Dreaming as the Embodiment of Thoughts: A Widower's Dreams of His Deceased Wife

G. William Domhoff

University of California, Santa Cruz

NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Domhoff, G. W. (2008). Dreaming as the embodiment of thoughts: A widower's dreams of his deceased wife. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, Chicago, Illinois.


This article first presents a blind quantitative content analysis of a widower's 143 dreams about his deceased wife, which he wrote down over a period of 22 years as a form of solace and remembrance. His dream journal is therefore a nonreactive archival document, free of any biasing effects attributable to the investigator. The content analysis shows that the dreams portray his main conceptions and concerns in regard to his deceased wife, which supports the cognitive theory of dreams developed by Calvin S. Hall, David Foulkes, and John Antrobus. There are some changes in dream content over the years, such as a disappearance of dreams in which he portrays her as alive even though he realizes in the dream that she is deceased, and of dreams in which she returns to give him various reassurances. Many dreams accurately portray his deceased wife in varying stages of her final illness. There are fewer positive dreams in the second part of the series. The dreamer usually interacts in a friendly way with his wife in the dreams, but she is often aggressive towards him. Having established the coherence of these dreams through content analysis, the article then presents an analysis of the unusual (anomalous) elements in the dreams, suggesting that some of them can be understood metaphorically within the context of the quantitative findings, but that others seem to make no immediate sense. Overall, the article concludes that the dreams in this journal are a psychologically revealing embodiment of the dreamer's thoughts, as demonstrated by their consistency with (1) waking thoughts he wrote down at the time he recorded some of the dreams and (2) a reminiscence of his marriage that he wrote 16 years after he first began keeping a record of the dreams.


In a theoretical article setting forth a cognitive theory of dreams, Calvin S. Hall (1953b, p. 274) suggested that "dreams are the embodiment of thoughts." He meant this in the very literal sense that dreams dramatize the complex set of conceptions that constitute the dreamer's cognitive structure, especially conceptions of self and significant others. As literal embodiments, dreams are more like plays than any other waking analog because they have settings, characters, social interactions, activities, and emotions. In addition, conceiving of dreams as plays led to a set of coding categories that is highly reliable and theoretically useful (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966). This coding system has been given further depth by the finding that the frequency of a dream element in a set of dream reports reveals the intensity of a waking concern, making it possible to summarize a cognitive theory of dreams by saying that dreams express conceptions and concerns (Domhoff, 1996, 2003).

Building on his cognitive theory of dreams, Hall (1953a) also proposed a cognitive theory of dream symbols in which dream symbolism is understood as an effort to express, not disguise, complicated conceptions through forms of figurative thinking such as metaphor, metonymy, and irony. Based on his reading of thousands of dream reports, he hypothesized that it might be possible to identify figurative elements in dreams by looking for unlikely or impossible events in dreams, such as changes in a dream character, distorted settings, and unlikely actions, especially when these elements occur two or more times in a series of dreams from one individual. At the same time, he noted that he had identified such potentially metaphoric elements in only a small percentage of the many dream reports he had studied.

This cognitive view contrasts sharply with the clinically derived theories of Freud (1900) and Jung (1974) on the one hand and with Hobson's physiologically based activation-synthesis theory on the other (Hobson, 2002; Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000). According to Freud, dreams make frequent use of symbolic elements that disguise repressed wishes, whereas for Jung the symbols in dreams often express neglected parts of the personality or shared human wisdom stored in a collective unconscious. Either way, most dreams are opaque to most dreamers and in need of expert interpretation. For activation-synthesis theorists, the seemingly symbolic elements are half-baked productions that reflect the difficulties the cortex has in making sense of random signals that arise from the brain stem during REM sleep, when the brain is in a very different neuromodulatory environment than it is during waking (Hobson, 2002; Hobson et al., 2000).

Hall's ideas of over 50 years ago have been supported by numerous studies inside and outside the sleep laboratory, which show that most dreams are more understandable and realistic than Freudian, Jungian, or activation-synthesis theorists assume (Domhoff, 2005; Fisher & Greenberg, 1977; Foulkes, 1985; Snyder, 1970). These ideas now receive further support from the fact that cognitive psychologists are entertaining the possibility that waking mental imagery is far more "embodied" than previously thought, in the sense that such imagery is subjectively "felt" as the experienced body in action, and in the further sense that areas in the brain supporting visual, auditory, and motoric responses are activated when people call up seemingly abstract "mental imagery" (e.g., Gibbs & Berg, 2002; Gibbs, 2006). These findings are relevant to the study of dreaming because dreams may be the most dramatic and complex embodiments of thoughts that can be produced by the human mind. It is also of relevance that the substrates for the conceptual, perceptual, and motoric systems involved in mental imagery are reactivated during REM sleep, while areas such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and primary visual cortex remain inactive (Braun et al., 1997; Maquet et al., 1996; Occhionero, 2004).

The purpose of this article is to present new evidence for the idea that dreams are the embodiment of thoughts. It does so through a study of a highly unusual personal dream journal that was kept by a widower who wrote down every dream he had about his deceased wife over a period of 22 years, 143 dreams in all. He recorded these dreams because he found them to be an unexpected source of solace as he struggled to cope with his grief and loneliness after her death. Although dream journals may seem at first glance to be unlikely sources of useful dream reports, they are in fact a form of archival data uninfluenced by the purposes of the researchers who obtain them (Allport, 1942; Baldwin, 1942). They therefore can be extremely valuable as non-reactive measures if their authenticity can be assured and if the findings with them are consistent with what is found with other dream journals, each of which has different sources of potential irrelevant bias and error (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, & Grove, 1981). Based on the information presented below, and from examining photocopies of the original handwritten copies of the first dreams written down in the early 1980s, there is every reason to believe that this dream journal is an authentic one. Furthermore, it is available for everyone to study under the pseudonym "Ed" at www.dreambank.net (Schneider & Domhoff, 1999).

