Dreams and Death
Dreams help the dying to let go.
Posted February 28, 2019
Though seldom discussed in the scientific dream literature, dreams appear to have a special relationship to death and this relationship may reveal something about the power of dreams during liminal periods of a person’s life. Two dream types are of special importance with regards to death: 1) “visitation” dreams and 2) end of life dreams or dreams of the dying.
With regard to #1, I have several times in this blog called attention to “visitation dreams”. These are dreams that occur to the bereaved where the bereaved is “visited” by a deceased someone they knew or loved. I have called attention to the fact that these visitation dreams are not experienced as mere dreams by the bereaved as many are utterly convinced that their deceased loved ones were really there with them in the room and that they touched, embraced and communicated in the night. Equally importantly, these visitation dreams are therapeutically beneficial for the bereaved as they are comforted by the visitation. Back in 2014, Wright et al. surveyed 278 bereaved persons regarding their dreams and found that 58% of respondents reported dreams of their deceased loved ones, with varying levels of frequency. Prevalent dream themes included pleasant past memories or experiences, the deceased free of illness, memories of the deceased's illness or time of death, the deceased in the afterlife appearing comfortable and at peace, and the deceased communicating a message (usually that they are OK). The respondents also noted that these visitation dreams increased acceptance of the loved one's death.
With regard to end of life dreams (#2 above), this same group of researchers conducted a fascinating study on dreams of hospice patients. What do people dream about when they are dying? These authors collected (and content analyzed) dreams from 59 hospice patients in roughly the 20 or so days before they died. Most (61%) of the patients were dying from cancer. The most common dreams featured friends or relatives of the dying patient who had died before them. These deceased persons conveyed a message to the dreamer that they were all going somewhere and that things would be OK. The appearance of these relatives in dreams were experienced as real or highly realistic, rather than dreams per se and the visitations were rated by the patients as a highly comforting experience. For example, Tim (age 51) had dreams that included his deceased parents, grandparents, and old friends who were ‘‘telling me I will be okay.’’ ‘‘I haven’t seen some of these people for years,’’ he stated, and ‘‘I know we are going somewhere but don’t know where.’’ The authors stress the fact that their patients were not experiencing delirium or confusional states when they reported these dreams. Most interesting, as participants approached death, these realistic visitations and comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent as death approached significantly predicting the onset of death.
Thus, the deceased “visit” us after they die and later when we are facing death ourselves. In both instances, the “visits” are experienced as real, not dreamlike or hallucinatory. Communication with the deceased occurs and the message is typically (though not invariably) comforting. In the process of dying these visits increase in frequency and intensity heralding death itself.
A commonsense explanation of these visitation dreams suggests that mother nature uses the dream state to carry us through intensely painful and wrenching emotional experiences: the loss of a loved one and our own impending deaths. From a Freudian perspective, these are classic wish-fulfillment dreams: we lose a loved one but then we have a visitation dream and our wish of being with that loved one once again is fulfilled and there is an emotional resolution. Similarly, in the face of our own deaths, our lost loved ones step in once again and fulfill a wish that we not go through the terror of death alone etc. While this commonsense explanation makes sense to me, it's not completely satisfying. If it were solely about wish fulfillment why the extreme realism? Mother Nature could accomplish the same goal without using scarce metabolic resources to create hallucinatory states. If these are hallucinations they are unlike all other hallucinations known to medical science given that the patients involved are not cognitively impaired and virtually all senses are involved. The level of realistic detail in the visitations is extraordinary. Sometimes dreamers can even smell the perfume the deceased always wore! Either medical science needs to increase its inventory of hallucinatory states or we need a better way to understand these visitation dreams.
Wright ST, Kerr CW, Doroszczuk NM, Kuszczak SM, Hang PC, Luczkiewicz DL. The impact of dreams of the deceased on bereavement: a survey of hospice caregivers. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2014 Mar;31(2):132-8. doi: 10.1177/1049909113479201. Epub 2013 Feb 28
Kerr CW, Donnelly, J., Wright ST, , Kuszczak SM, Banas A, Grant, P., Luczkiewicz DL, End-of-Life Dreams and Visions: A longitudinal study of hospice patients’ experiences. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2015 May;32(3):269-74. doi : 10.1177/1049909113517291. Epub 2014 Jan 16