To Perchance Have Grief Dreams

General / General : Eleanor Haley

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I had the most disturbing dream when my mom was sick. She was sleeping in the big reclining chair that had become one of the few spots where she could rest during her illness. And suddenly, she woke up and distressingly said, "I'm not gone yet!"

It doesn't sound like much when I describe it, but she died the following morning, so the dream has always stuck with me. I've never been able to shake the sense that it was real somehow. Like it metaphysically coincided with her real-life struggle not to leave us. It would be easy to dismiss it as some thought surfacing from my subconscious, but it seemed far more significant even before I knew she had died.

Since my mother's death, I've felt uneasy about seeing her dreams. In theory, I want her to appear because I desperately want to be close to her. But for years, whenever I dreamt of her, she was still sick and dying. I realize now these dreams weren't about my mother, so much as they were about cancer and the physical and emotional pain it caused.

It wasn't until recently, 17 years after her death, that I've dreamt about my mother in her pre-cancer form. Now that she's reappeared cancer-free, a part of me would like to have one of those significant metaphysical feeling-type grief dreams again, but it's never happened. My dreams are just run-of-the-mill mundane weirdness.

Perspectives on Grief Dreams

People have long theorized about dreams, but we've yet to solidify our understanding of their function and purpose. From culture to culture and person to person, people believe different things about the meaning and significance of dreaming.

There is a similar difference in perspective about dreams amongst grieving people. Dreams can be a mixed bag after someone you love dies. While some people long to sleep, hoping to see their loved ones, others dread the nighttime hours because they find their dreams distressing. Some say they dream of people who have died often, while others share they never do.

The potential upside of grief dreams

Many people report having pleasant dreams about people who've died, and these dreams may take many shapes. One of the most fundamental experiences that most of us can relate to is dreaming about people and places in the past. In a world where visiting these people and places is no longer possible, it's nice to think they still exist in your conscious and subconscious memory. 

Some people interpret grief dreams as "visitations" from the deceased. In these visitations, the person may be free from illness or injury, appear in the afterlife, or seem comfortable or peaceful. These dreams may be pleasant and reassuring because they see the deceased as they once were before experiencing illness. 

Other times, grief dreams may feel meaningful because of an interaction or message the person takes away. Perhaps it's the interpretation of the dream that feels significant, or maybe they specifically dreamt that the person who died shared an important message with them.

It does seem worth mentioning that even positive dreams such as these can have an element of sadness and yearning because you must eventually wake up. Although a person may wake with a feeling of comfort, they may also experience an increased sense of loss because they once again lost their feeling of closeness.

grief dreams
The potential downside of grief dreams

Grieving people often have dreams they don't want, like nightmares or dreams that bring them back to distressing moments filled with sickness, fear, or pain. Upon waking, these dreams may feel vivid and clear and leave you with a residue of sadness, uneasiness, anxiety, fear, etc

Death and loss often involve potentially traumatic events, and a person may have recurrent or occasional dreams related to these experiences. Research shows that those who experience more significant post-traumatic symptoms after the loss or struggle with things like unresolved guilt or blame are more likely to have negative dreams. 

We often hear from people who wish to have dreams of people who've died but don't. Whether it's rational or not, those who don't dream of the deceased may wonder why the person doesn't come to them. Why does someone else receive visits in their dreams, and they do not? They may even go so far as to question their connection, wondering if this is a sign that they weren't as close as they thought or aren't connected enough in death.

Others may feel a little cheated like they're missing out on something that would bring them comfort. They may wish for their loved one to visit them night after night, only to wake up frustrated when they don't.

Putting it in perspective

Due to different beliefs about dreams, it doesn't feel like our place to try and talk you out of the conclusions you draw about them. However, we can reassure you that not dreaming of the person who died or not having the type of grief dreams you would like is incredibly common. Many people, with perfectly healthy levels of attachment, closeness, and connection, do not have dreams they interpret as meaningful or that bring them a sense of closeness or clarity.

It's important to note that if we dream, our dreams change with us and are likely influenced by our present-day thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences. Patricia Garfield, who wrote Dreams in Bereavement, notes that many factors may influence the types of dreams a person has including time since the loss, their relationship with the person who died, and how the person died (including your experience around the loss). As your grief evolves and changes, the content of your dreams may as well.

Finally, if you are consistently experiencing troubling dreams night after night, consider speaking with a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor should be able to help you explore your experiences and strategize ways to cope with troubles related to sleeping. 

What is your experience with with dreaming since your loved one died? Share in the comments below.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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9 Comments on "To Perchance Have Grief Dreams"

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  1. Gissel  December 16, 2023 at 11:57 pm Reply

    DREAM …I’ve been having a rough week at work and this morning I woke up at 3 am ish and I spent some time on my phone and I guess I went back to sleep. I had a dream that my brother was standing next to me and I was sitting in a chair and that he put his hand on my shoulder and I reach to touch his hand. We touched fingers so we kind of fit fingers together, but I didn’t look at him and he told me in my thoughts that everything was gonna be ok and when I looked in a mirror I saw us so I looked up at him and he was gone.
    I do believe he comes to me in dreams. He knew how much I believed in signs, dreams, heaven, angels etc. It’ll be 3 years since he passed away on December 28th.

