by Linda H. Mastrangelo, MA, LMFT
Over the years, many of my clients have shared that they have had dreams or visions of their loved one who died. Most shared dreaming had a healing effect on their lives and gave them comfort. Others shared that they were “reliving” the last moment often tied to trauma, while others claimed their loved ones acted like the dreamer wasn’t there. This type of dream is called the Visitation Dream and is a universal phenomenon that has been reported over centuries and around the world. When you know how to work with them, they have the potential to heal grief and restore hope.
What are visitation dreams?
A visitation dream is the experience of the dead visiting us in our dreams. This could be in the form of an in person visitation, a verbal message (simply hearing someone say “Hello”), a sensation or even through an animal or another form.
This experience also includes dreaming of those who are in the ‘transitory state’ between life and death and the dreams and/or visions of the dying themselves. Reverend Patricia Bulkeley and Kelly Bulkeley collaborated on an extraordinary book in Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions citing cases during Patricia’s time working in hospice. In many reports, the dying patient not only dreamed of dead relatives but actually saw them in the room in a form of lucid visions, welcoming them to another realm.
Overall, many people have reported healing effects after having a visitation dream, especially if the dreamer needs comfort and/or is questioning faith.
Dreams are a road map for healing
Witnessing the death of a loved one is one of the most profound, and sometimes tragic, human experiences. For those of you who have lost a loved one, you probably know what this means. It is an experience you had not asked for and it is certainly life changing.
Sometimes there is a lot of guilt, shame and even rage tied to a person’s death, often in the form of “unfinished business.” When I work with grief, clients they often share stories about the trauma of bearing witness to their loved one’s physical, emotional and mental decline. Perhaps the illness, like cancer, spread to the brain, or because of medications, change the moods and personality.
As a result, loved ones might get hostile, scream and curse at the family. Other times it’s a dramatic physical decline when the patient can no longer walk, talk or engage with the family and the family feels helpless. Sometimes there are suicides or ‘deathbed confessions,’ leaving the loved one confused, upset and betrayed with many more questions that are left unanswered. Even just bearing witness to a “peaceful” or “ideal” transitioning can be difficult because we don’t want to let the person go.
Because the bereaved are often trying to cope with the reality of the death, their dreams often reflect this. Dreams of this nature might not always be comforting. They might even come in the form of a night terror in which the bereaved wakes up in a cold sweat and panic, with no memory of the dream. Or dreams may come in the form of nightmares, recollecting the time of the illness and death or just the emotional intensity of the loss.
But here’s something most people don’t know: All dreams, even scary dreams, are part of the healing process.
Knowing how to work with them can be the difference between suffering through nightmares or travelling through the darkness and finding light at the end of the tunnel. In other words, dreams are a map that can lead a grieving person through their journey toward healing, helping them explore all of their complex feelings and experiences in a safe and empowering way.
Dreams give people something to hold onto in the face of the Unknown.
And that’s good dream medicine.
Dreams of making sense of the reality of the loss
Most often dreams are a reflection of how the bereaved felt about their loss and are trying to make sense of it. Here are some examples:
I see my husband but he is talking and smiling and laughing with friends. I call to him but he doesn’t hear or pay attention to me. I wake up angry at him.
I see my mother suffering as she was in the hospital. She has a plastic bag over her face and she is struggling to breathe. I try to remove the bag but then I wake up.
I am being chased by zombies. One of the zombies is my brother. I am terrified , confused and sad that he has turned into one of them.
Dreams can bring messages
Many of my clients have shared that they had wished they had spent more time with their loved ones or had said goodbye, which is why ‘Message dreams’ can be especially potent and healing.
Patricia Garfield writes beautifully of this in her book Dream Messengers: You can also expect a “Goodbye” dream message to be delivered when you have been deprived of a chance to say goodbye in person. Sometimes people claim this message arrives in a waking state, with the deceased appearing at the foot, head, or side of the survivor’s bed. This dream message is often thought to involve extrasensory perception, as the dream may occur simultaneously with the death. In parapsychological writings, it is the most commonly reported telepathic experience and is referred to as a “crisis apparition.”
Here are some reports of “goodbye” dreams:
He looked just like he was before he got sick. He was smiling and told me he loved me. That smile! I nearly melted. I woke up feeling wonderful but missing him. I was afraid I would only remember him when he was sick. It was a comforting dream.
It was like she was in the room with me. I could literally feel her presence. I told her everything I wanted to tell her when she was alive and it was like a weight had been lifted. I knew she had heard me and that she loved me no matter what. All the hurt and betrayal washed away.
What can I do when I have visitation dreams?
Because we are a society that has difficulty with death and dying, it is important to be educated about it. But also be gentle with the process. It can be a raw, vulnerable and terrifying place often described as a dark forest, a black hole, or a wilderness.
First, engage the process. In my experience as a grief counselor, I have noticed that the more engaged a person is in the healing work, the deeper the healing can take place. This includes getting support from family and friends as well as professionals who specialize in the field of grief.
If you or someone you know is grieving, I suggest finding your local hospice/palliative care or community counseling services that offer individual and group counseling or a local dream counselor to work with these dreams.