Dreams of Deceased Loved Ones

(From Chapter 9 of Domhoff's (1996) Finding Meaning In Dreams)

Dreams of deceased people are dreams in which the dreamer knows in the dream she or he is interacting with a person who is dead and gone. Dreams of a dead person concerning a time from before the person's death do not qualify. The dreamer has to be aware that the person has in effect come back from the dead to be considered a dream of a deceased person.

Our most systematic knowledge concerning such dreams comes from a study by Barrett (1992). Although her general focus was on how any deceased person is depicted in dream reports, it turned out that most such dreams concerned deceased people who can be described as loved ones. Dreams about a deceased loved one are only a small percentage of all dream reports, but they often occur in the months or years after a loved one dies and have a similar enough content to be considered "typical" dreams. Moreover, some of the subjects report these dreams occur more than once, making them "recurrent" dreams as well as "typical" ones. In addition, there are certain changes in the content of these dreams that make them of considerable theoretical interest.

Barrett's study of this type of dream is based on two sources. First, she went through 149 dream diaries kept by 58 male and 91 female students in courses at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for time periods ranging from two to six weeks. Second, she distributed a questionnaire to 96 students (39 male, 57 female), asking for any such dreams they recalled from the past. The study of the large sample from dream diaries yielded only 29 reports with any deceased characters in them, about 2% of the total dream sample. These reports came from 18 students, 12% of the sample. Moreover, 11 of these 29 reports were in the dream diaries of three women whose friend had committed suicide during the time their diaries were being kept. Thirty-nine percent of the people who filled out the survey questionnaire reported that they had had one or more such dreams. They turned in a total of 48 dream reports. In all, then, Barrett had a total of 77 reports to work with from the two different samples.

Barrett found she could classify the dream reports into four categories. Only seven of the reports seemed to fit into two or more categories. We will now discuss all four categories and their content characteristics, but the first three of them are of theoretical interest to us.

The first category contained dreams in which the dreamer was amazed or upset to see the deceased loved one alive. Barrett called these "back to life" dreams. They made up 39% of the 77 dreams of the dead. They tended to occur within a few days or months of the loved one's death. They often contained a mixture of intense positive and negative emotions. They seemed to involve the kind of denial of death often found in early stages of grieving. All of the dream reports from the three women who were keeping a dream diary at the time of their friend's suicide were of this type. Here is an example of such a dream:

I have a recurring dream that my grandmother calls me at my house while my mother, sister, and I are preparing dinner. I answer the phone and she says "Hi, it's me." I said, "Hi Grandma." She asks, "How are you?" Then I want my mother to talk to her and she says "No, I called you." When my mother comes to the phone, my grandmother hangs up. My mother replies, "Stop saying it's Grandma, she's not there." Another recurring dream I have is that my grandmother visits me in a hotel. I say, "Oh, you've come back to me," and she says "Yes, we are going to try it again and see if I live this time." Suddenly she collapses on the bathroom floor. I try to revive her, but I can't. I am panic-stricken and scream, "You can't die, I have to do this right this time."

The second category contains dreams in which the deceased person is giving the dreamer advice. The topics range from the trivial to the important and highly personal. These "advice" dreams, as Barrett calls them, made up 23% of the sample. They tended to occur many months to years after the person had died. Their emotional tone was usually pleasant. Here is an example of such a dream report:

My father died nine years ago but I often dream that he returns, especially at times of stress in my life. He looks older than he ever got to be in real life and very wise looking. I tell him problems I am having and sometimes he just listens and I feel better but usually he gives me advice, sometimes very clear, sometimes garbled. In the instances where it is clear, it is always good advice but things I already know I should do. But just seeing him and hearing it from him makes me feel better.

The third category consisted of "leave-taking" or "resolution" dreams. In these dream reports the loved one explains the circumstances of his or her death, or assures the dreamer that everything has worked out for the best. These dreams make up about 29% of the sample. They can occur anywhere from several months to many years after the loved one dies. In a dream series these dreams almost always occur after back-to-life dreams (category one) and usually after advice dreams (category two). The feeling tone of these dreams is extremely positive. They often bring great relief to the dreamer and help resolve guilt in waking life. Here are two moving examples of this type. The first one comes from the same woman who had the recurring dream quoted earlier in which her grandmother collapses and the dreamer can't revive her:

I had a lucid dream [i.e., she was aware she was dreaming during the dream] about my grandmother that was probably the best dream I have ever had. In this dream I was little, about 5 or 6 years old, and I was in the bathroom at my grandmother's house. She was giving me a bath in this big claw-footed tub. The old steam radiator was turned on, making it very cozy. I knew that I was dreaming and that I was getting to see my grandmother well again. After the bath, she lifted me out onto the spiral cotton rug and dried me with a blue towel. When that was done she said she had to leave now; this seemed to mean for heaven. I said, "Good-bye, Grandma. I love you." She said, "I love you too Mary." I woke up feeling wonderful. She had been delirious in the last few months of her life, so I'd never really gotten to say good-bye.