In addition, the dreams in this journal can be classified as "memorable dreams," which are defined as dreams that have a great impact on the dreamer in waking life. Memorable dreams, although rare, are of interest to dream researchers precisely because they mean so much to the dreamer (Bulkeley, 1995; Bulkeley, 2000; Knudson, 2001, 2003; Kuiken, 1995; Kuiken & Sikora, 1993). Furthermore, dreams about deceased loved ones are among the most dramatic and important of memorable dreams, especially when the deceased loved one appears to be alive in the dream--even though the surprised, delighted, or shocked dreamer knows that the person is dead (Barrett, 1992). Dreams in which the deceased loved one provides reassurances as to his or her well being, or solace or advice to the dreamer, are also highly impactful.

Ed's later account of why he began recording his dreams about Mary, written after he had been keeping his dream journal for 16 years, supports the claim that dreams about deceased loved ones are often highly memorable and emotionally important to the dreamer:

I began recording my dreams of Mary from the time I had the first one, which was very shortly after her death on June 15, 1980. I was so alone after Mary died. I had no one to talk to about my terrible grief and great sense of loss. So when I had a dream in which Mary appeared, it was like a precious moment of being with her again. I wanted to capture that fleeting moment and hold onto it forever.

Many years later, however, he sometimes experienced writing down the dreams as a habit or obligation. On February 15, 1997, for example, he prefaced his dream reports by noting that he had had 2 dreams of Mary 2 nights before, but did not record them immediately, and soon forgot them. He wrote that "for the last few dreams I seem too lazy to record dreams as quickly as I should. What's happening?" On May 22, 2001, after writing down a dream in which Mary gives an enigmatic reply to his compliment about how good she looks, he notes that he was "ambivalent" about recording it, but felt he had to: "On the one hand I didn't feel like recording it, but on the other hand, I felt I must record it."

Ed and Mary had been married for 32 years and had raised three young adult children when she died at the age of 54. Ed, who was 57 at the time of Mary's death, had not previously had much interest in dreams or any investment in any dream theory. He originally had no intention of making his dream journal public, but in the mid-1990s he began to think it might be useful to other people who were grieving. That idea was on his mind when he first allowed dream researchers to study the dreams in 1998 for a paper presented at the convention of the Association for the Study of Dreams. The paper, which was later revised for publication (Belicki, Gulko, Ruzycki, & Aristotle, 2003), concluded that the dreams did not relate to any theory of waking grieving and that it was very difficult for the authors to attain reliability for most of the ad hoc thematic categories they originally identified.

Ed's dreams about his deceased wife were not frequent; the second dream was not recalled until two months after the first one, and the third was recalled a month after that. In 14 of the 22 years, he recalled between 4 and 8 dreams, with a range of between 2 and 11 for most of those years. He recalled the most dreams, 14, between July 1, 1996, and July 1, 1997, 16 years after Mary's death. There were usually many days or months between dream reports. Between mid-February, 1990 and mid-April, 1991, he recalled no dreams. This 14-month hiatus provides a natural dividing point for comparing the content of the early and later parts of the series, with 62 dreams in the first part and 81 in the second. As of July, 2004, when he was 81, he had not had a dream about Mary since August 8, 2002.

As noted, the dreamer briefly thought about publishing a pamphlet or book based on his dreams. He therefore wrote a reminiscence of their courtship and marriage, along with a commentary on how his dreams about his deceased wife impacted his life. Although he was not successful in his efforts to find a publisher, his reflections and commentary provide very useful waking-life perspectives that can be compared to the various conceptions and concerns that are portrayed in his dreams. His reminiscences are available on www.dreambank.net by clicking on "Info" after the "Ed" series has been highlighted (Schneider & Domhoff, 1999).

In his reminiscences the dreamer presents a very moving remembrance of his first meeting with Mary. He recalls that he was smitten from the moment that he saw her and recounts how she looked in great detail:

I met Mary because the Social Club to which I belonged agreed to meet at a boardwalk area one Saturday night. I had arrived there with another fellow member and we were looking around for the other members of the Club. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around and looked into Mary's beautiful, large brown eyes, I was a "goner." I'm sure I fell in love with her at that instant....She had recognized me as a member and had approached me to ascertain whether the Club was to meet here. I assured her that they had. But as I talked to her, I "fell" into those eyes glowing with warmth, good humor, and the joy of life. I was Mary's captive from that moment on. I don't remember what else happened that night, but I started seeing Mary regularly from then on. All I could see that night was Mary's beauty -- her large brown eyes, her full red lips, and her jet black hair framed by an aquamarine scarf. But I saw more than her physical beauty that night. I also saw her beauty of soul and spirit, which flowed from her like the radiance of sunshine. I had fallen "crazy" in love at the first sight of Mary.

He also notes that Mary was not as immediately taken with him as he was with her, and that he even learned later that she had a date or two after they started seeing each other. Nonetheless, the dreamer and his future wife were soon involved in an intense courtship and were married in 1947, 13 months after they met. They waited 5 years to have children while Ed finished his college education, at which time they had a daughter, followed by a son 3 years later, and a second son 5 years after that. Ed worked in a counseling type of role in hospitals and a private children's aid agency, and Mary was employed as an office manager for a small financial company. The dreamer paints a generally positive picture of their marriage, and tells of a routine of work, child-rearing, and travel vacations. Then, suddenly, after 23 years of marriage, when Mary was 45, she began to suffer bloating and stomach pain that turned out to be ovarian cancer. Following a radical hysterectomy in 1971, she was assured that she was cured, and was indeed symptom-free for six years, but the cancer returned during the seventh year. Medication suppressed the tumors and there seemed to be a chance that she would live normally for some time, or so Ed and Mary thought, but the cancer came back a third time during the next year. She had a long and painful terminal illness that ended with her death one year later. Their children were 27, 24, and 19 when she died.

