Studio for the Healing Arts

Dreams of Death and Dying


Have you ever wondered why dreams seem to be so preoccupied with the subject of loss and death? Are there any of us as adults who haven't dreamed that somebody was trying to kill us, that we were trying to kill someone else or simply that someone we loved had died? Some studies suggest that up to 25% of children's' dreams are nightmares and in most of these of course,the child awakens in fear for his or her life. What's going on here?

The answer becomes clear when we understand that our dreams are rooted in the reality of nature's laws, not those of society. As Swiss analyst, Carl Jung, put it, "The dream is a little hidden door into the innermost and most secret recess of the psyche, an opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was ego-consciousness...".

So you may ask, what is natural law? The laws of nature are from our perspective, amoral -- lacking in conscience. There's always a part of us that feels badly when for example, we see a film of a young deer attacked by a pack of wolves. We're always choosing sides, trying to judge right from wrong, good from bad--and that attempt is necessary if our human consciousness is to evolve. Yet, in nature the wolves are not bad or evil, but simply a required part of the natural system. The law or lesson we learn from nature is that all life--the hunters and the hunted--is part of an endless cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. Put another way, the ground of life is eternal, but its shape and form is ever changing. Much like our individual lives, each wave in the ocean is unique, yet each comes and goes while the ocean--their source--remains.

The stories of our dreams are based in this natural wisdom. When we dream about death, we are dreaming about a process of change--an ending that makes way for a new beginning. We must stay mindful that most often the people in our dreams--friends, family, and strangers--are parts of ourselves. Therefore, when we dream of a cherished friend's death, usually it's not a literal prediction, but instead reflects the death of that part of ourselves-- that identity, set of values, attitude toward life--that is no longer helpful or relevant. Our psyche is calling us to see the need to let go and grieve some cherished way of viewing ourselves or relating to others that is standing in the way of our growth. When a person dies or is killed in your dream, ask yourself, " What values or attitudes are unique to that person and how have I been identifying with him /her?" That is the part that may be changing.

This is why so many dreams of children are about being attacked or their life threatened. Even more than adults, children are in a very speeded up process of change and growth emotionally. This means that for every frequent step of growth they are called to take, there is a loss, an ending to deal with. A classic example is adolescence when we find it so hard to lose our prized status as children in order to gain the privileges of adulthood.

Thus children have many threatening dreams of loss and death in part, because they are required so often to give up what is secure and familiar and continually fashion a new identity. Their dreams reflect the natural fear that they and all of us have in the face of change--the fear of loss--even when we suspect that the change is clearly for the better. To paraphrase an old maxim: Life is a hard teacher. First she gives us the test and then the lesson.

Adding to the problem is the cultural myth by which we live. Our society makes death even more difficult to accept because we are asked to believe that loss and death are our fault, our "personal failure" to be somehow more in control. We become angry with ourselves because we view the experience of loss as a sign of inadequacy and reason to feel shame rather than as a natural part of the cycle of life.

I'll share with you a lesson about this I received from a dream in a period of my life when I was intent on being nice at all costs, overly concerned with not hurting anyone and protecting them from feeling any sort of loss, rejection or pain.

I dreamed that I was driving down a country lane across which cute little ducklings were being herded. I turned my car around to drive the other way, but it simply ran backwards until many ducklings were run over. Aghast and horrified, I apologized to the duck herder who then admonished me with great kindness saying: "Many of these ducklings would have died if left on their own in nature. There's pain and death in life and you must face that."

I learned from my dream mentor the inevitability of loss. I also learned that pain is a great teacher and there was no way I could or should take responsibility for always protecting others from experiencing their own losses.

I think that's part of our fascination with Superman and Wonder Woman--and the host of superheroes and heroines whose mission it is to rescue everybody. At the time of my duckling dream, I had another recurring dream in which it was actually my responsibility to kill Superman. The dream series stopped when I finally found a way to kill him - it wasn't easy. Having accepted the test, I learned the lesson: In his last breath, as Superman lay dying in my arms, he raised his head and looked right in my eyes. "Thank you, he said. Thank you so much."

What I learned that night was another affirmation of the need to accept the losses that growth entails. To continue growing I needed to take an active role in "killing" or letting go once and for all of that Superman part of me--a part obviously very thankful and relieved to be put out of his misery--a part of me suffering with the impossible burden of keeping every day cheery, bright and pain free for myself, family and friends.

In nature all things pass. As the Buddha reminded us, it's our attachment to permanence and control, our refusal to let go and grieve which ironically causes our greatest suffering. We are called by our dreams to understand that death is a part of an unending cycle of change and to trust in the continuity of life even as it seems to be slipping away before our very eyes.

I'll leave you with the story of an elderly lady who had been frightened of her immanent death, but who died in peace the next day after this dream.

"I saw a candle lit on the windowsill of my hospital room. Everything got dark and then suddenly I was on the other side of the window looking in from outside. The candle was still burning."

The reassurance this dream brought to the woman allowed her a peaceful death. She died confident not in a 'belief', but in the direct knowledge and experience gained from the dream--that life and death are different only by virtue of our perspective. Our dreams teach us that the drama of life is always changing but the flame is eternal.

May your dreams guide you swiftly and well along your path.

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