Visitation Dreams II: Dreams of the Bereaved

The visit by the dead seems utterly real to the dreamer.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

Readers of this blog know that I am very interested in so-called “visitation dreams” – dreams of the bereaved where the dead appear to the bereaved in dreams and look to be very much alive and then deliver a message of some kind.

Research on the dreams of the bereaved is finally picking up a bit. A team of Canadian investigators recently published a dream content analysis of dreams from some 76 bereaved middle-aged individuals (see Black, DeCicco, Seeley, Murkar, Black, & Fox International Journal of Dream Research Volume 9, No. 2: 2016).

The Canadian team reported that 67.1% of the bereaved sample stated that dreams of the deceased helped them believe more in an afterlife, 68.4% characterized their dreams of the deceased as “visitations," and 70.9% stated dreams of the deceased helped them feel more connected with the deceased.

With regard to common themes identified in dreams of the bereaved, a strength of this paper is that the authors were careful to establish reliable coding rules for common themes. Thus, independent coders were able to reliably identify several common themes. For example, the dreamer often receives a rationale from the deceased as to why he or she is “alive” again. The deceased may also deliver words of comfort to the dreamer (“I’m happy and OK”). The deceased may look younger or healthier. The deceased may indicate that he needs help “crossing – over” or requests a ritual to be performed on his behalf. The deceased may be separated physically from the dreamer by a wall or fence or may appear ill or needing help.

Unfortunately, the authors did not indicate which of these themes were more frequent than others. My own impression from reading hundreds of dreams of the bereaved is that the deceased most often appears healthy, happy, and younger but that illness and needing help are also common themes. The deceased most often wishes to communicate to the dreamer but there are often barriers preventing full communication. 

Now how to explain these bereavement dreams? The common sense explanation, it seems to me, is that human beings evolved the capacity to have these sorts of dreams in order to facilitate healing from the grief associated with bereavement. If this common sense explanation is correct, it would imply that grief after loss of a loved one has been so severe for our ancestors that something had to be done to handle the grief. In other words, incapacity due to grief was impairing reproductive success and thus a method was required to end the grief process.

Another possible explanation is that human beings are intensely social creatures. Reciprocity in social relations is fundamental to living in groups. There is a need to cognitively keep tabs on what is owed to whom and why and to “balance accounts” with people we have interacted with. When one of these individuals disappears or passes away we can settle accounts only in our dreams, but that dream experience is sufficient to cognitively reset and balance accounts.

These “common-sense” explanations, however, cannot cover the basic facts concerning common themes in bereavement dreams. If the function of visitation dreams is to end the grieving process then why do the dead appear as they do? Some appear young and healthy but others appear ill and asking for help. The dead offers reasons for their apparent resurrections instead of reasons to not be aggrieved. Instead of ending grief, the major cognitive effect of the visitation dream appears to nudge dreamers into believing in an afterlife (2/3rds in the present sample). In addition, dreamers testify that the barriers between them and the deceased often frustrate rather than heal.

Though not discussed in the Black et al article, the most striking phenomenological feature of a visitation dream, it seems to me, is that the dreamer physically feels, apprehends, senses, sees, touches, smells the apparently dead loved-one. The dreamers testify that the loved one was really present. It was not just an image or a phantasm. It was the real person. Dreamers claim that the visitation dream was, in fact, a visitation — an actual experience of the loved-one from beyond the grave, which began as a dream but ended with the full presence of the loved one right there in the room with the dreamer. The dreamers are utterly convinced of the reality of the visit.

While it is certainly consistent with the hypothesized function of these visitation dreams to end grief, why is it necessary to utterly convince the dreamer of the reality of the visit? It seems a bit much. Parsimonious Nature could have accomplished the cessation of the grieving process without inducing a belief in the afterlife it seems to me. Yet that is what we have in the case of visitation dreams.


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