The bereaved widower reports that he suffered great agony, loneliness, anger, and confusion during her final illness and after her death. He met another woman, Bonnie, about 4 months after Mary died and married her about a year later. However, the marriage did not work out well at all. He and Bonnie separated after 5 difficult years of marriage in which they often argued. He remained single and lived alone from then on. In his reflections, both at the time of the separation and in a later epilogue, he wrote that his second marriage was a great mistake that caused shock to his children He wondered in retrospect how he had ever gotten involved with someone so different from Mary. He reported that Mary had been his first and only girlfriend, and that he was a shy person who did not find it easy to take the initiative with women.

It is also noteworthy that Ed's reflections on some of the dreams that impacted him the most support the longstanding anthropological idea that belief in a world of spirits may be in part based on dreams (Lincoln, 1935, Chapter 2; Tylor, 1871/1958, p. 22ff). Although Ed was not very religious, he writes in his reflections that in a few of the dreams it felt like he actually had been "visited" by Mary:

A few dreams have me wondering if I had actually "supernatural-like" experiences. I swear that Mary really did "visit" me. The first was my very first dream of her. I had this just a week or two after she died. She came to me in a dream and told me she wants me to be happy.


The study started with several readings of the dream reports by the author, each time making notes on characters, social interactions, emotions, the state of his wife's health, and any unusual or seemingly anomalous elements. These readings and notes led to three separate analyses. First, the dream reports were coded by two of the author's research assistants, who knew nothing about the dreamer or the purposes of the study, using the following categories from the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system: friendliness, aggression, sexuality, emotions, misfortunes and good fortunes. In the case of good fortunes, the codings were based on an expansion of the original Hall and Van de Castle which includes recovery from illness and return from death as good fortunes (Bulkeley, 2006; Domhoff, 2003, pp. 77-79). Once the codings were completed, the dreams were compared with the male norms for the Hall and Van de Castle system to see the degree to which they were different from a representative sample of men's dreams. Then the dreams from before and after the one-year hiatus in his recall between 1990 and 1991 were compared to see if there were changes in the dream content over time.

Second, the dreams were examined by the author and his research assistants for any type of highly improbable or impossible events using an Unusual Elements scale (Domhoff, 1996) to see if any of these unusual elements might prove to be "symbolic" in the figurative sense proposed by Hall (1953a). Third, findings from the dreams series were compared with Ed's waking thoughts and concerns wherever his written reminiscences made this possible.

After the general results are presented, several "types" of dreams are discussed, namely, those which feature (1.) Mary's return from death or unexpected recovery through surgery; (2.) Mary giving reassurance to Ed; (3.) Mary's illness or death; (4.) sexual interactions; and (5) aggressive interactions. These dreams provide a very good platform for discussing figurative thinking and metaphor in dreams.



The first striking but unsurprising finding concerns the large amount of emotion in the dream reports. As might be expected, Ed's dreams about Mary are more likely to contain emotions than the Hall and Van de Castle normative sample for men's dreams, which consists of 5 dreams from each of 100 men. This difference is apparent whether it is determined by the mean number of emotions per dream (1.55 for the Ed series, 0.57 for the male norms) or by the percentage of dreams with at least one emotion (75.5% for the Ed series, 40.8% for the male norms). Moreover, Ed's dream series has a higher percentage of dreams in which the dreamer himself is happy (23.8% vs. 8.6%) or sad (14.7% vs. 4.0%). Finally, when happiness is considered as a percentage of the full range of emotions that appear in the dreams (happiness, sadness, anger, apprehension, and confusion), which yields an indicator called "the negative emotions percent," the dreams are less emotionally negative than the normative sample (69% for the Ed series as compared to 80% for the male norms). Table 1 displays these findings.

Table 1. A comparison of Ed's dreams with the Male Norms for selected Hall/Van de Castle emotion indicators

Male NormsEdhp
Emotions per dream0.571.55
Dreams with at least one emotion40.8%75.5%+.72.000
Dreams with at least one dreamer-involved happiness8.6%23.8%+.42.000
Dreams with at least one dreamer-involved sadness4.0%14.7%+.38.000
Negative emotions percent80.5%69.2%-.26.004

Social interactions

Ed's dreams about Mary are characterized by a large number of friendly interactions (208 in 101 dreams) and a small number of aggressive interactions (64 in 41 dreams). By contrast, there are more aggressive than friendly interactions in the Hall and Van de Castle normative sample. At the same time, Ed's dream series has a typical rate of sexual interactions. The clearest demonstration of the unusual pattern of friendly and aggressive interactions is shown by an indicator called the Aggression/Friendliness percentage, which is determined by dividing the number of dreamer-involved aggressive interactions by the combined number of aggressive and friendly interactions. This figure is 36% for the dreamers' interactions with female characters in the male norms, but it is just 15% for Ed's interactions with Mary. There is also greater friendliness than would be expected in terms of the percentage of dreams with at least one friendly interaction, and less aggression in terms of dreams with at least one aggressive interaction.

