Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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…

Dream With Mom & Dad: In the midst of all I am trying to do in my lifetime, I realize that I don’t necessarily need to finish anything or accomplish anything. I don’t need to be special. People are born, live their lives and die, all the time. I’ve known so many who have died (literally thousands, through my hospice work), and I can imagine each of their faces—each one unique and perfect. I see myself now, on a sandy beach near some black basalt cliffs. I’m about 12 years old, and my face is tipped back with the sun shining on it. This face is not only mine, but all the faces of all the people I’ve known who have died. I’m filled with a sense of wholeness and love. Fully assured of my own uniqueness, without the need to stand out or separate myself.

Now, I need to share this insight with someone. I most want to share it with Mom. And, suddenly, she is there, standing by a classroom door. I realize that it’s extraordinary to see her, since she will be gone soon. We hug, and I try to tell her my insight, but I’m weeping so much that I can’t talk. Though she’s puzzled by my tears, she accepts me completely, and comforts me.

Then she is gone. In a room full of people, an old-fashioned phone rings. It’s Mom again, and she’s trying to tell me something important, but her voice is fading. I ask her to repeat… and the line goes silent. I know something has happened. Dad’s wife, Sandi, comes on the line and tells me there’s been an emergency. I’m afraid Mom is dying… But, no, it’s Dad.

I’m hurrying through hospital corridors, until I find his room. His wife and the step-family (who I don’t know) are gathered around the bed. But my mother is sitting at the foot of the bed, in a soft chair. I am so grateful that she is there, and that she has led me here, so we can be with Dad together. I go to the head of the bed and talk to him. He recognizes me, but he is confused and can’t count to three as the doctor asks.

Dad becomes my cat Brendan [who died about 10 years ago]. Brendan/Dad gets up and staggers out of the room. Mom and I follow, to be with him. The handsome black cat begins to tremble as he walks. He falls on his side, apparently having multiple strokes. He is shrunken and frail, and one of his eyes has gone gray. He dies as I reach out to touch him. Mom hugs me again, and we cry together. Again, I try to tell her what I’ve come to understand: that we are each unique, yet have no need to be special. We are all so deeply connected. I can’t speak, but she understands. She says, “I know.”

A couple of days after I had this dream, my sister forwarded a message to me from Sandi, saying that Dad was getting rapidly weaker, for no apparent reason. I called and spoke with him on the phone. He was sweet and loving, and sounded very tired. A few more days after that, as Holly and I were preparing for a trip, we got another message. He had pneumonia, and was being admitted to intensive care. Soon, we heard that he had liver failure as well, and a gall bladder infection. Things were changing very quickly. We got on a plane, were met by my sisters at the airport, and arrived just in time to gather around him…

Of course, this is a lot like a dream—and a bit like the dream described above, which came before I could have known that Dad’s death was so close. I’ve worked with dreams enough that I’m not surprised by the precognitive elements. I’m not surprised, but I am reassured at the deepest level.

In some sense, the deaths of both my parents came together in this dream with all the other deaths I’ve ever experienced (humans, and cats, too), and with my own eventual death. More significantly, the dream felt like an acknowledgement of each and every one of our lives: the lives of all those still living, and all those who have died.

In the dream, we are all receiving the sun on our faces—as my dad seemed to do at the moment of his death. We are all accompanying one another, experiencing reassurance that our lives are unique and wonderful enough, that we are not alone; we can recognize each other; we can be loved and loving.

Death certainly can make us feel our separateness, our responsibility for the discoveries and disappointments of our own lives. And yet, we can also feel that we are inseparable from one another. Our individuality is actually something we share. And we all share the pervasive potential of our dreams, just as we share the warmth of the sun. My face, like my father’s face, receives the warmth.


[This post was inspired by conversation with my dreamworker friends Cynthia Bauman, Karen Melady, and Ben Peskoe—Thank you Cynthia, Karen, and Ben!]


  1. Mary Tiwari

    I love your blogs, Kiersten…especially this one. My mother made her transition in May after 10 years of progressive dementia. She lived across the street from us in an adult foster home. I wasn’t her caregiver but I visited her every day, took her to medical/dental appointments, made decisions regarding her care, and saw to it that she was a part of family gatherings. She always knew me and I’m so grateful for that but watching her slowly go downhill was heart-wrenching.
    Most of my dreams about her now are about caring for her, worrying about her health and making decisions about her well-being. I wake up exhausted. I know in time she will make her presence known to me. But, for now, I need to get my emotional strength back first.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for sharing this, Mary. It’s true for me, too—that sometimes we need to “get our emotional strength back” after a “letting go” process that is so intense and exhausting. Sometimes, I just let the dreams go as well (especially the ones that keep re-processing difficult experiences), making no effort to remember them, because I don’t need any more information or emotion for the moment. I figure the dreams will do their work, and in my waking life I can find room to rest and recover.

      So, it’s wise of you to recognize that the timing may not be right (yet) for powerful “visitation” dreams—yet the connection with your mother is still there underneath the exhausting experience of her care and decline. May you continue to feel the healing, and the connection, in new ways as time goes on.

  2. Metka

    Sharing grief and talking about death in our society which wants to be happy and doesn’t want to know about such things feels to me like acceptance in action. Kirsten, thank you so much for another beautiful post! There are so many things in it that resonate: when my grandmother died her face was just as composed and beautiful as you describe; I too believe that we are all connected, in our thoughts, intentions, happiness and grief. We miss our loved ones when they leave us but we also need to accept their departure and let go. By writing about it we do that. My father died a few months ago and I too feel the need to express my thoughts as my way of grieving and accepting.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Metka, your resonance touches me—and, of course, it’s just what I was trying to express in the post… It is so moving that we recognize one another and can feel this connection in dreaming and grieving. Blessings, and many thanks.

  3. Marjorie

    What a beautiful post and what a charming photo. I love seeing the young Kirsten. Is Sandi your dad’s wife?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Marjorie! Yes, Sandi is my dad’s wife. She took such good care of him.

      I think my dad probably took that photo of me—he was the photographer in the family. Most of the time, he drove us nuts, making us pose uncomfortably for ages… but since I don’t look impatient and cranky, this must have been a more spontaneous snapshot!

      • Diana

        This was wonderful Kirsten. The photo is perfect and makes me think of mom and dad peacefully looking up towards what is next. Love you and thank you for expressing so much wonder, pain and love in your posts. D

        • kirstenbackstrom

          Thank you, Didi, for being such a wonderful sister. Going through all this together is what made it bearable. If it weren’t for you, I don’t think I would have had the heart to write about it…
          Much love.

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