Dreams and the Path to Healing

"Follow Your Dreams"The dream’s details have faded. No surprise, since this dream came and went over four years ago. Even as I awakened on a morning soon after my father’s death, I struggled to recall the particulars of my nighttime sojourn with Dad. Had it lasted fleeting seconds or long moments? Did I kick against the sheets or remain still and calm as the “film in my mind” unfolded?

I don’t know.

Dreams do fade. Capricious and profound, transitory and perplexing, they are mysterious companions in our sleeping life.

Dad and I traveled along a wrecked freeway. Had an earthquake just happened? Were bombs dropped? On we struggled, my father clearly hurt, leaning on me, and my primary focus seemed to be identifying any spot where we could safely exit the rubble of shattered concrete, buckled asphalt, and collapsed overpasses. Together we stumbled forward. I wanted to get him help. I wanted him to be safe. I wanted us off the dangerous road.

I can no longer remember if I left him to seek an escape route, or if he voluntarily went his own way. When waking in the dark before dawn, and now years later, I have “interpreted” the ruined landscape as his dementia. It doesn’t surprise me that the desperate journey along the fractured pathway was remembered, while our eventual separation became fuzzy. My father’s dementia took him away from his beloved family, and certainly far, far away from himself. I was also not with Dad when he breathed his last. I had (again) traveled to my parents’ home to visit Dad in his memory care facility. I helped Mom tend to his dwindling needs, and then departed the next day. Later in the week, one of my sisters called and said he’d died. Alone. Breathing one moment, without breath the next.

I have not dreamed about that grim journey again. But even as it continues to fade, I suspect I’ll never forget what the dream caused me to feel: weary and helpless.

Anyone who has had a loved one with dementia will understand.

In the grief support groups I’ve led, participants have mentioned dreams. Some are vivid and comforting. Some seem incomplete, but leave the dreamer confident their loved one has “gone to heaven” or is in “a better place.” Some dreams are fierce and unsettling. Some happen once, while others keep returning.

And some don’t dream. Ever.

I watch the faces in the group, paying attention to those listening when another shares about his or her beloved “starring” in a dream. Regardless of the dream’s joy, sadness, or ambiguity, a few participants usually appear jealous. They haven’t dreamed. Their loved one hasn’t “visited” them.

I remind them that grief is different for each person. Some cry; some don’t. Some eat way too much junk food; some can’t eat at all.

They believe me about the differences. And they don’t.

Group members mention getting their palms read, attending séances, and paying hefty ticket prices to be in an audience with a “celebrity psychic medium.” (I just looked up John Edwards, a popular psychic, and he’ll be in my area during January 2017 . . . for $153.50 you can have one of the cheap seats to join him.)

People want to see, hear, or at least sense their loved one again. Where did they go after death? Are they safe?

How strange. Or is it?

Days or months or longer after a death, some have shared about smelling a spouse or parent’s favorite perfume or cologne. The scent was there, then vanished . . . and yet so distinctive.

A loved one is glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. Maybe he walks by a door, between the living room and the kitchen, like he did thousands of other times in the past. Or, for split seconds, she appears to be sitting in her usual spot, knitting or mulling a crossword puzzle. Or there’s a brief touch on your shoulder. You feel it. His hand? Her hand?

Can I explain these things? No. Are they rational? Is love rational?

Unbidden, we dream. We dread dreams. We covet dreams. We long for dreams.

Skeptical, we nonetheless purchase tickets to the medium’s show. We know it’s only a show, a performance, but still . . .

Reluctantly, fearing others might think us daft, we mention seeing or smelling our beloved.

I hesitate to judge or downplay any experience anyone has or anyone seeks. Yes, some may become obsessive about wanting to “communicate” with a loved one long after they have been buried. There are reasons to be concerned if a family member or friend ignores the “here and now” and only dwells in the past, or singularly focuses on a way—any way—to “contact” a loved one.

This I believe: there are as many paths for grief as there are grieving people.

Are dreams divine messages? Are they a by-product of a febrile mind working on (or creating) problems? Are they the random firing of synapses while we innocently doze? Does it matter?

I dreamed my father. I will forever miss him. From my earliest recollections of playing catch in the backyard to taking Dad to Tuolumne Meadows (at the edge of the Sierra high country for a hint of why I backpacked), I have endless memories of love and companionship. I treasure the memories that inform the dreams. I treasure the dreams that keep memories alive.

And I hope, for every grieving person, there is a path to healing that honors the loved one’s past and embraces your future.

 

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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