Table 2. A comparison of Ed's dreams with the Male Norms for selected Hall/Van de Castle social interaction indicators

Male NormsEdhp
Aggression/Friendliness Percent
(for the Male Norms, with all female characters;
for Ed, with his wife)
Dreams with at least one aggression47.0%28.7%-.38.000
Dreams with at least one friendliness38.2%70.6%+.66.000
Dreams with at least one sexuality11.6%11.9%+.01.925

Misfortunes and Good Fortunes

Misfortunes are defined in the Hall and Van de Castle coding system as frustrating or bad things that happen to the dreamer or some other character through no fault of any character, which is what distinguishes them from aggressions. They can range from forgetting to lock the door to losing a key to falling off a roof to having a bodily defect to dying. Misfortunes can be divided into those that are psychologically upsetting (e.g., forgetting something, losing something, being lost) and those that happen to the body (a rash, an illness, an injury, a death). Good fortunes, on the other hand, are unexpected positive events that occur without any intention or effort by the dreamer or any other character, such as finding money, having the ability to fly under one's own power, recovering from an illness, and not incidentally in terms of this study, coming back from the dead.

There are no significant differences between Ed's dreams of his deceased wife and the male norms on the percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune or good fortune. However, Ed's dreams do differ in that all of the misfortunes are bodily ones, far higher than the normative sample. This is in good part because of Mary's illness and frequent bodily defects. These findings are presented in Table 3. Ed's dreams also differ in that most of the good fortunes involve Mary returning to life or being saved before she dies.

Table 3. A comparison of Ed's dreams with the Male Norms for selected Hall/Van de Castle misfortune and good fortune indicators

Male NormsEdhp
Dreams with at least one misfortune36.2%35.7%-.01.906
Dreams with at least one good fortune6.0%10.5%+.16.082
Bodily Misfortune Percent29.3%100.0%+2.00.000

While most of these results are obvious or unsurprising given the unique nature of this series of dreams, they do provide solid evidence that the coding system is useful in detecting differences. Moreover, as shown in Table 4, there is also a further pattern to the friendly and aggressive interactions between Ed and Mary that would not be predicted: Ed befriends Mary more often than she initiates a friendly interaction with him (81% vs. 19%), which is higher than the 67% vs. 33% difference for men's friendly interactions with the female characters in the normative sample. By contrast, Mary is the aggressor and Ed the victim in 75% of their aggressive interactions, whereas men are the victims in only 50% of their aggressive interactions with women in the male normative sample.

Table 4. A comparison of Ed's dreams with the Male Norms on Befriender Percent and Aggressor Percent

Male NormsEdhp
Befriender Percent with female characters
(norms: all female characters; Ed: his wife)
Aggressor Percent with female characters
(norms: all female characters; Ed: his wife)

Return to Life, Illness, and Death

There were 10 dreams (7% of the total) in which Mary came back to life and one in which she unexpectedly recovered from her illness through surgery. On the other hand, 31% of the dreams portrayed her as ill or dead, compared to 12% for the misfortunes of illness and death in the Hall and Van de Castle's normative sample for such content.

Unusual Elements

Casting a very wide net that included sudden changes in scenes, unusual or distorted settings, unusual objects, and unusual features or occurrences concerning characters, there are 104 unusual elements in the 143 dream reports. The most frequent of these unusual elements involve various characters in the dreams, starting with the 10 instances where Mary returns to life. There are also metamorphoses in which one character changes into another or a character changes in age. The two changes in characters both involve the change of his second wife, Bonnie, into Mary. In addition, there are age changes in characters. In some dreams he and Mary are younger, or their children are younger. For example, in one dream he and Mary are frantically searching for their 10-year-old son, but when he suddenly appears he is the young adult that he actually was at the time.

There are several instances where there are unexpected people in his apartment--men using the kitchen, students in the shower area--or in his bed with him. The person in the bed was his mother-in-law in one instance, an unknown woman in another. There are sometimes young children present who he knows are his children, but they do not look like any of his actual children. Also, twice he is able to see the people he is talking to on the telephone--once it is two women, once it is Mary.

In addition, a few of the familiar settings are "distorted," that is, they are composites of apartments he has lived in or else they are familiar places that are in some way unusual, such as a window being in a different wall. In one instance, there is a petition in part of their kitchen. There are also a handful of unusual activities or objects in the dreams. For example, in one dream he is floating above the sidewalk and looking down on Mary. In another he is riding what is alternately a bicycle and a car.

As shown in later sections, the context in which some of these elements occur suggest they could be metaphoric expressions of waking concerns and memories. However, as also discussed later, some of the unusual elements are not readily construed as metaphoric.

Changes Over Time

There are several important changes in the nature of Ed's dreams about Mary as the years go by. There is first of all the disappearance or decline of back-to-life, reassurance, and illness dreams. The 10 dreams in which Mary returns to life occur exclusively in the first part of the series (No's. 2, 3, 16, 25, 26, 31, 34, and 38). Toward the end of the second part, nearly 20 years after her death, she returns unexpectedly in one dream, but it is due to the success of last-minute surgery that had saved her from death. The three dreams in which Mary gives reassurances to Ed occur in the first two years after her death. In addition, there is a large decline in the number of dreams in which Mary is ill or dead, from 39% of the dreams in the first half of the series to 23% in the second half. Generally speaking, then, the dreams become more about everyday life as time goes by.

The dreams also become somewhat more aggressive and negative in emotional tone. This change is seen most directly in the Aggression/Friendliness percentage, which rises from 17% in the first part of the series to 28% in the second part. This increased negativity is also seen in the rise in the negative emotions percent from 63% to 75%.

Finally, this change is revealed in the fact that Ed has a higher "self-negativity percent" in the second part of the series, an indicator based on dividing the total number of dreamer-involved aggressions, misfortunes, and negative emotions by the total number of friendly interactions, good fortunes, and positive emotions. On the other hand, the percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune declines because Mary is less often portrayed as ill or dying. The complete findings on the similarities and differences between the first and second parts of the series on Hall and Van de Castle indicators are displayed in Table 5.

