Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming and Grieving

My mother with her mother

My mother with her mother

My mom (Shirley Markie) died some weeks ago. Even as I write this, I don’t really believe it. Really, it seems as if I am writing about a dream, not about the solid fact of her death. I look at her picture, and she is so alive to me. How could she be dead? Of course, I’ve worked with lots of grieving and dying people—I am certainly familiar with these feelings, having heard them from so many others, so many times. And I’m deeply aware in this moment that I am not alone in my experience of grief and loss. So many of us have felt this, are feeling this, will feel this…

Those in my age group (fifties) are especially likely to be facing the loss of our parents; we are all saying good-bye to the generation before us. Yet it’s an entirely personal experience. Even though my sisters share the same immediate grief for the same mother, we each feel it uniquely. But we can still be a comfort to one another—and we are.

Grief dreams are like this: there are familiar patterns in the ways that dreams help us live through our losses—archetypal psychospiritual responses to grief—yet each dream carries the individuality of the loss in its own way, and we are touched by each dream uniquely. At the same time, the experience of grieving and dreaming can connect us at a fundamental level, giving us a direct sense of the universality of these landmarks of loss in our lives. When I dream of my mother—her wonderful one-of-a-kind-ness—I am dreaming into the midst of love at its most essential. As we feel loss, we feel love, and the poignancy of “loving what is mortal” (to paraphrase Mary Oliver). Dreams can make this experience feel realer than real.

Because I am grieving, and feeling the need to write about this grief; and because I’m often asked about grief dreams, and want to share what I have learned (and am learning now) about these dreams—I’m going to post a series of articles about the relationship between dreaming and grieving. Do dreams help us to fully experience our grief, and to heal? Do dreams give us a glimpse beyond our mortality—into something eternal that may be comforting, reassuring, illuminating? I believe the answer is yes to both these questions. But the more immediate question for me is: Are my dreams helping me to keep my heart open in a painful time? Whether or not these grief dreams “feel good”—they do open my heart, even when they do so by breaking it: they break it open.

Before I write about the dreams I’m having, however, I’d like to write about the dreams I’m not having—at least not right now. The most frequently-asked questions about grief dreams have to do with “visitation dreams”: those dreams in which the deceased loved one seems to visit, in person, whole and well, perhaps with a message or a gift, or just to affirm that he or she is happy and loves us. People who have had these dreams sometimes ask if I believe they are real (though those who have had these dreams usually know, without asking, that they are, of course, real at the deepest level—and the question is more of a test of me than of the dreams). On the other hand, those who have not had these dreams often want to know why not. They’ve heard of such dreams, and they long to see their loved ones again.

With my mother’s death, I’m among the people who have not had a visitation dream. I’ve seen Mom in several dreams since her death, but have not felt that she, herself, her spirit or essence, is actually present there with me. And I do wish that she would visit me in this way! But it’s okay, and makes sense to me, that she hasn’t (or at least that I do not remember if she has). My relationship with her feels complete somehow—even though there’s a gaping hole in my life without her. There’s a sense of wholeness, surrounding that hole. I trust that all is well with her, and I still feel the connection, even as I accept (with anguish) her physical absence.

My own previous experience with visitation dreams following other deaths in my life, and the many, many stories of such dreams from others, have convinced me that some form of the person who has died can visit us in dreams. Often (as in my recent dreams), the dream image of a deceased person may be just a reflection created out of the complex dream-stuff of most dream images: metaphoric expressions of the dreamer’s projections; personal, cultural and universal associations; and perhaps the activity of spirit beings (the shamanic view) with their own reasons for sharing the dream. However, in visitation dreams, some dream figures do seem substantial and recognizable in their own right. They seem to be manifestations of actual people (or animals) who have died, and are “visiting” us in an out-of-body state that nevertheless feels very physical.

I don’t pretend to understand how this works, but I don’t think it’s as simplistic as a ghost story. As I’ve described in articles about hospice work (“Death Dreams and Open Fields”), the distinction between dreaming and waking becomes very blurry around death—and any absolute ideas we may have about the nature of identity and reality may be called into question. Things happen in the waking world that seem very dream-like; and dreams can become very real. I think this just suggests that we really don’t know just how much we don’t know about the way things are.

For me, there was a wonderful moment while my mother was still alive but in a deep coma—a “visitation” that happened in a dream-like waking experience. She was in a hospital bed, in her own home, surrounded, most of the time, by loved ones. The changes had happened very quickly. A few weeks before, she’d suddenly developed symptoms of end-stage heart failure; she struggled with the diagnosis (and with everyone who tried to help) for as long as she could, and then went into a sharp decline. Within a few days, she was bedbound, accepting her own inevitable death, saying her good-byes, and then actively dying. By the time Holly and I arrived from the other side of the country, she was no longer conscious, and we joined the vigil at her bedside for the last 20 hours of her life.

About eight hours before she died, I had what might be called a “visit” with Mom. I was wide awake, though because it was such a subjective experience I will describe it as if it were a dream:

The bed is high and narrow, and she’s in such an awkward position that it’s difficult to get close enough to her. I just need to get closer, so I lean over her and very gently put my arms around her and rest my cheek against hers. Her body is motionless, except for the rhythmic, gurgling breaths. Yet, immediately, I sense her responding to my hug. I’d forgotten that whenever Mom hugs anyone she loves, she tilts her head and rests her temple against them and sort of leans in. A sweetness—both protective and innocent. And now, she is hugging me, just like that, just as she always has. I know she is not physically moving, not able to move—yet she is hugging me in this particular way, so genuinely and personally that I can feel her saying my name. She is not even in her body, and yet she is holding me, assuring me that she knows I’m here, and she is with me.

So, I don’t need to have Mom visit me in a dream, because I can trust this experience: I know she’s with me. I also trust that she’s gone her own way now. I’ve joined the community of daughters who have lost their mothers. And I’ll go on to have more grief dreams, and explore what it means to be without her. In the paradoxical way of dreams and grief, I find myself in a world that is bewildering yet familiar, lonely yet loving, terribly painful yet also beautiful.


  1. samteixeira10

    Your description of grandma’s hug just brought me to tears. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Sending you love, Sam. And a hug…

  2. Tallulah

    Thank you again and again. Blessings for your mother’s life and the gifts she’ll bring in death. I do so hope you’re coming to Virginia Beach and that we can visit there.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Bless you, Tallulah. Your kind thoughts touch my heart. I’m afraid I can’t make it to the conference this year—I would have loved seeing you there. It will have to wait until next year…

  3. Katherine Knupp

    Powerful work. Thank you. I’ve been sharing your posts with a dreaming group I’m in and I want to share a quick story. My mother is still alive, but my father died 10 years ago. My mother keeps his ashes in an urn in her house and she recently told me an amazing thing. She will always touch his urn before she goes to bed and some nights, the urn feels warm (it’s metal). She knows when the urn feels warm to the touch, my father will visit her in a dream that night.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      What a beautiful story, Katherine! It seems so natural to feel that connection (and warmth) after death, and have it reflected in dreams. I’m grateful to you, and your mother, for sharing something so meaningful. And I’m also grateful that you’ve been sharing my posts with your dream group. Thank you!

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