhaps relaying a message from the other side. How can experiences that don’t in a technical sense exist exert such powerful effects on our psyches?
Just as dreams can deeply affect us, so too can our awareness of our mortality. We fear death, we hope for death, we plan for death, we resist death. We’re preoccupied with a mystery that we never directly experience—until, finally, we do.
There have been countless discussions in my therapy office center on the specter of death that hangs over each of us:
Knowing we’ll die shapes our choices. The existential psychotherapists have written most explicitly about our relationship with our death knowledge, among them Irvin Yalom, who wrote:
“We can never completely subdue death anxiety: It is always there, lurking in some hidden ravine of the mind” (Staring at the Sun, 2008).
When we’re young, it’s easier to deny the reality of our eventual death. As we get older, the idea of dying becomes more real. We lose our grandparents, then our parents, and then our friends. Psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that this final stage of life offered a special challenge—to come to terms with a life lived, and to make peace with one's choices, what he called “ego integrity.” (The alternative, according to Erikson, is despair.)
Knowing we’ll die can actually be a gift, as death has meaning insofar as it informs how we live. We have the option at any point in our lives to take stock of the life we're living and ask whether our actions are in line with what we really value. In therapy we sometimes have a person write her own epitaph: What does she want to be remembered for? What does she want her life to say, once the final chapter is written? If we’ve focused on meaningful goals, we’ll find less despair and greater acceptance of our impending death in our later years.
It’s hard to confront the reality of our mortality and not be changed in some way, often for the better. In a poignant way, survivors of suicide attempts often experience a refinement in their approach to living. One survivor once asked me, “If I didn’t die, what did I come back for? To stay on the path I was on where death was the most attractive option?” As a recent article suggested, you can “be fully alive now by meditating on your demise.”
Apparently, I’m not the only one who enjoyed a dream of dying. Based on her study of death dreams, Dr. Deidre Barrett concluded that “the most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams…is their overwhelmingly pleasant content."
We infuse our dreams with meaning through the connections we make between these imaginary events and our waking experiences. Dream analysis in psychotherapy has generally moved away from trying to “figure out” what dreams mean and instead asks what the dreamer makes of them. We decide what our dreams mean.
I choose to believe that my dream of dying reflected something true about the nature of life, and of death. I've decided to believe that my dreaming mind had revealed something my conscious mind couldn't conceive of—that my greatest fear and my deepest love were the same thing. To die was to instantly realize my union with all that I love. What I had imagined as the ultimate separation was in fact the end of separation. My death dream changed my relationship with the idea of death.
As far as I know, my beliefs about death do nothing to change what actually happens after I take my last breath—whether it’s everlasting union with the divine or cold, black sleep. What we can determine is what our death represents, and how we face it. Do we meet death with terror, realizing that we never really lived? With equanimity? With curiosity, as we embark on life’s final adventure?
In our fantasies of death, as in our dreams, we find meaning in the living. Encountering our own death before we die, whether in dreams or in conscious thought, might change not only how we die but also how we live.