Table 5. A comparison of Ed's dreams on selected content indicators before and after the 14-month hiatus in dream recall between mid-February 1990 and mid-April 1991

1990 & earlier1991 & laterhp
Aggression/Friendliness Percent17%28%+.27*.030
Befriender Percent77%85%+.19 .219
Aggressor Percent24%26%+.05 .864
Self-Negativity Percent42%67%+.50*.034
Negative Emotions Percent63%75%+.28 .041
At Least One Aggression23%33%+.24 .154
At Least One Friendliness69%72%+.05 .770
At Least One Sexuality16%09%-.23 .173
At Least One Misfortune45%28%-.35*.038
At Least One Good Fortune13%09%-.14 .413

"Types" of Dreams

The findings reported up to this point can be given further substance, and plausible metaphoric glosses in some instances, by looking at dreams that are highlighted by five different main elements: (1) Mary returns from the dead; (2) Mary reassures Ed; (3) Mary is ill or dead; (4) there is a sexual interaction; or (5) there is an aggressive interaction. In addition to providing a context for seeing whether some unusual elements might be metaphoric in nature, a consideration of these five "types" of dreams provides an opportunity to see if and how the dream findings relate to Ed's waking thoughts and concerns.

Back-to-Life Dreams

In the back-to-life dreams, Ed usually portrays himself as overjoyed or delighted to see Mary and embraces her with enthusiasm, or tells her how good she looks and how glad he is to see her. However, Ed often feels confused or perplexed because he knows that Mary is dead, which suggests that he is not without some of his critical facilities as these impossible events unfold. Moreover, the back-to-life dreams contain unusual elements that seem to be metaphoric in nature. In the second dream in the series, which occurred in the third month after her death, his confusion over seeing her alive, even though he knows she is dead, seems to be expressed through a metamorphosis in her facial features:

#002 (9/80): ...When I enter the house I see Mary, full face, as she is portrayed in her "Glamour" photo. She isn't exactly looking at me. I am surprised and excited to see her and say something like, "How come you're here? You're not supposed to be here. You're dead. How did you get here?" I know I am delighted to see her, but am surprised that she has returned. But as I speak, her face changes from a most beautiful complexion (as it had been before her death) into a waxen, artificial, dead face -- as one sees after the mortician has dressed a body.

A second back-to-life dream contains a metaphoric reference to the division between living and dead persons that is recognized as a metaphor in the dream.

#034 (9/28/84): ...I see a car parked across the road and Mary is sitting inside it. I can see her clearly. She is beautiful. She is dressed in white. I know that she is dead, and that the road between us is the dividing line between Life and Death. I am on the Life side, Mary is on the Death side. She smiles briefly at me, but mostly the expression on her face is serious. We have a conversation, but I cannot see Mary's lips moving. I emphasize that the children are well, particularly Maria...

There is also a back-to-life dream in which Ed knows Mary is really dead, but she does not realize it. He somehow knows he cannot tell her she is dead or she will disappear. Perhaps this scenario can be understood as a metaphoric portrayal of the fact that his dreaming mind knows she is dead, but does not want to lose the image of her that he is experiencing. This dream begins with Ed walking into his bedroom to find a pin to repair his torn underwear, where he finds Mary:

#025 (4/5/83): ...She appears as she had as a young woman. She is not wearing makeup and her hair is down. I think she is wearing a housedress. When I see her I know she is dead, so I drink in with my eyes all I can see of her. She doesn't know she's dead, so I know I must enjoy every moment I have with her because soon she won't be with me. So I carry on as though this was very normal, and I did not let on to her that she is dead. There is a very serious and thoughtful expression on Mary's face. I tell her about the trouble I am having with my shorts and she agrees to pin this up correctly...

In the next dream in the journal, which occurred almost exactly five months after the previous one, Mary has been resurrected for some purpose he does not know, but this time he makes the mistake of mentioning that she is dead, which leads to a sudden change in her mood and health:

#026 (9/3/83): I am walking with Mary, who is wearing a white dress. She looks terrific -- as she had prior to the last recurrence of the disease. She has been resurrected for a particular purpose that is not made clear in this dream. I comment on how terrific she looks, even though she had been in the grave only a short while ago. There was no decay nor any indication that she had been dead. But as I speak, I realize I should not have said anything because she doesn't know she had been dead and is now resurrected. My remarks disturb her greatly. Her mood changes from one of smiling happiness into surprised sorrow. Something in her belly begins to bulge and throb...

In another seemingly metaphoric back-to-life dream, which comes several years later, Ed is living with Mary, but now both of them know she is dead. Nonetheless, this time she is happy and active, and they hug and kiss. When they go outside on the front lawn looking for something, a passerby says she cannot see Mary because Mary is dead, to which Ed replies, "she may be dead, but I can see her." This comment may be evidence for the complexity of the dreaming mind.

Reassurance Dreams

Three of Mary's relatively few friendly gestures toward Ed were in the form of reassurances of the kind discussed by Barrett (1992) as one type of dream about deceased loved ones. The first of these dreams was also the first dream he had about her shortly after her death, the one that affected him so strongly that he began to keep a dream journal:

#001 (7/80): I see her in profile. She looks as lovely as she had before the illness, and when she was younger. At one point in the dream I also see a profile view of her when she and Maria (their daughter) press their cheeks together. Mary doesn't look at me, nor am I aware that she spoke. It is like a TV scene where someone is not speaking yet you hear that person's voice in the background. I hear Mary say, "I want you to be happy, Ed."

