Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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.

[Note: I shared a shorter version of this dream in my presentation for the PsiberDreaming Conference a few weeks before my father’s death: see “Dreaming and Daring.” The dream was also mentioned in two posts last summer: “After the Nightmare,” and “Game Over.” Clearly, this dream has “blown me away” on a lot of levels, and I’m still in the midst of absorbing its impact and integrating its wisdom.]

A few months before my mother’s death, and many months before my father’s death, I dreamed:

Death of Dream Seal: I’m visiting Mom in the hospital. To get to her, I pass through long corridors, and through a crowded room where a frail, elderly man is dying. I move past his bed, into the inner room, where Mom is supposed to be. When I arrive at her bedside, I find she’s a magnificent otter—with gold highlights in her glossy coat. After a moment’s hesitation, I accept this, telling her how beautiful and precious she is as I stroke her long back.

Now, the otter has become a seal, and the seal is Dad instead of Mom, and I accept this, too. I notice there is blood on my hand. Dad, the seal, is bleeding from a wound in his back. I shout for help while I try to stop the blood. There is more and more blood, too much blood. It is sticky on my hands, soaking into my shirt. The seal is vomiting blood and writhing in pain. I struggle to keep him alive. Finally, understanding that he is going to die, I tell him, “I love you, Dad, I love you.” A doctor (a “resident”) bursts into the room, but instead of helping, he brings a shotgun. I try to stop him, but he shoots the seal—several loud shocking bangs! Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sound of the shots. I wake overwhelmed with emotion.

In the moment of awakening, this dream seemed like a nightmare. A voice in my head was shouting, “No! No! No!” and at the same time a softer voice, deeper down, was repeating, “I love you, Dad, I love you.” That doctor (or “resident” healer within me) brought a shocking form of medicine. The fireworks felt horribly ironic—a dazzling starburst of celebration in response to an awful tragedy.

Yet, once my heartbeat had begun to slow to normal, the strongest emotion was overwhelming love and gratitude for my mother (that shining, astonishing otter!) and my father (that ungainly, graceful seal!)… How incredible to encounter them in this way!

The final, violent death of the dream seal took place off-stage, but the blood was everywhere in my imagination. I’d tried to hold it back, but couldn’t stop it. I could still feel the warmth and slippery stickiness of blood on my hands. It was life blood. It came from a wound in the back—perhaps in the past, or in a part of the self that is intimate but unreachable—a seemingly insignificant injury that led to a total outflowing, a total letting go. It was no longer the blood of one seal, but the blood of my whole family. It couldn’t be contained, or confined.

Over the next weeks, I returned to this dream again and again, touching it gingerly, as if cleaning an open wound with a soft cloth, wincing at the pain of it. Yet, there was beauty in this dream, along with pain. Both otters and seals are creatures that inhabit land and sea equally. Both are awkward on shore and glorious in the water. Both seem to revel in their lives, playing in the waves or basking in the sun. And seals, especially, have always been associated with shape-shifting in myths from all over the world. It was wonderful to know that my parents could be such creatures.

The Celts named shape-shifting seals Selkies. There’s one Selkie story I remember in particular: On midsummer’s eve, all the beautiful Selkies come ashore, take off their seal-skins and dance—naked and human—in the moonlight. They do not see that there’s someone hiding on the beach to watch them dance. When one Selkie goes off alone, enjoying her human form apart from the rest, she encounters the human being who was hiding, watching—and they fall in love. They cannot bear to be apart. So she chooses the human world, where she marries, has children, and lives a full human life with her beloved family. But eventually, the Selkie longs for her true home. She finds her sealskin, puts it on, and returns to the sea, leaving her loved ones behind…

This is the way our story goes. In some sense, I believe, we are all radiant, wild and utterly free beings who have chosen to live human lives in human bodies—to love and be loved. Yet, ultimately, we return to the infinite ocean where we belong.

I knew, when I dreamed this dream, that my parents would die soon. I’d known it all along, of course, but with the dream I felt the truth of it, and the beauty of it, as well as the grief.

