What Do the Dreams of the Departed Tell Us?

Mysterious Ways editor Hilary Ribons had a dream three days later of her grandfather who passed away. She turns to experts for the interpretation.

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- Posted on Jul 16, 2018

A portrait of Jacques Ribbons at about the age he appeared in granddaughter Hilary's dream.

My grandfather Jacques was a man of few words. A sharp dresser who always wore pressed khakis, a polo shirt and a gold chain. He’d sweep me into his arms, his Ralph Lauren Polo cologne so strong, it made my eyes tear. “Hello, my grand­daughter,” he’d say, his deep voice overlaid with a vague European ac­cent. As if he was from everywhere but nowhere in particular, which was kind of true.

Grandpa was a Holocaust survivor. At 14, he was sent to the Blechham­mer labor camp, near Kozle, Poland. He later survived a 200-mile Nazi death march and concentration camps Gross-Rosen and Buchen­wald, where he shared Barrack 66 with Elie Wiesel. Following liberation by the U.S. Army, he went to an or­phanage at the Rothschild Mansion in Versailles, France. Two years later, he moved to America. He served in the Korean War, settled in California and raised a family of five. Grandpa rarely talked about the horrors he saw, though I knew he carried the pain with him. When he died in 2016, at 88, I found myself questioning—was Grandpa Jacques finally at peace?

Three days after he died, I got an answer. I had a dream, if you could call it that. It was so much more. I saw myself walking toward a Jewish mourning candle (which in real life had been lit that night), until I felt compelled to turn around. There was Grandpa, walking toward me. The last time I’d seen him, at Thanksgiving, he’d been weary and withdrawn. In the dream, he was beaming at me. His hair was still white, but he couldn’t have been more than 60, his face lineless, luminous. He wore a pink polo shirt with a gold chain peeking out. I could smell the Polo cologne. Smiling, he said, “I’m good.”

Read more: How to Interpret Dreams About Deceased Loved Ones

The dream was so unlike anything I’d ever experienced that the power of it has never left me. I assumed it was a rare occurrence, a coping mechanism. But then I came across story after story of others who had dreamed of their deceased loved ones in the days after their death. Like Mysterious Ways reader Billie Wilson. Her husband, Buddy, passed away in 2007. At the time he died, Buddy had been visually impaired and needed a walker.

Three days after he died, Billie had a dream. She saw Buddy in the doorway of her bedroom. He stood without a walker and wore a bright shirt. Like Grandpa Jacques, he was recognizable but spry. Full of life. Even his bald head shone. He spoke just three words: “Everything looks fine.” From those words, Billie came to under­stand that Buddy wasn’t just okay. God had restored his sight.

Billie’s dream was so similar to mine that I couldn’t help but wonder— are the dreams of the deceased more than a figment of our grieving imaginations? Could the dead be showing up in our dreams for a rea­son? And, if so, does their radiant appearance hold some clue to what awaits us in the afterlife?

I took my questions to neuroscien­tist Patrick McNamara, author of Dreams and Visions and associate professor of neurology at Boston University’s School of Medicine. Dr. McNamara studies dreams from a scientific and spiritual perspective. He says the type of dreams Billie and I experienced are actually quite common. They have a name— visitation dreams—and are dreams in which the deceased appears to give a message to the dreamer.

“Most people seem to have visita­tion dreams after they’ve lost some­one they love,” Dr. McNamara says. “Nobody knows why. But [the dreamer] feels comforted, as if they’ve communicated beyond the grave.”

There isn’t much formal research into the phenomenon, but visitation dreams have been documented across cultures and throughout his­tory, Dr. McNamara says. From anecdotal reports, a number of common patterns emerge. The dreams, for in­stance, tend to conclude with a short message of reassurance, such as “Don’t worry” or “I’m okay.” This mes­sage can be spoken or communicat­ed telepathically. The most distinctive quality? Visitation dreams don’t feel like dreams. They’re vivid sensory ex­periences, more real than real.

Read more: He Started to Give Thanks After This Traumatic Experience

“Most dreams, if we remember them, we think, How strange or fun­ny,” Dr. McNamara says. “But with a visitation dream, the dreamer feels as if they’ve really interacted with the person. Sometimes they can smell their perfume, feel their hug or hear the tone of their voice. They wake up without a doubt that it was a true meeting with that person. It’s an in­credibly moving experience.”

So does that mean the dead actu­ally visit us in our dreams? Not quite, says Laura Harris Smith, a pastor and author of Seeing the Voice of God. When the deceased come to us in our sleep, it’s God doing the talking.

“I don’t believe that the dead are actually visiting us,” Smith says. “It is a gift from God to relay information using a face we trust. And some­times it’s that deceased person that we need information about.”

Smith recalls the visitation dream her great-nephew had. He was in elementary school when his father died. The boy’s older siblings found closure. But he struggled to process his grief. He wondered where his father really was now. One morning, he bounded up to the breakfast table. “I saw Daddy last night in a dream,” he said. “He told me he was okay.” His family didn’t know what to make of it.

But they couldn’t dispute the boy’s change. He had finally found peace. He was happy again. But why might one person in a family get a visitation dream and not everyone else? It’s not necessarily God playing favorites, Smith says. “Perhaps the person needs further proof so they can move on,” she says. “And God often gives one person the dream and another the interpretation, so that we need one another and don’t become an island.”

What’s most striking is that the visitation dreams often leave the dreamer, like Smith’s great-nephew, somehow changed. That reveals a great deal not only about the supernatural quality of the dream but the one giving it. “God is leaning toward us in these dreams and giving us a revelation of peace,” Smith says. “That shows he’s a loving father.” Tom Barkey, Ph.D., lead pastor at Church of Grace in Yorba Linda, California, agrees.

Read more: Her Grandpa Jacques Sent a Message from Beyond

He’s heard many accounts of visitation dreams from parishioners over the past 40 years. Most frequently, he says, they occur within five days of a loved one’s death. “I’ve talked to quite a few people who had this question in their heads: Is my relative okay?” Dr. Barkey says. “These dreams come from God’s love so you don’t have to worry about your loved one.” The physical appearance of the deceased in these dreams, especially for those who last saw their loved ones in poor health, is also of great comfort to the dreamer.

According to Dr. McNamara, the dead often appear vigorous. My grandfather seemed decades younger than the last time I’d seen him, the picture of health. For good reason, Dr. Barkey notes. Perhaps I saw my grandfather in his heavenly body. “I think you had a peek into heaven,” Dr. Barkey says.

“Paul writes in Corinthians that our old body passes away and we’re given a new one. There’s no sickness in heaven. I think you saw your grandfather in his glory.”That doesn’t necessarily mean we are all younger in heaven. The fact that I saw Grandpa Jacques in his sixties might just be because that was the age most recognizable to me, Dr. Barkey says. Grandpa could’ve appeared to his brother, for instance, as a teenager. “Some say when we get to heaven we’ll be 33 because that’s the age Jesus died on the cross,” Dr. Barkey says. “But people who’ve had near-death experiences have seen children and adults. We will all be different ages. But we won’t be marred by this world.”

Like my grandfather, who appeared aged yet ageless. Free of trauma or pain. Maybe visitation dreams reveal how our loved ones will be restored. How we too will be one day. Fully ourselves. Or, as Grandpa Jacques put it, “good.”

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