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Why we have 'grief dreams' when a loved one dies and what the dreams might mean

To escape grief that comes with the death of a loved one, even sleep may provide no relief. During holidays, new research says, it is more common to have so-called "grief dreams." Joshua Black, a researcher at Brock University studies "grief dreams." He explains what they mean and why we have them.
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To escape grief that comes with the death of a loved one, even sleep may provide no relief. During holidays, new research says, it is more common to have so-called "grief dreams." Joshua Black, a researcher at Brock University studies "grief dreams." He explains what they mean and why we have them. 7:44
 

To escape the grief that comes with the death of a loved one, even sleep may provide no relief.

At this joyful time of year, new research says, it is more common to have so-called "grief dreams." Joshua Black recently earned his doctorate in psychology from Brock University based on his study of grief dreams and his research shows that 86 per cent of people who have lost a spouse or a partner, for example, have experienced grief dreams.

Black spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about what "grief dreams" mean and why we have them. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above. 

Joshua Black, "grief dream" researcher at Brock University 

Joshua Black has his doctorate in psychology from Brock University based on his study of grief dreams. (Joshua Black)

What made you want to study the dreams of people who have lost loved ones?

It really wasn't by choice. I lost my father. He died when I was an undergrad. It was a dark time for me. It was the first time I suffered a loss and it really broke me. The world felt joyless. It was about three months after that I had my first dream. He was in my room. I was able to say goodbye — he had died very suddenly — and that I loved him. I gave him a hug. When I woke up all the joy came back to me. It was the most mysterious thing I had felt in my life to go from one state to another because of a dream.

That helped me with my own loss. I talked to other bereaved individuals. They had questions about why they were having dreams, or having negative dreams, or not having dreams while other people were and if it was even common. That's when I decided to go back to school and do my masters and PhD. to really investigate some of these questions because no one had at that time. So, I'm really pioneering research to help the bereaved. 

What are grief dreams typically about? Are they sad or happy?

The research shows that grief dreams tend to be positive. That's not what I was expecting even though that's what I had myself. I thought, based on dream research, these dreams should be negative because dreams represent our waking life and if we are sad and depressed our dreams tend to reflect that. For whatever reason, when the deceased is in the imagery the dreams are positive.  

A widow had a dream about her deceased husband. Her husband came to her and said 'I've been to the end of time and back and, you know what, I still love you.'- Joshua Black, researcher at Brock University

What might it mean if our grief dreams are sad or traumatic?

That's one of the questions I looked at. The research shows if there are greater post-traumatic symptoms of the loss you are more likely to have negative dreams. If you have unresolved issues, maybe guilt over something you had done or you have anger or blame someone, these are also related to negative dreams.  

You think that grief dreams are a good thing. They can even be helpful. Why?

The big thing is that it helps regulate our emotions. When you are in grief it can be hard to sleep, hard to function properly, hard to think — even problem solve. Grief is really about problem solving. By regulating our emotions, when we wake up, we feel that comfort. We look at life in a new way and the problem of the loved one being gone in a new way. It gives us encouragement to keep going and the motivation to process everything.

The other big thing these dreams do is it helps us maintain a continuing bond. A widow had a dream about her deceased husband. Her husband came to her and said 'I've been to the end of time and back and, you know what, I still love you.'

That has stayed with her over thirty years. She says it's one of the things she continues to hold on to remember that love.   

That's the mysterious nature of these dreams. They change people. There needs to be more research done. I'm just glad people are now talking about it.  

If you are around your family this holiday season — ask if anyone has had a dream of the deceased. You'll get amazing stories from adults and children.- Joshua Black, researcher at Brock University

Why are grief dreams common around Christmas and during holiday times?

Christmas is one of the few holidays where it's really about family. That's when we see our parents or grandparents. If they're not around it can trigger our grief. These dreams try to help comfort us. They can help comfort us and help us feel that joy again and some of that love. 

Why do you think it's important for us to talk about our grief dreams?

Because there is so little research in the field people think their grief dreams are rare. They are actually very, very common. Because people think they are rare they have these weird ideas on what they think these dreams may mean so they hide them. They don't want people to try to change their meaning. They don't want people to think they're crazy or are not yet 'over the loss.' Sometimes people don't share them because they don't want people to be jealous of the experience they had. I think that's interesting. 

Talking about it helps normalize the experience. It helps you share these dreams. If these dreams are impactful for you, it's a great starting point to start talking about your loss again. 

If you are around your family this holiday season — ask if anyone has had a dream of the deceased. You'll get amazing stories from adults and children. 
Joshua Black, a researcher who has studied the "grief dreams" of people who have had a loved one die, is shown here squatting by the grave of his father. (Cathy Majtenyi/Brock University)

About the Author

Conrad Collaco

Producer

Conrad Collaco is a CBC News producer for CBC Hamilton with extensive experience in online, television and radio news. Follow him on Twitter at @ConradCollaco, or email him at conrad.collaco@cbc.ca.

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