In order to get to my mother’s hospital room in the dream, I have to pass a deathbed and bear witness to the reality of death. Then, I enter a fairy tale (my mother’s an otter! my father’s a seal!) where I am repeatedly called upon to accept, and accept again, the unpredictable changeable nature of those I hold most dear.

I accept my mother as she truly is; I accept my father as he truly is. I accept the rushing life-blood that can’t be held back. Finally, I even accept the shocking medicine and the painful celebration of our precious and fragile mortal lives. I celebrate our transformations, and the beauty of the dream we are living out together.

The big questions cannot be answered. But such questions do invite us to respond, again and again, in different ways at different times in our lives.

In my dreams, I am responding:

Where do we come from? A living ocean, constantly moving, in moonlight... What are we? Shape-shifters, swimmers, beloved dreamers… Where are we going? Back to the depths, into the infinite…



  1. traviswernet

    I feel the deep beauty of life and death swimming together here amid these potent and guiding reflections Kirsten – in reading and receiving the dream and your imaginings I am once more reminded of the vital and alive energy of dreams and dreaming and I thank you heartily! 🙂

    An idea I’ve been living with and road testing that feels true via experience, is that when we witness loved ones in their dying time(s), we see them shape-shift, especially when we court the dreams and it seems to me that the Dead aren’t lost, necessarily, though they are transformed and appear to me to be existing in the Otherworld… We may keep a realtionship with these ancestors, and it’s my sense that the dream above shows a path towards this, when I imagine it for myself.

    I offer that for what it’s worth, All Blessings and Many Thanks

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks, Travis! Your idea rings so true to me—and certainly reflects my experience of this dream as well as other experiences I’ve had with dying people. Your wisdom and insight are always inspiring! Blessings on your work—both your deep inner work and your expansive work in the world.

  2. samteixeira10

    Thank you for sharing this! As I prepare to teach my final class of the semester next week, on death and dying, I appreciate being able to read your reflections and think through my own.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Sam. Your students are lucky to have the benefit of your experience and reflections. I have so much respect for you and your work! Love you.

  3. Marilyn Hagar

    I’m so touched by this post. Thank you so much for writing it. There is such deep wisdom in the images and as I dream along with your dream, I have the kinesthetic experience of actually touching these creatures, the blood and these deep truths. Thank you so much for sharing the dream and your responses.

    I cared for my elderly parents in my home for 7 years before they moved into an assisted living facility. My father died six months after that move at 94. He had a cold and just didn’t wake up one morning. The night/morning he died I awoke with a dream that there is to be a huge family reunion. I am returning after being away for 40 some years. When I walk into the room where we will be gathering, there are rows of banquet tables. Women are cooking off to the left. I know all the old ones (those who have died already though I wasn’t aware of that in the dream) are up a ramp just beyond the tables and in the living room. I’m getting around the tables so I can go see them but I’m stopped by the placement of the last table and can’t go on. I look up and see my great aunt, someone dear to my father, standing in the doorway of the living room. I woke up and had just a moment to reflect on the miracle of seeing my great aunt, just as she always was. It was so joyful, like she was waiting there and the room was full of expectancy. The phone rang in waking life and the nurse informed me that my father was unresponsive. Having this dream helped me so much in the early days after my father’s passing. I felt like I had accompanied him right up to that transitional place as he joined “the dead” in the LIVING ROOM. Dreams are such companions in difficult times.

    My mother turns 100 years old in May!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Marilyn, what a powerful dream! I’m grateful that you shared it—and also grateful for your response to my post. When you write: “Having this dream helped me so much… I felt like I had accompanied him right up to that transitional place”—it really speaks to my experience as well. And it seems you truly visited the place where ancestors and descendents come together in “reunion”! How wonderful that dreams can transcend the separation of the generations at death—we’re all still invited to the same party, ultimately. And I love the paradox of your father joining the dead in the “living room”… Thank you so much!

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