“Since knowing gives us definition and control, it enables us to keep the world at arm’s length. Having established our ideas and preferences about what is, we no longer have to bother to pay attention. Not knowing, on the other hand, leaves us vulnerable and free. It brings us very close to experience, unprotected and fully engaged. Not knowing, we merge with what confronts us. We let go of identity and evaluation and allow ourselves to surrender to amazement.” -Norman Fischer
The dreams that come during periods of significant change in our lives often parallel the dreams that come as death approaches. When we are ill, in crisis, or grieving, we may have dreams that resemble the dreams of dying people (who are also going through powerful changes). In my personal and professional experience, I’ve seen that both death dreams and transition dreams tend to be about the experience of “not knowing” in one form or another.
The individual who is going through great change is always experiencing the death or loss of the “known,” and an encounter with the potential of the “unknown.” This is generally a painful and difficult struggle, as the familiar experience of self and reality falls apart. But such falling apart also, ultimately, creates an opening, a new perspective, a new kind of meaning.
Memorable dreams during these times of change tend to fall into two broad categories:
1) Dreams of danger, suffering, struggle, or effort. In the dreams of those who are going through big changes, but not physically dying—or the dreams of those in the earliest stages of the dying process—death imagery is common: funerals, cemeteries, corpses, etc. or situations where someone (the “I” in the dream, or another dream character) is dying or being threatened with death. It may seem odd, but those who are drawing close to physical death are less likely to dream about death itself, and more likely to dream of metaphorical challenges. For those who are going through a life transition, death is a metaphor; for those who are dying, death is literal and dreams use life challenges as the metaphor.
Typically, the broad theme in this first type of dream is resistance to the dissolution of identity and the loss of familiar reality. The unknown is perceived as a threat to the self.
Walter, a middle-aged man with end-stage lung cancer, described this waking-dream experience as it was happening. As he spoke, he was stretched taut, hands clutching the sides of the bed, as if he were lying on his back on a sled, racing downhill at a great speed. I could almost see the wind sweeping over him, and the bumps jolting him as he rushed past. He spoke in fragments:
It’s too fast. I can’t get it to slow down. He says I have to go there. I have to get there, but it’s too fast. He’s making me go too fast. I don’t know who he is. I can’t stand it. I’m flying apart. It’s going to go into the sun. Make it stop. He says I can’t stop.
This went on for at least an hour, as I sat nearby, talking with Walter and wishing I could help him “slow down”—but, my wishes and my presence were not really a part of his dream. He needed to complete this headlong passage himself. He sped downward for as long as I was with him, and I don’t know what happened next. I was told he died a few days later, quietly, no longer straining or “going too fast.”
2) Dreams of release, transcendence. These dreams often include visions of places associated with beauty, awe, joy and peace, or people (often people who have died) associated with a profound sense of connection, love, and compassion. In many cases, these dreams contain religious or spiritual imagery.
The broad theme for this second type of dream might be, embracing the Mystery. The unknown is perceived as potentially liberating.
Eighty-nine year old Peg was dying of breast cancer. She shared this dream a few hours before she died:
There’s a green hill. I get closer and sort of float up to the top. It’s a meadow full of wildflowers. My mother is there, and my sister. Jesus is there. It starts to snow, even though the sun is shining. We are all laughing, playing in the snow.
In times of great change, or especially near death, all dreams can be exceptionally intense—as real as, or realer than, waking experiences. The closer we are to death, the more the second category of dreams tends to predominate (though this is not true for everyone). Actually, however, separating these dreams into two categories is misleading. It’s more true to say that most (if not all) transition dreams contain elements of both resistance and transcendence. In the dreams of resistance, there can be courage, determination, and a distant, ideal goal. Sometimes, there are unexpected moments of peace in the midst of struggle. On the other hand, in the pure, lovely dreams of transcendence, there’s often a hint of sadness at what’s being left behind, or a tremor of fear in the face of the unknown.
I think it’s this paradoxical mix of experiences—struggle and transcendence, pain and joy, fear and wonder, despair and peace—that makes our human lives, our dreams, and our deaths, so poignant and gives them meaning. It’s also what keeps us “up in the air,” without any absolutes—not knowing, and open.