The second dreamer resolved her guilt about not having seen her grandmother shortly before the grandmother's death:

After my grandmother died, I felt terrible because I had visited her when she was in the hospital but I never went to see her in the hospice. I thought she would be coming home; she died suddenly just when we thought things were getting better. The first thing I thought of when I was told of her death was that I didn't get to say good-bye or tell her that I loved her. For two months after her death I was tormented by guilt and anger over not saying how I felt to her. However, one night I dreamed that I was awakened by a phone ringing in the hallway upstairs in my house. I got up out of bed and went to answer the phone. As I picked up the phone, the dark hallway I was standing in became fully illuminated. I said "hello" and my grandmother's voice said "Hello, Sally, this is grandma." I said "Hi, how are you." We spoke for about 10 minutes until we were ready to hang up (I can't recall what we spoke about). Finally, my grandmother said she had to go. I said, OK Gram, take care, I love you." She said "I love you too, good-bye." I said "good-bye." As I hung up the phone, the illuminated hallway became dark again. I walked back to bed and fell asleep. When I awoke (for real this time) the next morning, and ever since then, I have been at peace with my grandmother's death.

The fourth category developed by Barrett contains dreams in which the nature of death is being discussed with a deceased person. The deceased person may be a distant relative or friend, or more generally someone who was not emotionally close to the dreamer. If a deceased loved one is involved, the dream is likely to have occurred many years after the person died. These dreams sometimes seem almost philosophic in content, a contemplation of the mysteries of death or the possibilities of immortality. They seem to express the dreamer's concerns about his or her own mortality. Some are pleasant, some are not. They make up about 18% of Barrett's sample.

One striking contingency of these "philosophic" death dreams is the frequent utilization of a telephone as the medium of interaction with the deceased person. Fifty-three percent of the dreams in this category involved telephone calls from the deceased person. By comparison, telephone calls appeared in 24% of the dream in the other three categories, and in only 3% of a random sample of 300 dream reports in Barrett's University of North Carolina dream collection. In short, Barrett's analysis suggests that the telephone may be a metaphoric way of expressing abstract communication in American culture. Here are two examples of these "philosophic" dreams, both with telephones in them:

I had a lucid dream that the phone rang and it was my deceased mother. I knew it was a dream but I thought it was really her and that she could contact me in the dream state. I was frightened to talk to her but I didn't want to let that show and hurt her feelings, so I tried to act cheerful and make banal conversation. I said "Hi, how are you?" She said, "I'm pregnant." I thought she must have gone insane and think she's alive and young again, but to humor her I asked, "Are you going to have a boy or a girl?" She said, "I am going to be a girl." I felt more and more uncomfortable and said, "I've got to go now; I'll talk to you later," and hung up. As soon as I woke up, the dream sounded like a reincarnation statement but during the dream it just sounded crazy and threatening somehow.

This dream was really strange. I was talking on the phone to a man who was describing a wonderful place where he was. The man was very familiar. I was told by another person (or perhaps it was a thought), that I was talking to Pa (my boyfriend's dad, who just died). I saw his face in a phone booth floating among the clouds. There were angels flying around too. Three angels. When I asked if this was Pa, he said, "No, Pa died, how could you talk to him?" But Pa's image and voice were the ones that told me that. I accepted this and continued to speak to this person.

We think the changing nature of the themes in dreams about deceased loved ones is especially significant in terms of our claim that the repetition dimension reveals the way in which dreams express emotional preoccupation. Not only do dreams of deceased loved ones show that many different individuals "repeat" the same type of dream in reaction to the loss of a loved one, but the changes in the content of these dreams seem to reveal the underlying psychological processes following from the loss. We are a long way from saying the dreams themselves "resolve" grief, but the bereavement dreams reported by Barrett do seem to reflect where the dreamers are in the grieving process.