Dreams and Grief
How our dreams help us heal.
Posted Apr 08, 2019
Who among us has not wished for at least one last opportunity to see or hear from our deceased loved one? Impossible? Maybe not. This can and often does happen in our dreams. Actually, after a death, dreams of our loved ones are quite common. We know how important dreams are to our overall health and well-being, but dreams also play an important role in healing our grief. During the day, we can distract ourselves with various activities, but when we sleep, we are more relaxed and open. Our unconscious mind is free to wander and process the emotions we may try to avoid during the day.
A 2014 study in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care examined the impact of grief dreams on the bereaved and found that “dreams of the deceased occur frequently, can be highly meaningful and further healing from a loss." Themes in the dreams included, “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 healthy, comfortable and at peace as well as the deceased communicating a message.” The respondents found that the dreams were helpful in accepting death. The authors recommend that dreams should be an important part of grief counseling. 
Patricia Garfield, the author of Dreams in Bereavement (1996), states that dreams about the deceased tend to vary based on where the mourner is in the grieving process.; how long the loved one has been gone, our relationship with them and how they died.  T.J. Wray, who has done extensive research on dreams, identifies four of the most common types of grief dreams. The first is the visitation dream in which the deceased comes to spend time with the bereaved. Next is the message dream. Here the deceased appears in our dreams to give us information, alert us to a situation, or to simply tell us they love us. Reassurance dreams, the third type, are ones in which the message is comforting and positive. In fact, most grief dreams are positive. However, Wray’s final type of dream category is the trauma dream, which can be distressing. These tend to occur when the death has been particularly disturbing as with murder or an accident. 
Grief dreams are certainly not limited to these four types. Many times, the dreams are combinations of different elements. For example, a visitation dream may also be a reassurance dream. Joshua Black, a dream researcher, divides dreams into two categories, specifically, “before we know about the death and after we know.” The prior tends to reflect our anticipation of the loss. The latter is characterized by receiving knowledge of death before having been told in waking life. The news is typically delivered by the deceased and is described as them saying goodbye or some other message of comfort.
In essence, all grief dreams are visits from our loved ones. What makes these dreams different from our regular dreams? In his book, Visitation Dreams of Deceased Loved Ones, Preston Ni (2016) delineates eight characteristics of these dreams. They are described as having a different quality to them than regular dreams in that they feel very real. The deceased appear healthy and whole again. They also often appear younger than when they died. The message they bring is usually one of reassurance and comfort. Sometimes the message might contain a warning or some special guidance. Dreamers describe the communication with the deceased as being telepathic since no actual words are exchanged. These dreams tend to arouse strong emotions for the dreamer and ultimately help them to cope better. Finally, Ni finds that dreams can also be spiritually transformative.
Where do these dreams come from? Some people believe them to be typical wish-fulfillment dreams while others will believe that they have had a true spiritual experience. These dreams rarely need any interpretation as they speak for themselves. What we do know about them is that they are a normal part of grieving and have the ability to soothe, comfort, and heal those who mourn.
1) Wright, Scott, Kerr,C.W., Doroszczuk, Kuszczak, N.M., Hang, P.C.,& Luczkiewicz,D.L. (2014) The Impact of Dreams of the Deceased on Bereavement: A Survey of Hospice Caregivers. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. vol.31, 2pp. 132-138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049909113479201.
2) Garfield, Patricia (1996). Dreams in Bereavement. Deidre Barnett (Ed) Trauma and Dreams pp.186-211. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
3) Wray, T.J. with Price A. B. (2005). Grief Dreams. How They Help Us Heal After the Death of a Loved One. San Francisco, California Jossey-Bass.
4) Black, Joshua. http://www.griefdreams.ca.
5) Ni, Preston (2016). Visitation Dreams of Deceased Loved Ones. Preston Ni Communications Coaching.