Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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.

When waking life circumstances are emotionally powerful, many dreams seem to serve the primary function of integrating feelings by picking up where waking life leaves off, continuing the work of recognition, processing, and comprehension of experiences that have happened or are happening. Sometimes, the dreams just tell it like it is. We don’t have to add critical thought, don’t need to decide that this is good or bad. We just need to live out the experience of the dream, as we are living out the waking experiences—living them fully and authentically.

Two dear friends of mine died at almost the same time as my mother, and I don’t think their loss has really sunk in yet, even though I attended a memorial service where they were both honored. My conscious mind is preoccupied with the one central grief. However, my dreams have absorbed and acknowledged the bigger picture that includes other losses, and the shared experience of bereavement.

Vigil: I am sitting at Mom’s bedside as she dies, yet the dying person is not only Mom but also Kay and Marcella; and the “me” at the bedside is not only Kirsten but also other friends who are grieving. This bewildering blend of dream identities seems natural. Many people come and go during the all-night vigil. Sometimes the dying person is a baby. Sometimes it is a birth that is about to happen rather than a death. Or it is a birth that has already happened and this is the baptism. Or a death that has happened and this is the wake. At one point, I go to a party, set my heavy jacket aside, and dance in the crowd—with abandon. Then, I have to dig through a heap of other coats, looking for mine because my phone is in the pocket and my family may need to reach me as the vigil continues. What if she has died, and I am not there?

Again, the dream manages to include everything, to integrate all of the elements that I can’t consciously hold in mind. I wake from such dreams with a sense that there has been hard work going on. Sometimes, I’m exhausted by it. But even the exhaustion is part of the process as I am working through the grief rather than working on it. The dreams keep me moving forward, and they generate the momentum that carries me into the morning (mourning).

I trust that even in the midst of the deathbed vigil of grieving, I can set my heavy jacket aside and join the dance. And, as a wonderful balance, there are also dreams and waking experiences of renewal and discovery, of responsibility and participation, of accidental encounters and transformative storms. Life opens outward from the point of death. Life is moving on, and even as I reach back to recall the lost connection, a new network is created and new sparks leap the broken link.


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Hi Kirsten,
    This process you describe so well, of integration, is one I feel is happening so much in my life and dreams as well. With all the BIG changes in my life , I just feel like my psyche is working very hard to integrate them, and to land me back in my present life with a little more solidity and faith.
    Thanks for all your insights.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I love the way you say this Kiera: the psyche working hard to integrate change and then “land me back in my present life with more solidity and faith.” A beautiful way of expressing a process I know you know deeply. Thank you so much!

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