Grief dream expert Dr. Joshua Black explains how we can interpret dreams about deceased loved ones and why they occur.
Posted in , Apr 29, 2020
Dr. Joshua Black will never forget the first dream he had about his father shortly after he passed. In it, his dad stood on the other side of the room, looking healthy and peaceful. Dr. Black called out to his father, “I love you. I’m going to miss you.”
Dr. Black isn’t alone in his experience. His study published in the journal Dreaming found that 86 percent of participants dreamed of loved ones after they’d recently passed. For Dr. Black, this first dream was followed by a series of vivid dreams of his father. They affected him so deeply that they inspired him to pursue a Ph.D. in such dreams, which he calls grief dreams. He’s gone on to become one of the foremost experts in this emerging field. We sat down with him to learn more about the psychology behind these powerful dreams and what the experiences mean for the dreamer.
What are the characteristics of a grief dream?
A grief dream is any kind of dream you’ve had after the loss of a loved one. It can be a symbolic dream reflecting your emotions surrounding the loss. For example, you’re feeling overwhelmed by grief, so you dream something collapses on you, reflecting that crushing feeling. Or, it can be a dream in which the deceased is mentioned, perhaps by an angel or a hospital worker. Or you can dream that the deceased is present—this type of dream interests people the most, and it’s where I’ve focused a lot of my academic research.
What forms do the grief dreams in which the deceased are present commonly take?
I’ve found seven common types of these dreams. There are rationalization dreams, in which the dreamer tries to understand why the deceased appears to be alive and present, and others in which the dreamer helps their loved one cross over into the afterlife. Sometimes the dreamer sees the deceased as sick or dead. Similar in tone is the type of dream in which the deceased expresses disapproval of the dreamer. There are also separation dreams, in which the deceased and the dreamer are kept apart by a physical obstacle, such as a wall. The most positive dreams are the ones in which the deceased offers comfort through words or actions, or dreams in which the dreamer sees them, healthy and happy.
Do people have more negative grief dreams or positive ones?
Dream research has shown that when people have dreams in general, they have more negative dreams than positive ones. That’s simply because of daily stress, which gets incorporated. After trauma, research shows these dreams tend to become even more negative. So you’d think that grief dreams would follow this pattern and that people would have more negative grief dreams than positive ones. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. When the deceased appear in dreams, they tend to be positive. In one of my studies, about 90 percent of people reported having at least one positive dream of the deceased, as opposed to 44 percent who had at least one negative. It points to something different going on with these types of dreams. They’re a very special experience. Many people I’ve spoken with have told me these dreams also feel different from an average dream—they’re more vivid.
So what does it mean if you’re one of the people who has a negative grief dream?
Negative grief dreams don’t mean you had a negative relationship with the person who’s passed. They are often a reflection of the distress the dreamer is experiencing after losing someone.This is especially true if you’re suppressing your emotions about the death of a loved one, which isn’t uncommon. I did that after my dad passed. In this case, the negative dream can help you work through feelings you’ve been avoiding in your waking life.
Why are these dreams important?
Remembering your grief dreams can provide an opportunity to reflect on and work through your grief in a new way. For instance, my father died very suddenly, and my dreams gave me a chance to say goodbye to him. Some dreams allow the bereaved to continue to feel bonded with the deceased, which can be helpful after a loss. Grief dreams can also lead people to place more value on their dreams in general. Dreams can provide a new tool to understand ourselves. I believe that the more we understand about ourselves, the more we can love ourselves and in turn love God.
What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned about grief dreams during your research?
First off, how common they are. In a sample of bereaved partners and spouses, 86 percent had a dream of the deceased. But even more than that, how common they are after all kinds of loss. And of course, I was fascinated to discover that people experienced grief dreams before knowing their loved one had passed.
What do grief dreams of spouses look like?
They generally fall into one of the larger dream categories I mentioned earlier, such as the dreamer being comforted by their deceased loved one. For example, one woman told me that her husband came to her in a dream and told her not to worry about him, because he was with Jesus and no longer suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, it’s also common for a deceased spouse to appear in a dream and approve of their partner remarrying. There’s a lot of love and positivity in these dreams.
How common are pregnancy loss dreams?
One of my studies found that 58 percent of people who’d lost a pregnancy had a grief dream—both mothers and their partners. These parents have never met their child but nonetheless dream about the baby lost. The child can appear in these dreams as a newborn in their arms, as a toddler saying, “I love you,” or even as a teenager saying, “It wasn’t your fault.”
How about the dreams that people have of deceased pets?
My study found that 76 percent of people whose pets had passed had dreams about them. Of course, the major difference is that the animal doesn’t generally talk. These dreams tend to reflect the pet’s life and what they and the dreamer used to enjoy doing together. So, for instance, the dream might include taking a dog to a favorite dog park or petting a beloved cat.
Do young children have bereavement dreams?
A lot of people forget that children can have these kinds of dreams. Even young children who don’t yet fully understand death—but are nonetheless trying to—have these dreams. It’s important to ask our children and the kids we serve if they’re having these dreams. Sometimes the dreams will start years after the person the child is grieving has passed away. One woman told me that she began dreaming of her deceased father when she was 13. She’d never actually met him because he had died before she was born. But she formed a bond with him through these dreams that sustained her as she continued to grow up. He’d give her fatherly advice in these dreams.
You mentioned grief dreams before knowledge of the loss. Can you explain what these are and why they might occur?
Yes. Some people have grief dreams before they are notified that their loved ones have passed. Usually, in these dreams, a loved one comes to them and says goodbye, often in a very positive way. Sometimes the dreamer knew the person was unwell, and other times they did not. I can’t explain it. I think in this case, there’s an invisible tie between these two people. They’re connected somehow.
In your opinion, how are these dreams spiritual?
Interestingly, people of all religions and varying levels of faith experience grief dreams. Some think these dreams are unhealthy or that they have a negative spiritual component, but my research has shown the healing powers of these dreams. And when I prayed on it, a few verses from Matthew 12 stuck in my mind. It’s the story of the Pharisees telling Jesus his healing powers are from Satan and Jesus responds that if his powers were from Satan, his kingdom would not survive. One of the main questions I get is, “Do you believe that this is a visitation?” And I can’t determine that. No one can.
How do you know if a dream experience is from God?
This is a tough one, and I don’t really have an answer for it. I do know that these dreams can make people happier and improve their faith, so perhaps they are gifts from God. Also, the meaning of a dream comes from the ability of the dreamer to make sense of the imagery. Therefore, how we interpret our dreams is the cornerstone to knowing if the dream comes from God.
Any tips on how to better understand grief dreams?
Personally, I found dream journaling and studying what the Bible has to say about dreams to be really helpful tools in understanding my dreams. To understand dreams, you first have to understand your own dream language and symbols. I always tell people to start with the emotions in the dream and connect them to waking life. Then work from there to connect the symbols to waking life.