My father and mother died over a decade ago and about one year apart. Approximately six months after each death, I had at least one vivid dream with one or both of them in it. In both cases, the dream did not feel like the typical run-of-the-mill dream.
Instead, the dream had a kind of hyper-real intensity to it. I felt that I had been touched or visited or communicated with. I could not easily shake the conviction that my father and my mother had communicated with me from beyond the grave.
Now if I, an individual who studied dreams with a skeptical scientific cast of mind, could not shake the conviction that I had just communicated with my dead parents, how much stronger must be the conviction of someone with a less skeptical approach to dreams than me?
In this post and elsewhere I have argued that these sorts of "visitation dreams" might be one source of the widespread belief in life after death—a core idea for conceptions of the soul and religion. For traditional peoples who accorded equal or greater ontological weight to dreams as compared to waking reality, a visitation dream must have been utterly convincing evidence that a spirit world and life beyond the grave existed.
Even in modernized societies, visitation dreams exert a considerable impact on the bereaved. Many bereaved people report that these sorts of dreams allowed for successful resolution fo the grieving process. Despite the importance of visitation dreams for theories of religion and for the well-being of bereaved individuals very little research has been done on them. For example, I could find no reliable epidemiologic data on visitation dreams.
How many people and what kind of people report visitation dreams? Do visitation dreams occur shortly after the death of a loved one or can it happen years afterward? What kinds of effects do visitation dreams have on the emotional life of the dreamer? Unfortunately, we do not yet have reliable answers to any of these questions...fertile ground for doctoral projects perhaps.
We do, however, have good information on the basic characteristics of visitation dreams thanks to some excellent recent studies and the work of Jennifer E. Shorter from the Institute Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA. Her doctoral project "Visitation Dreams in Grieving Individuals: A Phenomenological Inquiry into the Relationship Between Dreams and the Grieving" (Shorter, 2009; Palo Alto CA) identified some common elements of these dreams.
The deceased appeared as they did in life rather than as they did when they fell ill. In fact, the deceased often appeared much younger or more healthy than when they died. The deceased conveyed reassurance to the dreamer. "I am OK and still with you." This message tended to be conveyed telepathically or mentally rather than via spoken word. The dream structure was not disorganized or bizarre. Instead, visitation dreams are typically clear, vivid, intense, and are experienced as real visits when the dreamer awakens. The dreamer is always changed by the experience. There is a resolution of the grieving process and/or a wider spiritual perspective.
Given these basic characteristics of visitation dreams, such dreams must be considered among the most remarkable and most important categories of dreams—yet as mentioned above they are understudied, to say the least. My own feeling is that these dreams hold a key to the functional nature of the dreaming mind itself but we will never verify that claim without rigorous empirical investigation.