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Dreaming and Dying
We all dream; we may not remember or recall them, but dreams are, for all of us, an ‘every-night’ occurrence. Dreams arise from a part of the mind that is usually inaccessible to the thinking, probing brain. This mysterious, unknowable and inaccessible part of the mind is called the unconscious. Dreams are our windows into the unconscious and were once described by Freud as, ‘the royal road to the unconscious.’ Most dreams surface during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, but dissolve back to where they came immediately upon wakening. Although locked away and beyond the reach of waking consciousness (true for most, but not all people), dreams often influence the way we feel and think over the ensuing days.
Dreams are the unconscious mind’s attempt to resolve everyday problems. They speak to us, but as the language and images are symbolic, the message is often confusing and subject to misinterpretation. If the message is important, the unconscious will, metaphorically speaking, shout and will persist in shouting until the conscious mind hears and comprehends what the unconscious is flagging. Dreams that are recurrent, nightmarish, patently explicit, or those that wake the dreamer with a start are examples of the unconscious shouting. All too often this form of shouting is the only means of directing the conscious mind’s attention to what is important. Not surprisingly, shouting dreams are common amongst those who are dying, particularly if they cannot or will not confront the reality of the situation.
Dreams around the time of death attempt to prepare the dying person for what is ahead. First and foremost they draw attention to the truth – that death is neigh. If the person denies this reality the dream imagery often becomes more explicit, leaving little to the imagination (the unconscious is now shouting). For example, one of my patients who would not believe he was dying had recurrent nightmares of being attacked from behind by a stranger wielding a dagger. The nightmares were so real and so scary he feared sleep. Ultimately, the dream broke through the barrier his conscious mind had constructed and was vigourously defending, and for the first time he started to talk about his fear of death. As he did, the nightmares miraculously ceased.
Apart from these so-called shouting dreams, the likelihood of memorable dreams also increases the closer a person gets to death. Memorable dreams often have one of the following themes:
Here, the imagery takes the form of a boat, car, plane, bird, etc. One young boy dying of cancer happily recounted the following dream to his distraught parents, ‘Jesus pulled up to our house in a yellow bus and invited me aboard’ (Komp, 1992). The message associated with this and other ‘travel’ dreams is very clear.
These dreams may be indicative of an inner conflict in which previously unacknowledged aspects of the psyche challenge the status quo (Muff, 1996). They may also reflect a conflict involving the dreamer’s (the dying person’s) acceptance of death and a refusal of family and others to do so.
A man whose family could not accept or talk about his impending death dreamt of being on one side of the Great Wall of China while his family was on the other side. In this dream he felt enormous distress for he was unable to hear, see or reach those he loved (Dugan, 1989; p.24). This dream accurately and graphically portrayed his real life predicament.
Growth and change
These dreams may include gardens, flowers, trees, birth, et cetera. Linda Bonnington Vocatura, while seriously ill with a heart condition, had the following dream, ‘A dormant winter tree stands covered with nests and within each nest lays an animal with its young’ (2006). This dream speaks, in a metaphorical way, about the cycle of life and death, growth and change.
According to a well-know dream analyst, the dreams of people facing death prepare consciousness, not for a definite end, but for a profound transformation and for a continuation of the life process – life after death (von Franz, 1984). Rebirth dreams are remarkable and can have a powerful and comforting effect on both the dreamer and his/her family. The first rebirth dream described below comes from the book, Nearing-death Awareness by Mary Anne Sanders (2007). The second was recounted to me by one of my patients.
An elderly woman dreamt of a brightly lit candle on the windowsill of a hospital room. The candle went out. Fear and anxiety set in as the darkness enveloped her. Suddenly, the lit candle reappeared, but on the other side of the window.
A woman dying of cancer said to her daughter, ‘I dreamt that Tony will come tonight’ (Tony was the woman’s husband who died suddenly, one month before). ‘What will you do’, asked the daughter? ‘I think we will go dancing’ was the reply. She died that night.
The following two examples illustrate how a dream may not only predict impending death but also the time of death.
One morning, a man recounted the following dream to his wife, ‘I was sitting an examination and was told the results would be known in three days. He died three days later (Barbato, 2009).
The day after a massive coal slip had killed 144 people including 128 school children in Aberfan, Wales a psychiatrist visited the town to seek and record accounts of premonition that foretold the impending disaster. The following is the most striking of the 24 confirmed accounts. The day before the disaster a ten-year-old girl told her mother the following dream, “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down over it!” (LeShan, 2004)
While most memorable dreams are steeped in symbolism, the message is usually clear (at least to the dreamer). Sometimes the dream is not so clear, and in these instances they are mislabeled by doctors and others as hallucinations or the ramblings of a confused mind. Sadly, this not only deprives the dreamer of the opportunity to talk about their dream, but it also leads to treatment that suppresses dreaming. As the truth is often revealed through a series of dreams, such treatment can be detrimental.
The following dream sequence was given to Janet Muff (1996) by one of her patients: ‘A mean vicious black bird is picking at me with its beak. It has enormous wings and terrible eyes. I am very afraid and know there will be nothing left of me once he has finished picking’. Such a dream would, most commonly, be labeled as a hallucination. If the patient was on morphine or some such drug, the hallucination would almost certainly be attributed to it. Fortunately, this patient was not sedated, but was encouraged to report further dreams. Some time later, he described a dream in which he was carried on the back of a large powerful black bird. He felt cushioned, safe and protected and felt as if he was on a long journey. Looking down from a great height he describes the view as incredible. He says, ‘I can see forever’. As a result of this last dream, the man lost his terrifying fear of death.
Finally, a few words about dreams others have of sick relatives or friends. Such dreams often say more about the dreamer’s fear and anxiety than about the dreamt person’s state of health. There are, however, numerous dream reports that are so accurate they defy reason. In these, the dreamer often dreams of an event before or at the exact time as the event occurred in real life. Such dreams have a quantum-like quality for they defy the normal time and space limitations that apply to all things outside the quantum world – they are immediate and brim full of mystery. For example; a woman rang her brother-in-law in South America immediately after her husband (his brother) had died. Much to her surprise, he said, ‘I know for … appeared in my dream, just before you rang.’
Some years ago, my mother-in-law told me of a dream she once had; a dream that both intrigued and troubled her. She remembers waking with a start after dreaming that her twin brother, who resided 12,000 kilometres away, had died. Until then her brother had been in good health, and she had never before dreamt of him. The life-like imagery and the intense emotional response shocked her for it made the dream seem real. So much so, she was distraught, but not totally surprised when she learnt, the following day, that her brother had been seriously injured in a motor cycle accident that took place at the exact time of her dream.
There is so much about dreams that we do not understand. What we do know is that ‘knowledge’ emerges from the unconscious through dreams and this knowledge, even if it comes through nightmares, always “come in the service of wholeness – dreams come to help not harm” (Muff, 1996). This is particularly true for those who are dying.
Barbato, M. (2009). Reflections of a setting sun. Griffin Press, Adelaide.
Bonnington Vocatura, L. (2006). Dying to be alive. Nicolas-Hays Inc: Berwick, Maine.
Dugan, D. (1989). Symbolic expressions of dying patients. Nursing Forum; 23(2):18-27.
Komp, D. (1992). A Window to Heaven. Zondervan Publishing: Michigan.
LeShan, L. (2004). The world of the paranormal. Helios Press:New York
Muff, J. (1996). From the wings of night. Holistic nursing practice; 10(4):69-87.
Sanders, MA. (2007). Dearing death awareness. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: Philadelphia.
von Franz, M-L. (1984). On dreams and death. Shambhala: London.