Dream Work with the Dying

How to help the dying with their dreams.

Posted Feb 16, 2010

All the sacred traditions of the world give an especially privileged place to dreams and dreaming as a means of self-understanding and communication with and from the Divine. In addition, every culture of the world reveals some version of the ancient archetypal metaphor: "sleep = death", and "dreams = the experience of the afterlife". Tibetan Buddhists even go so far as to say that what we experience as "dreams" when we are alive and in our physical bodies is exactly what the discarnate entity experiences after death and in "the Bardo of Dying and Preparing for Rebirth". This belief is the primary reason for their focused attention to lucid dreaming; if a person can become proficient in recognizing consciously, "Oh, this is a dream..." while asleep, then that person will also be very likely to be able to do the same thing in the midst of the "Bardo of Death and Becoming", after separation from the physical form. In this way, he/she will be able to traverse the complexities of that post-mortem existence with calmness and clarity, or as they would say, "with wisdom and compassion".

Anyone who works with the terminally ill and the dying will notice, sooner or later, that those approaching the threshold of death tend to dream vivid and emotionally compelling dreams. Those who serve as helpers and companions to the dying are also more likely to have gripping and dramatic dreams themselves. It is impossible to accompany those in the process of dying without being confronted in the dream world with compelling metaphors of all one's own unfinished psycho-spiritual "business".

Ultimately, all dreams, (even the most gut-wrenching nightmares), come in the service of health and wholeness, and speak a universal language of metaphor and symbol. The very fact that a dream is remembered means that there is a creative, effective, even an elegant role for the dreamer's conscious mind to play in the further unfoldment of whatever is being given symbolic shape in the dream - otherwise the dream would not have even been remembered. In other words, no dream ever comes to say, even at the moments before death, "Nyeah, nyeah, nyeah - you have these problems and there's nothing you can do, about it!"

This is particularly true of the dramatic, emotionally charged dreams that those facing death regularly experience. Such dreams come as a last, urgent call to the person on the threshold of death to engage in a creative effort of understanding and insight that, if it is understood and attempted, will relieve and resolve unanswered and unwanted psycho-spiritual questions and problems. In many instances, these issues may have plagued the person, both "secretly" and consciously, for their entire lives. Close to the end, dreams regularly press forward in an apparent "last push" toward deeper understanding and resolution.

The basic, archetypal language of the dream world is the same the world over. With a minimum of training and practice, anyone can become more consciously familiar with this language, (we are all familiar with it unconsciously), and can learn to offer suggestions and assist the dreamer in reframing his/her dreams, even the worst nightmares, and help a person prepare for a death with greater calmness, clarity, and self-awareness.

In virtually all circumstances, the best training for helping others understand their dreams better is to do the work of understanding one's own dreams more clearly. The original dreamer is the only one who can say with any certainty whatsoever what the deeper meanings of his/her dreams may be, but without the help and support of others, all us dreamers are uniquely and selectively blind to the deeper implications of our own dreams. With only a minimum of effort, other people can be of immense assistance to the dreamer in the effort to understand the deeper implications and significance of his/her dreams.

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