  2. Stephanie  September 18, 2023 at 2:18 pm Reply

    My dad died two months after getting a cancer diagnosis in June 2021. We were close my whole life, and even worked together for 10+ years. I have had many dreams of my Dad since his death. Some have been of him sick, where he looks even more frail and ill than he ever did before he died. In some dreams he has been angry or upset with me. All of those dreams leave me feeling sick and sad when I wake up, sometimes they stay with me all day. I also have dreams of Dad from when we were younger, and I had a dream recently of Dad, my 7 year old daughter and I, where he promised both of us he is always taking care of us. Logically, I know that stress and other factors have an effect on my dreams, but I also know how much he loves us and choose to remember the happy dreams as messages to me. This website has helped me understand my journey overt the last two years, and has also taught me how I can continue my relationship with Dad, and keep his memory alive and real for my children.

  3. june6483  September 15, 2023 at 8:33 am Reply

    After my husband passed I was obsessed with missing him, mentally and physically. I felt distracted every minute of every day. For the next year I dreamt of him about every week or two in all different scenarios. Most dreams were lucid. I knew he had died but we could still hug and cuddle and it was like he was actually visiting me. We did not talk but just being near him made me feel so much better when I woke up. It was exactly what I needed to get me through the next couple of days with a bit of relief. Slowly over the first three years they stretched out. It has now been a couple of months. I don’t know if my mind was playing tricks or if he was pulling some strings in the afterlife. I like to think it was the latter. If your dreams are good write them down and you will remember more of them. I keep a detailed diary.

  4. Marcia  September 14, 2023 at 9:48 pm Reply

    In a six-month span, I lost my husband and two close friends. One night, I dreamed I was making my way through unfamiliar woods. I finally came upon a cabin, and the three stood on the porch. They were happy and seemed glad to see me. I moved forward to join them, and they told me I could not come on the porch or into the cabin. They told me I had to move on and find my way out of the woods. This dream has stayed in my heart and been a source of comfort since.

  5. Patricia  September 14, 2023 at 12:59 pm Reply

    Not long after my mother died, and I settled her affairs, we moved into a newer home. I had a dream that my Mama showed up at my new house and said, “Where have you been and what have you done with all my things?” It was brief but to the point. My mother died in November, we liquidated her things in January and we moved in March. I hadn’t really begun to grieve and I had made so many changes the memory of my Mama couldn’t keep up with me. I had a good cry, and a good talk with myself. I needed to do all those things in the time I did them and I needed to give to cut myself some slack. I will always revisit that dream.

  6. Luisa Penaherrera  September 14, 2023 at 12:07 pm Reply

    My mother died in March 2014. My father died 15 months later. We were extremely close. I’ve been dreaming of them EVERY single night since their death. At first, I had lucid dreams about them. I would wake up crying…Now, my parents are present in every dream. We meet again while I’m sleeping. Sometimes the dreams are ok but sometimes they are very upsetting because the dreams are about loss and pain. I realise that I will grieve for them for the rest of my life. Grief has become an unwelcome companion with whom I’m trying to get along with. I’m 59 years old.

  7. Marylue Durff  September 14, 2023 at 11:53 am Reply

    My son’s death was not expected but he was a long term brain tumor survivor so his health was definitely fragile. Some time before he died I had a dream where we were back in the pediatric hospital & our oncologist told us that Mike would not survive his present, in the dream, situation. I remember the HORRIBLE feeling of loss that descended on me & stayed with me after I woke up. It really shook me. Then, some time later, Mike actually did die in real life. In a way and in retrospect, I was glad to have had that hideous, distressing dream. I can’t say it prepared me but I had already been thru the shock & had a taste of the finality of his death. I would not wish it on any parent but for me I think it was purposeful. I have had a few dreams of Mike since his death & they leave me feeling happy & sad at the same time. However, I welcome them any time & all the time…I love the happy part!

  8. Betsy Sloan  September 14, 2023 at 11:14 am Reply

    After my husband died,I dreamt of Matt dying for 2 weeks!
    Then I had a dream that Matt was young again!
    I dream of Matt every night which I love if it is a beautiful dream.
    I always ask Matt to visit me in my dreams.
    I do dream about my dad ,brother and other relatives occasionally.
    Thank you .

  9. Sarah  September 14, 2023 at 11:14 am Reply

    I dream about my dad, he’s standing in front of me smiling and I’m begging him to say something, but he only smiles and then fades into the peripheral. I begin wailing and sobbing in my dream and then wake to realize I’m sobbing irl too. His loss continues to feel unresolved due to a land inheritance conflict that periodically provokes retraumatization of his sudden passing (I was the one to discover he was dead).


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