Why we have 'grief dreams' when a loved one dies and what the dreams might mean
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
What made you want to study the dreams of people who have lost loved ones?
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 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?
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.