A second reassurance dream expresses her approval that he was remarrying:

#012 (9/17/81): I am looking down on Mary, from above and to her right. She is nude. I believe she is looking at me and smiling. Although her lips aren't moving, she is talking to me. I see on her abdomen a large white spot (of disease and decay? I don't know). The message she gives me is that she knows she is going to die from the illness, but she is accepting of her death, and she wants me to be happy. Although there is no mention of Bonnie and my forthcoming marriage to her, it seems that Mary is giving me her approval to go ahead and get married and have a happy life. In this dream Mary has her original and beautiful long, dark hair. She is wearing it in an upswept style. Her face is beautiful. She is not wearing the colostomy bag.

The third and final reassurance dream is a unique dream in the series in that he is aware that she is dead while they are talking and at the same time receives reassurance from her:

#023 (8/25/82): I see Mary very clearly, as she appeared before the illness. She is very beautiful, is smiling and happy. We are having a long conversation. I am able to touch her. I think I also hug her and hold her hand. We both know that she is dead. I ask her if she is all right. She assures me that she is fine and happy. I am pleased to know that she is OK. Somewhere I see two of her sisters, but I'm not sure how they "fit" into this dream. I think Mary is concerned about them. She seems to be telling me that her sisters are -- or will be -- OK. Or maybe she is telling me about their health -- that it is unfortunate that they are not well -- but one must accept whatever happens.

These reassurance dreams may appear to be "resolution" dreams, that is, dreams that indicate that a conflict has been completely resolved, but subsequent dreams, and Ed's reminiscences, show that these three reassurance dreams did not resolve anything in his dream life or his waking life. Only a month after the dream in which Mary seems to give her approval for his marriage to Bonnie, he sees Mary and calls her Bonnie, which seems to be a figurative statement of his confused feelings. A year later he has a dream in which he is "bawling out' and shouting at Bonnie, who changes into Mary, who looks "very upset and hurt." Four years later, in the months shortly before he and his second wife separated in November of 1986, he had his final dream in which Bonnie appears along with Mary. It appears to be a direct expression of his frustration:

#044 (3/28/86): Both Mary and Bonnie were in the dream, and I kept getting them mixed up, calling each by the other's name. I think both were angry with me. The mood of the dream was upsetting and uncomfortable.

Illness and Death Dreams

There are 44 dreams concerning Mary's illness, hospitalization, or death. They are mostly realistic portrayals of Ed's thoughts and feeling during various stages of Mary's illness. They contain many expressions of sadness, apprehension, and confusion. There is no particular sequence or progression to them in terms of the severity of her illness. In many of these dreams, Mary looks very good, or they are embracing, but he is aware that she is dying, and he feels great sadness or cries. In others she still looks very beautiful, but there is one or another tell-tale sign of her illness, such as paleness. Sometimes she is overweight or bloated, but in another dream she is thin and gaunt, and in two others she is bald.

Some of these illness dreams seem to portray his concerns with her treatment. One portrays her decision to stop chemotherapy. Six months later, he urges her to resume chemo. In other dreams in this category she is in the hospital, or he is going to visit her burial site, or he is grieving after looking at pictures of her in an album. It is noteworthy that there are very few unusual elements in the illness dreams. However, one of the unusual settings in an illness dream seems to express one of Ed's wishful concerns in a metaphoric way: he is in the bedroom in one of their former apartments, but down the hall there is now a wing of the hospital where Mary has a room, so he can go to see her quickly and directly.

Although the illness dreams decline by almost half in the second half of the series, they do not disappear entirely. In the 139th of the 143 dreams, nearly 22 years after Mary's death, he has the following harrowing dream:

#139 (3/19/02): Mary is lying on her back on a bed with her head hanging over the top edge of the bed. She is deathly ill and appears as she did in the last few weeks of her life - emaciated, deathly pale and extremely weak. Her head was not bald but the hair on it was very sparse - as it was when it began growing back after the chemotherapy treatment. I sit on the bed and cradle her in my arms. I ask her why she is lying with her head hanging back over the edge of the bed. She answers that this is the only way she has to prevent her from vomiting.

Dreams with Sexuality

There are 25 sexual interactions, which are sorted in the Hall and Van de Castle into five categories that range from erotic thoughts about a person to sexual intercourse. They occur in 15 dreams. They run the gamut from the positive to the negative in terms of the feelings and social interactions in them. Ed initiates 16 of the sexual interactions, Mary initiates 5, and 4 are mutual. The fact that Ed initiates most sexual interactions is consistent with his initiation of most friendly interactions as well. In an early dream in the series he sees her in a thin gown and experiences the joy of feeling her body. However, some of the sexual dreams seem to express lack of interest on either his or Mary's part, or feelings of inadequacy on his part. In two dreams he cannot get or maintain an erection. For example:

#089 (12/11/94): Mary and I are making love, but I am impotent and reluctant to make love because I am afraid I won't be able to get an erection. On the other hand, Mary wants to help me, but she's reluctant to engage in intercourse because it is painful for her. I don't know why this will hurt her because there is nothing about her being ill in this dream. Also Mary is in a hurry to go somewhere and is reluctant to take the time to have sex because it will delay her departure. At the same time, she doesn't want to disappoint me, so we do have sex. I get an erection but lose it as soon as I penetrate Mary. As I struggle to get an erection again, I am hurting Mary. We stop making love. Each tries to assure the other that it was OK, but maybe next time will be better.

The underlying tensions in the sexual relationship between Ed and Mary are discussed further in the next section in the context of dreams that contain striking aggressive interactions.

