Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow...

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow…

Time keeps passing, and I’m gradually beginning to feel a little distance from my mom’s death. I can write about it, think about it, almost make it make sense that she is no longer there—three thousand miles away, but within easy reach of a phone call, in her house that is an old mill by a brook. She is still more real to me there than in my experience of her dying. It’s as if the few days surrounding her death were a dream.

What’s true is what’s always been true: she’s opening her curtains in the morning (a signal to her neighbor that she’s okay), having her coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, puttering carefully through the chores that make every knick-knack in her home and every moment of her day precious… I think I’ll call and tell her about the Bald Eagle we saw yesterday being chased by a Redtail Hawk… And then, of course, there’s that stunning punch of realization that she isn’t there. Her house is being emptied of her beloved furniture, pictures, books, coffee cups and bird feeders. Each time I think I’ve got some distance from the grief, it clobbers me again.

The stages of grief described by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—helped a lot of people to better understand the process of grieving, but in recent years it has become evident that those stages were being used by many as a way to cling to an illusion of control and order in an experience that is essentially chaotic. Yes, all of the “stages” can be part of grief—but we almost never progress systematically from one stage to the next. My own experience is that the grief comes in waves—different kinds of waves at different times. When I think that the intensity is easing, I’m bowled over by a tsunami. When I think I should be in pain, I’m sometimes surprisingly unperturbed. Then, when I get the idea that “grief comes in waves,” it comes as a tornado, or a thunderstorm, or a rainbow(!) instead. I think I’m prepared for the feelings, yet they always manage to take me by surprise.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed some distinct kinds of grief in the course of these weeks. There’s the flood of memories from childhood. There’s the fierce clarity of those nearly-traumatic shocks of beauty from her last hours—and just after her death. There’s the slow, reasonable acknowledgement that things are different now. And, most of all, there’s that gaping absence… the sense of someone so “full of life” just not being there anymore.

Shortly after her death, I had two vivid dreams of that absence—my mother’s complete unreachability:

…I’ve lost a small object of great power: like a shard of crystal. I’m looking everywhere for it, and then I just glimpse Mom disappearing up a flight of stairs that seems to go nowhere. I shout desperately, “Come back! Come back!” But she’s already gone.

I’m unexpectedly in Japan—on an incredible adventure in a new life. Outside, the scrub pines are glittering with morning dew, and the wind is fresh from the ocean. But I need to call Mom and tell her where I am. What is the time difference between here and where she is? Do I have the right number? When I try to look these things up on my cell phone, I’m afraid it will be in Japanese. It doesn’t matter, though, because the phone won’t work anyway. I need to reach Mom, and I can’t. These two concepts are irreconcilable.

Of course, the dreams make sense, as much as anything about grief makes sense. I wake from each of them with a sharp taste of pain and loss. The first dream eerily echoes a dream I had a few weeks before Mom died (described in “Interview with a Dream Figure”)—with the flight of stairs and the sudden disappearance. And the second resembles recurring dreams of mine that recall experiences from my childhood—with me trying unsuccessfully to reach my mother on the phone (when I was a kid, we were cautioned not to call her at work unless it was really, really important—it always seemed really, really important).

In the last post, I asked the practical question: Are my dreams helping me to keep my heart open in a painful time? When I’ve heard others describe such dreams after their own losses, I’ve empathized with the hurtful experience of being left behind, being lost… being bereft. I know this feeling. Probably, we all know this feeling, even those of us who haven’t lost loved ones to death (yet). It is painful. But when I dream these dreams and re-experience Mom’s absence, this feeling of pain takes me to a deeper place in myself.

If I think of the dream pain in terms of need, and the lack of something needed—then the pain is desperate, grim, and closed. But if I think of the pain in terms of longing, I recognize that such longing for something just out-of-reach is motivated by love. And, even when the loved one is alive and well and near-at-hand, love always has an element of longing—because love is larger than our ability to grasp, and every human experience of love connects us to an awareness of something that transcends our separateness, even our individuality, completely.

When I love someone, I’m reaching beyond myself to something that includes us both—I’m longing to fully embody this connection, but my body just isn’t big enough. So, when a loved one has died, and the embodiment—the point of physical contact—is no longer possible at all, I just feel a larger sense of the longing I’ve felt all along. And this kind of longing is the will to expand beyond the limits of life, into the limitlessness of the unknown.

What is good about these painful dreams is that they give me the direct experience of the paradox that we are infinite beings in finite forms. The pain of grief itself gives me that experience, too—an experience of longing and love. It’s more than I can hold in my heart—so, I have to open wider, let in more light, and allow myself to keep reaching out.


  1. Royce Fitts

    “longing, motivated by love…” not “longing for love”…so beautiful, such a tender concept…Kristen…I ‘read’ into that a bit, in my projection (-: and this feels so healthy, healthy pain, healthy grief…I read this, knowing I, too, soon, maybe very soon, shall pass this way w/ my parents…your reflections of loss, of permanent loss and the not permanent loss that “passth all understanding…”, and as Jeremy reflects, that which is not yet speech ripe, and, yet is known, somewhere, within/without…

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Your projections are beautiful, Royce… Thank you!

  2. Cynthia Bauman

    Thank you for writing so eloquently and lovingly about this topic. I am sharing this with all my loved ones who have lost family & friends. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Cynthia. I keep finding how important sharing our losses (and dreams) can be—and I appreciate it so much when I find common threads in others’ experiences. You are a vital part of that web—sharing stories, sharing dreams…

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