Technically speaking, we all face death from the moment we’re conceived. The only certainty we have in life is that one day we will die. Yet in modern Western culture we shy away from this knowledge, and dying is often feared. Dreams can prepare the dying for death, prepare the dying person’s loved ones for their death, and help bereaved people to come to terms with the loss of somebody they love.
Dreams give support and insight into the dying process. Dr. Monique Séguin, an expert in suicide prevention and bereavement, works as a hospice nurse at the West Island Palliative Care Residence in Canada. She has found that dreams can be used as therapeutic tools for the dying, as they bring the dreamer an awareness of where they are in the dying process.
One of her patients, a ninety-year-old man, dreamed he was standing on a beach with two crows. One crow was trying to make him move forward, while the other was holding on to make him stay. The dream showed the man that while part of him was ready to die, the other part of him was still holding on to life. Although the patient always said, “I’m old, it’s time for me to go,” the dream mirrored his internal conflict and reflected his ambivalence about death.
When end-of-life dreams are listened to and the dying person is encouraged to talk about them or do simple dreamplay, a real connection between the dying person and the caregiver or family member can be experienced and death can become easier to face.
End-of-life dreams and deathbed visions are very common, and it is important to listen to and support the dying person. When end-of-life dreams are shared with their families, these can unite them before death in healing ways.
In a 2016 New York Times article, “A New Vision for Dreams of the Dying,” the work of neurobiologist Dr. Christopher Kerr is discussed. Dr. Kerr believes that end-of-life dreams have a therapeutic function and can help not only the dying but also their families.
One dying woman had nightmares in which she relived memories of being sexually abused when she was young. This horrified her family, but doctors were then able to give her anti-anxiety medication and she had a healing exchange with a priest before dying peacefully in her sleep.
Dr. Kerr feels that listening to patients’ dreams can help doctors to make the right choices about which medication to give to help them towards a good death, but he warns against sedating them too much: “Often when we sedate them, we are sterilizing them from their own dying process,” he said. “They’ll say, “You robbed me—I was with my wife.” The dreams of the dying can help doctors to guide them towards “a good death.”
Healing dreams for those imminently facing death may sound like a paradox—after all, how can we heal when we’re about to die? But in fact, people facing death are often readier than they have ever been in their lives to heal past rifts and face difficult truths. Dreams can help the dying to accept their own death.
One woman had a series of lucid dreams leading up to her death in which she had profoundly spiritual experiences of floating bodiless in light. This helped her to accept that not only was death not “the end of everything” but that it was also a spiritual transition and not to be feared.
Dreams of the dying very often include transportation and deceased relatives such as parents or a spouse, who seem to be waiting for them and sometimes even urge them to join them. Dying patients often find solace in dreams of their own dead loved ones who have gone before them. Sometimes a dream house will represent the dying body.
Artist Dr. Fariba Bogzaran, coauthor of Integral Dreaming, shared a lucid dream with me that she had when she was facing death.
I am walking through a mansion that is falling apart. All the plaster is peeling off, the windows are shattered, the floor is uneven. There are many levels in this house. Through one level and staircase I see an opening into another world. It is beautiful and spacious. I am alone until I walk into a room. Four women are sitting in a chair in a circle facing each other. They are “fringing” a raw canvas.
The atmosphere is very quiet and contemplative. It feels like they are cloistered nuns. A voice says that this is a vehicle of meditation. In the center is a table with all the strings from the raw canvas. In the slowness of time, I become lucid. I want to remember the scene. I stand there witnessing the calmness of their presence in light of the destruction of the mansion.
I had this dream when I was battling a potentially fatal health situation. I had lost twenty pounds with no end in sight and was facing many unpleasant symptoms. I was preparing myself for the inevitable. While seeking medical and alternative help, I was also closing chapters in my life and was preparing to leave. I would spend hours being with nature, floating in the sea, breathing in as much of life as possible. I had bought several raw canvases to do painting. I was preparing them by fringing the top and bottom. Because I had so little energy, all I could do was fringe both sides of the canvases and leave them blank.