Dreams with Aggressive Interactions

There are 19 aggression interactions between Ed and Mary in the dream series. They are primarily non-physical in nature--angry thoughts, critical remarks, rejections, and accusations or threats. There are two physical aggressions, both in the second part of the series. In one she pushes him away from her as he tries to kiss her, and in the other she throws "a ham or a roast" at him. Several of the aggression dreams seem to involve the annoyances, tensions, and rejections that often typify married life, such as arguments and criticisms. There are also two aggression dreams that contain unusual elements that could be seen as metaphoric statements consistent with the aggressive feelings. In the first one she cooks him a meal, which is a friendly act on her part, but he does not have time to eat it, and finally puts it in the garbage basket in the kitchen, which is a rejection on his part, meanwhile thinking that she is "crazy clean" because he sees that the silverware is wrapped in plastic.

In a later dream Jerry Seinfeld asks Ed to show him how to get to a certain building downtown, and Mary joins them. However, once they reach the building she walks off with Seinfeld, leaving Ed behind, a rejection by Mary and Seinfeld, which makes Ed very angry. As he is waiting for them to return, he explores a pile of sand near the building, and soon finds himself sinking in the sand, shouting out for help, but with nobody coming to his rescue. Then there is a change of scene and he is back home with Mary, where he decides to express his anger to her--a verbal aggression by Ed--after debating the matter with himself.

The most dramatic of the aggression dreams are four which involve arguments about their sexual life In the first of these dreams, Mary angrily claims that Ed does not understand her:

#090 (2/16/95): I am hugging Mary and kissing her, and whispering "sweet nothings" in her ears. She pushes me away, telling me not to do this. I don't remember her exact words, but, to me, her message is clear. She wants me to stop what I'm doing. I am upset and hurt and draw away. I stop cuddling her, and say (or imply) I will no longer hold and hug her if this bothers her. Mary becomes angry, and says (or implies) that I don't understand her -- or that I misunderstand what she means.

In two of these dreams Mary is angry with Ed about an affair with another women. The first one, 16 years after her death, gives the impression that Ed is recalling an actual event:

#103 (8/28/96): I see Mary, but not clearly. I believe she is angry at me for having had a brief sexual encounter with another woman. But that was many, many years ago (over 20 years ago) and I thought we had gotten over that long ago and there had never been another lapse on my part since then. I'm not sure what we talked about in the dream, but Mary's mood changed from anger at me to that of being very solicitous toward me for some problem I am facing. I have no idea what that problem is.

In the second dream about an affair, about 8 months after the previous one, Ed is in a play or a business venture (he is not sure which), wherein he must have an association with a woman, and perhaps even kiss her, but friends warn him that people will gossip and Mary will hear about it. He says that Mary knows he would not cheat on her. The scene changes and he is at home taking a shower, and senses someone has entered the house:

#113 (4/13/97): ...I feel a draft and get out of the shower and find the bathroom door open. I step out of the bathroom and look around. I see no one. I call out, "Mary, is that you?" There is no answer. I go back into the bathroom. There, on a table, is an empty wine glass (or cocktail glass?). When I see this, I know Mary is home. I dry myself, then search through the house, looking for her. After looking through several rooms, I find her lying on the sofa, her back toward me. I am delighted to find her, go over to the sofa, kneel down, and try to embrace her. She yells out angrily at me, "Leave me alone! Don't touch me! You're having an affair with..." (she names the woman, but I have no recollection of the name as I record this). My first reaction is to laugh and tell her this is a lot of nonsense. As I do so, I remember what my friends told me, that a certain person would gossip and plant seeds of doubt in Mary's mind about my relationship with that woman. I am in the process of trying to explain the true nature of the situation to Mary when the dream ends.

In perhaps the most interesting and revealing of the dreams in which they argue about sexuality, Mary blames him for their lack of sexual relations, which leaves Ed unable to reply even though a litany of answers is running through his mind as she is talking. The dream appears to be a dramatization of how they avoided dealing with sexual problems. It also demonstrates how deeply thoughtful and ruminative dreams can be:

#065 (5/24/71): Mary and I are having an argument and two children are witnessing it. These children are ours, but neither is Maria, Robert, or Adam. In the dream I recognize them as ours. The argument is about Mary's decision to leave me. She tells me she is going to leave me because I don't love her. Her proof of this is that I don't have sex with her often enough. I am flabbergasted. I believe that our lack of frequent sex is her fault. While I have a great deal I want to say to her about this, I just can't get anything out of my mouth. I want to ask her why she always falls asleep on the sofa, night after night. This prevents me from having sex if she's not beside me in bed. I also wanted to remind her of how very emphatic she was about not wanting sex when we had vacationed in the Bahamas (in 1972). I'll never forget her comment: "Ed, I didn't come on vacation to have sex." I also wanted to remind her that she is ill and having sex is next to impossible. But somehow I am not able to say any of these things. I seem to be babbling. All I can do is plead with her to stay with me. I insist that I do love her...

If the concerns dramatized in dreams are in general continuous with waking life, as blind analyses of several dream journals suggest (Domhoff, 1996, 2003), then this dream reveals, in the context of the tensions and difficulties in several of the dreams with actual sexual interactions discussed in the previous section, that there were tensions about sexuality after Mary had a radical hysterectomy in 1971, and perhaps especially in the two years before her death. Evidence for this inference appears in Ed's long comments about this dream, which are reminiscent of the kind of written self-reflections that Pennebaker and his co-workers (2001; 1999; 1999) have shown to be useful to people:

When I awoke I was very conscious of the argument put forth by Mary. I felt she was so unfair to me in equating infrequent sex with my not loving her. I went over in my mind, while lying in bed after waking up, what our sex life had been during the years preceding her death. While this dream prompted me, now, to think about this aspect of our relationship, I had thought about it frequently when Mary was alive.

