Today, it’s three months since I lost my beloved wife, Fiona. I’m hoping to post a blog entry on the 25th of each month in order to share more of what I have learned about grieving the loss of a loved one. I know for a fact that there are people out there reading this blog who have said that my thoughts on this subject help them in their grief too*.
I’ve often heard it said that one of the most noticeable features of the bereavement grief process is that those left behind tend to dream a lot about the person they’ve lost. Sometimes these dreams occur every night; sometimes they are less frequent, but it does seem to be a common feature. And today I want to talk about how these dreams can help you to come to terms with your loss.
In my dreams, Fiona has often been present, not necessarily playing an active role, but maybe just sitting quietly in the background. Sometimes she talks to me too; it’s just talk about whatever’s going on in the dream. In the dream, I usually know she’s not with us anymore, but it doesn’t seem strange sitting and talking with her. I haven’t had bad dreams about her, but I do know of people who have had bad dreams about their lost loved ones. I’ll come on to that later. But it really is almost as if I can spend time with her in my dreams, even though it’s neither sought out nor deliberate. And this is a great comfort to me.
So, how does this work, and why can it help the grieving process?
Well, first of all, I think it’s incorrect when people use the old cliché that a person is ‘with us in spirit’. I’m not convinced; I believe she’s gone on to be with the Lord, as I’ve said before. But I do believe this: I think that everything that a person has put into our lives during our time together, is what remains with us on this Earth. All my attitude changes, because of life spent with her; everything she built into my life, all that still remains. I am the man I am today mainly because of her ‘input’ over the years. Everything that she was to me remains, if you like, alive in my memory. That other old cliché, the one where folk say that as long as we remember a person, they live on ‘in our hearts’, is, I believe, approaching what is happening. And so it’s as if we have a facsimile, like a ‘hologram’ of that person – personality, physical body, clothes, voice and what have you – stored away in our memories. And then, in our dreams, we can access these memories on a more meaningful level.**
I think it’s also that our subconscious mind – which is apparently more active in the dream state – has these dialogues with the departed because we can’t do it in real life. Only in our dreams is our full set of fantasy senses released into operation. You know how we can do things in our dreams that we can’t do in real life; well, this is one of those things. We can therefore talk things out with our beloved, albeit not really; it’s not really her, but we are talking with her memory. In a very real sense, we can commune with our loved one that is present in our heart. And so we can maybe say things we wish we’d said when she was still physically alive, maybe tie up ‘loose ends’, maybe assure her of our love (and possibly even be assured in return).
Although we may not always remember our dreams (in fact apparently it’s quite rare that we do), the effects of them, because they happened in our subconscious mind, will remain there in our subconscious mind, where actually they can do the most good and promote the most healing. The subconscious mind is recognised as having a powerful influence on our rational, conscious mind (just Google ‘subliminal messages’ to get a handle on this!) and any good stuff that happens in there is not lost even though we may not be able to access it directly.
What about bad dreams about the person you’ve lost? I personally think these can come from two main sources: unfinished business; and a reflection of the damage and hurt which accumulated during the process of the person’s loss; in Fiona’s case, we were ‘under the cancer cloud’ for just over three years. Or alternatively, the sudden trauma of an unexpected death, say by a road accident or a very short terminal illness, carries a special set of pains all of its own. In this case, there is much more chance of ‘unfinished business’; maybe you had harsh words with the person before they set out on the journey from which they did not return.
Either way, the dream-land can be a place where you can resolve, or at least discern, these issues. Maybe you can talk things out with the departed person. Sort out the unfinished business, ask for forgiveness, offer forgiveness, reaffirm your love. Often, though, bad dreams tend to be much less ‘rational’ than good dreams, if indeed any dream can be said to be rational! And therefore maybe the cause of the bad dreams might be presented in an abstract fashion, or by metaphor or symbolic things or similar. If it’s not clear what the problem is, perhaps you might try seeking professional counselling help. Most hospice organisations, for example, offer a bereavement counselling service at which these issues can be talked out. Or call the Samaritans! Or maybe just chat with a trusted friend or minister – although I realise that your trusted friend may well have been almost as close to the person you’ve lost as you were, so choose wisely. Maybe also have a notebook by your bed so that if you have a particularly vivid dream (good or bad), you can write it down at the time, because it’s almost certain that if you don’t, you will have forgotten it by morning!
Just coming back to the good dreams for a moment, I think that it’s perfectly all right to live in the dreams as if she is here, because in the dreams she is indeed there. You are accessing your memories of her and this is a healthy part of the grieving process. You are remembering her the way she was when she was alive, maybe even as she was before the illness. Enjoy the dreams and enjoy the time with her in the dreams. You don’t need to deny their help even though you know they’re not real. Your mind can still sort things out in dreams that it maybe can’t in ‘real life’.
And remember also that God is perfectly capable of orchestrating your dreams so that His purposes are fulfilled through them. He can easily bring healing into your life through your dreams of your loved one; you just need to trust Him that He knows what He’s doing.
If the dreams are bearing good fruit, then they are good and from God. If the dreams produce a fruit of darkness or uneasiness, then either there’s something you need to sort out (as above) or it’s coming from a different source, including maybe yourself. In these cases, praying in your Spirit language can be beneficial as it safeguards you from enemy activity. But look, what’s happened to you is a pretty dark thing; you’ve lost someone you love. It’s no surprise that your dreams and thoughts are going to be all over the place for some considerable time after the event. Relax, give yourself a break and go easy on yourself. And if the dreams help, then great. If they don’t, just see them as a bonus; a way of spending time with your loved one that you never expected to have.
Remember too that your (good) dreams of your loved one, although based simply on your memories, are really a reflection of a higher ‘Reality’ in which your loved one actually is alive and well, and where you will be going to join them within the next few decades. It’s a higher reality which will not change with time, no matter how much the memories fade or how infrequent the dreams become. Be encouraged!
*St. Paul said in 2Cor1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God“. [italics mine] 2Cor 1:3-4, and that’s what I propose to do with these posts.
**I realise that some people may be feeling a little uncomfortable with all this idea of talking with the dead. Surely, doesn’t the Bible forbid it? Like in Lev 19:31, “Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God”, or Deut 18:10-11, “Let no one be found among you who … is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead”. But let me reassure you that this isn’t the same thing at all. For starters, it’s purely involuntary; you are not actively seeking out the ‘dead’ in order to consult them. It’s a dream; you have no control at all over what you dream or don’t dream. And in any case, as we have already seen, you are not speaking to her herself; you are talking to the memory of her which is still ‘alive’ in your heart – her memory. The memory is still alive; you are not really talking with an actual dead person! It’s all completely innocent; it’s just a dream! If you’re still really bothered by this, just ask the Lord to keep you from dreams that may be harmful, and trust Him to do the rest.