Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Grief Dreams

Sharing Ourselves in Grief Dreams

KB as kid 01I’ve been writing a lot about the deaths of my parents this past year, and the way that these losses have influenced my dreams and my waking life perspective. The last post (“Letting Them Go: Dreams of Death and Transformation”), ventured onto the shifting shores of dreaming and grieving, where the big questions—of origin, meaning and destiny—take shape. Now, I’d like to zero in on more personal ground: how dreams can respond directly to grief, offering comfort, acknowledgement, and an invitation to experience our continuing interconnectedness.

My Dad was surrounded by loved ones the night before he died. Holly and I flew from Oregon to Massachusetts just in time to be there. My sisters drove down from New Hampshire, and Dad’s wife was with him as well. I’m sure he felt our presence even though he was in a coma. Finally, however, he died early the next morning, alone—except for the kind ICU nurse nearby. We got back to the hospital as soon as we could, and again, we came together around his bed: sharing stories, crying, and saying good-bye.

He was already gone, but his face was quite beautiful in death. His eyes were closed, his chin was lifted and his lips were slightly parted—as if receiving the warmth of the sun on his face. This expression made him look like a boy, opening to something new, accepting it with willingness and quiet wonder.

I couldn’t stop looking at him. But it wasn’t until later that I recognized how much he also resembled an old photograph of me, at about twelve years old, with my head leaned back against a tree in the sun. Gradually, I made the connection—remembering why this photo was in my thoughts. Just six days before Dad died, I’d dreamed of his death. And, in the same dream, I saw myself as I was in that photo… Continue reading

Letting Them Go: Dreams of Death & Transformation

dad 03mom in millBoth of my parents have died this year: my mother in April, my father in October. Although I think of them every day and recognize so much of them in myself (they’re in my blood, of course)—still, they are gone. I have been changed by their absence. I am being transformed by the increasing awareness of what it really means to live a full lifetime, touch the lives of others, and eventually die. I guess I’m growing into my new place: the place that they left open for me.

Along with others of my generation, I find that bearing witness to the deaths of my parents means not only grieving, but opening up to a larger perspective. This perspective goes beyond Mom and Dad as parents, beyond Shirley and Phil as individuals, to include the open-ended questions that defined them, define me, define all of us as living (and dying) beings… In the words of Gauguin’s famous painting: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? [D’où Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Où Allons Nous].

Exploring these questions is part of maturing, aging, and preparing for our own deaths. It can be well underway before the deaths of our parents, but the passing of the generation before us marks a turning point—and saying good-bye to those we love in the previous generation makes this universal, archetypal turning point intensely personal.

Dreams are at home on the muddy, shifting soil of that fertile delta where the river of personal experience splits into rivulets and flows into the universal vastness of the open sea. So, as I say good-bye to my parents and ponder my own mortality, I find guidance in dreams. Such dreams ask more questions than they answer. This is as it should be.

In this post and the next, I’d like to explore two significant dreams that helped prepare me for the deaths of my parents. Continue reading

Grief Integration: The Vigil and the Dance

mom in millAs I write this, my mom has been dead for over a month—and by the time you read this, it will be over two months. I’ve had some more dreams about her, but none in which she seems fully present. Actually, I’m not really dreaming about my mother herself, but about my own experience of loss. The immediate shock of the first few weeks has passed, and now when I look at her picture (which I keep nearby, and look at often) I no longer have to remind myself that she has died. I look at her face, and it seems as if she is looking back at me. We understand each other. She is not available by telephone, but she is available in other ways. I feel our connection and her absence simultaneously (see “Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence”).

This is what healing feels like. Healing doesn’t mean that the grieving stops. I am still trying to process some of the most overwhelming aspects of her dying—the feelings that were too intense, just too much to fully feel when everything was happening so quickly right before and after her death. I’m replaying events and emotions as stories to tell myself—to remember what happened, and that it really did happen. Of course, my dreams are doing this work with me…

Grieving Mom, Looking for Jill: I’m college-age, sitting at a table with several college friends. I tell them about Mom’s recent death. They listen, but go on to talk about other things, and my grief doesn’t seem real to them or to me. I leave them and walk, thinking about what I will do now that I have graduated. I just want to talk to Mom, to get her practical advice… Then, the grief hits me, and it feels unbearable. I go looking for my sister Jill, who is supposed to be in school nearby. I feel so lonely. I desperately need to see my sister.

The feeling of this dream echoes my waking feelings. I try to talk about Mom’s death and it doesn’t seem real, but when I’m alone and think of her, the reality is stunningly painful. In the midst of the feelings, I long to be with family—my sisters Jill and Didi, and niece Samantha—because they are closest to the loss, and share it. There’s no mystery to the dream. It makes sense that we are young, just graduated or in school, since that suggests the learning experience we are going through, and recalls some painful separations from family that occurred at that time in my life.

If there are further metaphorical dimensions of the dream to be explored (certainly, there are), I’m not especially interested in exploring them consciously right now. What interests me is that the dream gives me another opportunity to integrate the same kinds of emotional experiences I am having when awake. There’s a lot of integration to do, so both my dreaming and my waking concerns are turned in this direction. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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