Ed then recalls a discussion they once had about the fact that she often fell asleep on the sofa at night. It seems to express the kind of misunderstandings that couples often experience:

Why had she slept on the sofa, night after night? We once talked about this. Mary told me, at that time, that she felt I didn't want sex because I didn't come to get her off the sofa and into bed. And I told her that I didn't go after her because I thought she wanted to avoid me and sex. As I recall, we never really did resolve this problem.

He goes on to say that when they did have sex, it was very enjoyable because Mary was a very "orgiastic woman" who took an "active" part in lovemaking. He then repeats the vacation incident he referred to in the dream itself, when she told him she did not come on vacation to have sex:

I was quite shocked when Mary told me she didn't come on vacation to have sex. It seemed so out of character with the good times we were enjoying at that time. Her angry comment so stuck in my mind that I took it to mean she wasn't crazy about sex and didn't want it very often. That may be why I didn't approach her for sex more often.

Ed then characterizes himself as a shy person who does not assert himself when he feels he has been rejected: "I bowed out of the act and did not try to get this straightened out." He also comments that "This dream had a strong impact on me in reviewing, yet again, our sexual relationship," a statement that perhaps can be taken as evidence as to why some people find dreams of personal use to them.

There is, however, one loose end in this analysis of dreams with sexual themes: whether Ed did or did not have the affair that he and Mary discussed in dream #103 above. If he did, it might explain more about his relationship to Mary than he seems to understand. But the author did not feel that he should directly question Ed on this issue out of respect for his age and the conception he had of himself as a devoted husband who did the best he could, given his personal inadequacies. This loose end is not a comment on the theory or the method utilized in this paper, but on the limits that sometimes need to be observed in making use of individual cases.

Discussion and Conclusion

The findings in this study support Hall's (1953b) idea that dreams are embodiments of thoughts because the main themes of these dreams--his wife's health and his relationship with her-- portray obvious conceptions and concerns that his written reflections attest to in waking life. In his dreams, he wishes his wife were still alive, sometimes wants her help or assurance, can't quite believe she is really dead, on occasion enacts fond memories of the good times they had together, often puzzles over the sexual tensions in their marriage, and relives the horrible events of the terminal illness that ended her life. This wide array cannot be encompassed within the narrow confines of any traditional theory, whether Freudian, Jungian, or activation-synthesis.

The dreams in this series simply, but profoundly -- and often beautifully -- express the conflicted thoughts and feelings that are on the dreamer's mind and in his memory bank. Although there are changes in the relative frequencies of some elements, such as the decline in illness dreams, it is doubtful that there are any "resolution" dreams, contrary to dramatic anecdotal accounts. Instead, it seems more likely that the gradual shift in the dream content reveals that he is slowly coming to terms with his loss, even though it is never completely resolved. Based on the findings with Ed's journal, it might be predicted that bereaved people who experience a decline of "back-to-life" and illness-related dreams are grieving more successfully than those who don't, a hypothesis that is similar to the idea that changes in dream content may indicate how well a person is dealing with trauma (Barrett, 2001; Hartmann, 1998). At the same time, it needs to be stressed that there is no systematic evidence that changes in dreams indicate changes in waking mood or behavior for either the bereavement or trauma hypothesis.

The generally coherent and realistic nature of the dreams in Ed's journal supports Foulkes' (1985) conclusion that most dreams are reasonable simulations of waking life. The dreams suggest a brain that is thinking about the person's main issues, not a brain that is simply reacting to chaotic stimuli from the brain stem within an unusual neuromodulatory environment (e.g. Hobson, 2002). Moreover, at least some of the unusual elements in this dream series appear to be metaphoric expressions of the dreamer's thoughts in a clear and direct way, and are sometimes understood by the dreamer as metaphoric within the dream itself. This point is made most dramatically in dream 34, in which Ed understands that Mary is dead even though she is sitting in a car and talking to him. In this dream, as recounted earlier in the article, he realizes that he cannot cross the road that stands between them because he knows "that she is dead, and that the road between us is the dividing line between Life and Death." That is, he does understand that she is "on the other side," figuratively speaking.

Some of the repeated unusual elements are arguably metaphorical as well, as when rooms look slightly different than in reality or are blends of two places in which they lived. In particular, the dream in which his apartment is attached to a hospital room down the hall seems more like a wishful solution to his distance from Mary and the hospital than a cognitive glitch. Similarly, the dreams in which he and Mary are younger, or the children are younger, seem more like memory-based enactments of earlier times that he looked back on with fondness rather than bizarre confusion over his current age.

Beyond these general connections between the dreams and Ed's waking thoughts and concerns, the pattern of friendly actions toward Mary by Ed and aggressive interactions toward Ed by Mary seem to portray more subtle elements of Ed's relationship with Mary. In his eyes, he tries hard to please her and means well, but often cannot do anything right. This element of feeling incompetent and picked upon also may be expressed when, for example, he mixes up Mary and Bonnie, can't find his children, is puzzled by the presence of strangers in his house, spills the tea he is bringing her, or sinks in quicksand.

However, the search for plausibly metaphorical meanings did not support the idea that all the unusual aspects in the dreams were figurative expressions of the dreamer's concerns. Some of the contents seem to be incongruous confabulations or random filler, as both the cognitive theorist Foulkes (1983; 1999) and the activation-synthesis theorist Hobson (2000) would expect, albeit for very different reasons. For example, a vehicle that is alternatively a bicycle and a car in one dream does not relate in any obvious way to the content of the dream.

Based on the results of this study, it seems plausible that future studies of dreams journals may make it possible to be more exact about the degree to which all types of dreams, not just the memorable ones written down by this bereaved widower, are dramatic embodiments of conceptions and concerns. At the same time, likely metaphorical elements could be distinguished from unusual elements that might be the product of cognitive defects during the dreaming state.


I would like to thank Kelly Bulkeley for his several helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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