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I ran into my father at a deli the other day. An undramatic encounter: I was waiting at the counter for a takeout order when I spotted him sitting at a corner table, yakking with friends from his senior residence, their walkers and canes carefully folded or propped against the wall.
I was happy to see him, and we had a hug and a few words. I kibitzed with his buddies for a moment, too. Then we said goodbye and I went on my way without thinking much about it because, after all, we would go out for lunch together on Saturday the way we usually did.
Dad looked fine, except perhaps for a less-than-flattering white sweater he didnt, in reality, own. In my dream thats what this was I didnt know that he had died.
He has been gone for nearly two years now, so I was glad to have this fleeting . I once dreamed of my late mother, too: a hippie version of Ruth Span, standing on a hilltop in a gauzy flowered dress and long, windblown curls. (She actually wore polyester pantsuits and had sprayed hair that gales couldnt rearrange. Are people undergoing makeovers in the afterlife?) My sister has also occasionally dreamed about our parents.
Seeing Dad left me wondering how often deceased family members enter their survivors dreams and what we know about what if anything that means. So I called Alessandra Strada, a clinical psychologist and director of integrative medicine and bereavement services at MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care in New York. She has listened to patients talk about their dreams for 20 years.
Dreams are quite a prevalent component of the bereavement process, Dr. Strada told me. In fact, a study recently published in The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care surveyed 278 caregivers (mean age: 63), nearly 60 percent of whom reported dreaming of relatives who had recently died in hospice care.
When and how often we experience such dreams vary enormously: We dream of someone who died last week or years ago; the dreams come sporadically or repeatedly; they are reassuring or, sometimes, troubling. (If you have had dreams of the departed, Id like to hear about them.)
We know theyre mostly related to waking life experiences, Dr. Strada said. We process events that occur in our lives, almost like digesting.
Theorists have tried to identify common categories of bereavement dreams. In the hospice study, respondents most often described pleasant memories of loved ones who died and saw them as of disease. But sometimes they dreamed of family members during their illnesses, too.
There are dreams where the person who died is not dead, and the griever has an interaction with him, Dr. Strada said. The sometimes surprised survivor may see a to behave differently than when the person was alive. Theres a do-over, she said. And in many cases, the do-over doesnt succeed and thats unpleasant.
In other dreams, the deceased appears and dispenses advice even about everyday questions like whether the survivor should move or take a new . People find these comforting, Dr. Strada said evidence of a continuing bond.
Dreams can offer resolution, too, especially if the survivor feels he or she should have somehow prevented death. The person who died appears and explains, There was nothing you could do. It was my time, Dr. Strada said. It relieves some of the guilt. People with religious orientations sometimes describe the loved one as bathed in light.
More distressingly, survivors tangle with unresolved matters in dreams. Dr. Strada remembers a patient in her late 40s whose mother had died. Because the family had little preparation or understanding of how sick she was, they had expected her to recover; instead she endured emergency hospitalizations and a difficult death.
Afterward, her daughter repeatedly dreamed about trying to reach her mothers bedside and being thwarted, unable to get there in time. She awakened feeling guilty and grief-stricken.
But, Dr. Strada said, the content of dreams changes over time. As psychotherapy helped the daughter accept what had happened, the scenario involving her mother shifted. She had dreams where she was able to hug her, and it was extremely healing to have that goodbye, to rewrite the script, Dr. Strada said.
Sometimes, Dr. Strada finds, caregivers under pressure dream about relatives deaths before they occur anticipatory grief triggering a range of emotions, including relief and guilt.
Because they are so common, dreams about those weve lost probably shouldnt worry us unless they repeatedly interfere with sleep or affect our ability to function. The question is, when one wakes up, what feeling is left? Dr. Strada said. Is there distress? People who awaken weeping night after night, without relief, might consider a support group, bereavement counseling or individual therapy.
I wasnt distressed, though. I awakened remembering the dream and feeling glad for the moment Id had with my father, who was enjoying schmoozing and eating, just as he had during his 90 years of life.