Have you ever dreamed of someone who died? “Grief dreams” (dreams of the deceased) have not been extensively studied, yet what research exists shows they are common. 53-75% (Black et al. 2019) of recently surveyed bereaved individuals had one or more dreams about someone important to them who has passed away; they reported both positive and negative dream imagery, but overwhelming appreciated and felt helped by the dreams. Even reliving trauma related to the death seemed to have a positive impact in most cases, helping the dreamer to process and incorporate the loss.
Dream researchers have identified 3 of the most common kinds of grief dreams:
- "Alive Again" dreams: the bereaved typically have these dreams at the beginning of their grief journey when feelings of numbness and unreality around the loss may persist. In these dreams, the deceased appears alive and well. The dreamer may awaken feeling disappointed that the dead are no longer living, but grateful to have seen them in a well and whole state.
- "Advice/Comfort/Gift" dreams: these typically occur after the dreamer has accepted the reality of the loss and has begun to move through the adjustment phase toward a new life narrative. The deceased may appear and offer advice and comfort to the dreamer ("it is ok to move on, I am ok"), or they may present the dreamer with a physical gift of some kind. In addition, the dream may allow the dreamer to say things previously unsaid, such as “I love you,” “I forgive you,” or “I’m sorry.”
- “Daily Activity" dreams: In these dreams, the deceased may be seen performing some action or routine, or interacting with others, while the dreamer observes from afar. There may or may not be an interaction between the dreamer and the dead in these dreams. They tend to represent the last phases of loss adjustment, as symbolized by the literal separateness between the griever and the deceased.
Advice/Comfort/Gift dreams seem to be the most pivotal for dreamers. These dreams really do represent a gift, as the dreamer typically awakens with a newfound sense of purpose and a new level of acceptance of the loss. Real-world example: Jackie Hance lost all three of her young daughters in a terrible car accident. For months after they died, she was profoundly depressed and had thoughts of suicide, hoping to reunite with them in death. Although her doctor raised the possibility of her becoming pregnant again through IVF, she could not imagine moving forward in that way. In her memoir I’ll See You Again (2013), Hance relates an advice/comfort/gift dream where she saw her daughters in the distance waving at her. As she reached for them, a voice said, "The doctors are giving you a gift. Why haven't you used it?" Hance found this dream life changing. She writes: “For sixteen months I had stayed stuck in the present moment…I couldn’t think about a future because I only wanted to retrieve the past. Some part of me (now) understood that what had been lost couldn't be found again." She decided to pursue the pregnancy, and she and her husband went on to have another daughter.
Where do our grief dreams come from? Dream researchers feel they may represent a wish, such as a wish to know the deceased is ok, or they may be messages from our subconscious revealing where we are in our grief journey. Some people experience their grief dreams as literal visitations, communications directly from those who have died. Researchers have no way of proving that a dream might be a visitation, but perhaps the origin of the dream is less important than the impact of the dream on the dreamer, especially if it brings peace or offers opportunities for self-reflection.
Grief dreamers do occasionally revisit trauma when dreaming about someone who has died. This can include witnessing or re-witnessing the fatal event or being with the person the moment they passed. However, negative imagery in grief dreams does not necessarily equate into an upsetting experience upon awakening. Instead, it may represent an attempt to integrate and the trauma and loss. That said, if you repeatedly have dreams that leave you upset or troubled, or if dreams bring frightening imagery you can’t stop thinking about, it is recommended that you speak with your doctor or a mental health professional who can help you sort through these experiences.
What If I Don’t Dream?
Because grief dream recall is directly linked to overall dream recall, developing better dream recall skills may help you have and remember a grief dream. Try these two strategies to increase the likelihood you'll remember your dreams:
- Keep a dream journal: Keep a notepad by your bed and write down a dream as soon as you awaken, even in the middle of the night. Recall what happened in the dream and how you felt, even if the feeling is incongruous (i.e., witnessing a happy event and feeling sadness). Sometimes we recall dreams backwards; this is ok. Write down whatever comes to you about your dream. In the morning, review the dream and consider what message it might be presenting to you. If nothing seems clear right away, keep the question in your mind. You may have more perspective later in the day or following days.
- If you don't like to journal, review the dream in your mind and try describing it aloud to someone. Talking through the dream can help you remember details and begin to reconstruct and analyze them. Take note of things that come to you as describe it and remember that dreams often contain symbols or communications that may seem nonsensical at first, but as you review the dream may become clearer. You may also discover "new" parts of the dream as you examine it.
Dreams, especially grief dreams, can be a rich part of our lives. They can serve as clues to the workings of our minds and our grief journeys as well as offer us opportunities to continue to reconcile the loss. As you dream of those who have died, you may feel a deepening connection to them. Being open to these dreams can enrich our lives and knowledge of ourselves. They can be appreciated and enjoyed, and can help keep us in touch in a positive way with those we have lost.
If you've ever had a grief dream and would like to share it, please describe it in the comments below. Also, let us know how the dream affected you and whether you made any life changes after having the dream.
Black, J., Belikcki, K., Emberley-Ralph, J. (2019). Who dreams of the deceased? The roles of dream recall, grief intensity, attachment, and openness to experience. Dreaming, 29(1), pp. 57-78.
Hance, J., Kaplan, J. (2013) I’ll see you again. Gallery Books.