The dream was obviously the reflection of my dying body. The counsel of the elder women in my dream, who had appeared in other dreams, was teaching me a method of dying or healing. Was I going to die or heal? I prepared for both.
After the dream above, I began fringing the canvas as a mode of meditation. I would pay great attention to each thread and think of how my life was “hanging on a thread!” At one point, the action began taking me inside a particular zone. I felt the action was total mindfulness. I attribute the wise elders’ method as one of the vehicles for my healing.
In the midst of a life-threatening illness, Fariba’s lucid dream gave her a practical task to enable her to become meditative and mindful in order to allow healing to take place. She followed the dream’s advice, and she did not die. Instead, she healed and simultaneously created a new art form, decorating her home with blank, fringed canvases.
Dreams of the dying occasionally come too late to help the dreamer. One man in palliative care who didn’t have a good relationship with his children dreamed he had a diamond in his hand. He wanted to give it to someone but no one wanted it. After this dream, he became very agitated. He died that same night.
Given the context, I think this is one of the saddest dreams I’ve heard. Imagine feeling such agitation and rejection at the end of a long life! What a waste. Our time on this planet is so short; we are like fireworks lighting the sky for a few bright seconds.
What we do with our time, how we live our lives, the relationships we have, how we help others: these are the important things. Too late, this man discovered he had a precious gift to share but nobody was interested in it.
What an unfortunate way to leave this life, with a sense of unfinished business and regret. He might have been able to reach a greater level of peace before his death if he had worked just briefly with his dream, simply imagining a scene where his children (or someone—anyone!) stepped forward to receive his diamond.
1. Listen attentively. Listening is an incredibly supportive therapeutic act in its own right.
2. Don’t judge or leap to interpret the dream. The dream belongs to the dreamer. It might simply be enough for them to share their dream, without any further dreamwork.
3. If the dream is obviously upsetting for the dying person, ask them, “If you could change the story of your dream for the better, what would happen?” If they seem stumped, remind them that, for example, they can get help in the dream; send love to the people in the dream and see them transform; support their dreaming self by offering advice or comfort; or change the ending of the dream so that they have a good feeling about it.
4. If the new dream story they choose feels forced or hollow to them, they haven’t found the right one yet. Only when the new scenario fully resonates with them have they hit on the right story for them.
5. Once they find a scenario that makes them feel good, suggest that they vividly imagine this happier scenario taking place, really feeling it on an emotional level. They can repeat this step as often as they like, to create a happier inner movie.
6. Being heard by you, and doing these few steps of dreamwork, is very likely to lift the spirits of the dying person considerably. Doing dreamwork with someone can be a strong bonding experience and they will feel your empathy and support throughout.
People faced with their own mortality can change enormously in a short space of time. Whenever healing takes place, even if it is just hours or minutes before death, it is worthwhile as it can help the dying to go into death more peacefully and provide the family with solace.
Dreams of the dying sometimes provide the dreamer with a glimpse of paradise; a vision of what it may be like after we transition from our physical body and enter the after-death state. “This is vast. You would not believe how vast it is," one man told his wife. When my grandmother was on her deathbed, she said, “Dying is beautiful." Granny gave me one last piece of advice before she died: “Make the best of it."
Perhaps this is something we all owe to those we love who have died before us: to make the best of this precious life of ours.
©2018 by Clare R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change
by Clare R. Johnson
There are many books on dreams, dream interpretation, and lucid dreaming. What makes this one different is that Clare R. Johnson, PhD combines the principles of mindfulness with a fresh approach to lucid dreaming. The end result is a step-by-step guide for understanding dream language, waking up in our dreams, and transforming them to improve our waking lives.
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Clare R. Johnson, PhD, is the leading expert on lucid dreaming. She has a PhD from the University of Leeds on using lucid dreams as a creative tool (the first doctoral work in the world to explore this topic), is a lucid dreamer herself, and is the board director of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. She regularly gives talks and leads workshops about dreaming. Photo credit: Marksu Feldmann. Visit her at www.deepluciddreaming.com.