In a pandemic, sometimes a dream is the only way to say goodbye. Here's why it still counts

Researcher Joshua Black says "grief dreams" can be key to healing during a pandemic.

Dreamers say even while asleep, small moments with loved ones are a gift

As the world struggles during the pandemic to make space for people to heal, Joshua Black, who has a PhD in psychology, says tapping into dreams about grief can help. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, Sheryl Nelsen Hutton of St. Catharines, Ont., dreamed she was standing with her dad on a beach. 

He was dizzy, and when he fell down, Nelsen Hutton cradled him in her arms. When her mother appeared, Nelsen Hutton told her that her father was gone.

It mirrored her father's real-life final moments. 

"All of a sudden it hit me. I couldn't be with him," she said. "This was my dad's way of allowing me the privilege and honour of being with him when he died. That's the way it felt."

Nelsen Hutton, who runs a self-help blog, says she carried an immense amount of guilt after her father Myron Nelsen died in Oregon in February. He'd always been there for her, Nelsen Hutton said, but she was only able to attend his visitation through Zoom. 

While she's thankful she even had the opportunity to do that, she said her dream was "life changing."

"I felt like it was a gift. It was like a thread got pulled so that I was closer." 

Sheryl Nelsen Hutton of St. Catharines, Ont., remembers her father as someone who was always there for her. She says her dream gave her an opportunity to be there for him. (Submitted by Sheryl Nelsen Hutton)

As people around the world share more vivid dreams about the pandemic, Joshua Black, a researcher with a PhD in psychology, says one category seems to have stayed a secret.

Grief dreams, which involve someone who has passed away, aren't getting the same traction as other pandemic dreams, he said. That's a problem, he said, because they have both the power to hinder, but also to heal. 

"There's not enough awareness out there on what we can do to help people who are having these types of dreams," said Black.

People might be afraid of sharing dreams involving the deceased because they don't understand them, don't want to tip-toe around family dynamics, be judged, or have someone else try to tell them what it means, he said.

The dreams change over time as people work through their grief, he said, but also arise when trying to work through issues in life, like a divorce or the pandemic itself. 

"If you're spiritual, you may say it's a visitation, because they feel a lot differently than normal dreams," he said. "But even if you're not … you're still having these very beautiful dreams."

Black, a grief researcher, speaker, author, consultant, and online course instructor, hosts a podcast called 'Grief Dreams.' (Joshua Black)

Black believes they can ultimately help people, especially "when the world is in a place where it can't fully help the bereaved to the extent it did prior." 

Grieving during the pandemic

People aren't able to attend funerals or connect with loved ones in their last moments. The pandemic has caused worldwide trauma and loss, he said, and not being able to grieve as before can have a huge affect on healing. 

"That's what we're trying to do in life is try to normalize the experiences of dying and also of grief. It's such a challenging time, with not being able to do rituals or certain things [to] get that support. It's OK if you get it in your dreams."

Like anything in life, Black said, a crucial part of the grieving process is finding a place to share experiences without feeling judged. He runs a "Grief Dreams" podcast, publishes academic research on the subject, and recently spoke with CBC's Conrad Collaco

"For a lot of the time, it's to comfort them, to provide some sort of emotional regulation and to feel connected again," he said of the experiences. 

Helping the bereaved

He's heard people share a higher frequency of dreams of people who passed some time ago during the pandemic. The dream gives them space to spend time together, he said, which helps people with loneliness. 

While negative dreams involving the deceased are generally less common, Black said, they can affect people's mental and physical health. Dreams that re-enact scenarios — like being unable to get there on time — can take a toll and perpetuate guilt. 

As different cultures and religions see dreams differently, he said, it's crucial that people research the best way to help others who might be sharing these dreams. 

"Everyone in every situation that deals with the bereaved needs to understand this because they're going to have to talk about this in some way."

It comes down to love

Deborah Stapleford, also from St. Catharines, has had various dreams involving her parents, who have both passed away. 

One night in January — which marked two years since her mom's death — Stapleford dreamed she was talking to her parents, who stood in the golden glow of the wallpapered walls of their old home. She asked them where they go at night. 

Her parents exchanged a knowing smile, she said, and told her they like to go "home." Then her father stepped back so Stapleford and her mother could share a long, close hug. 

"I felt, when I woke up, as comforted as if I had asked for it and got it," Stapleford said, describing the way she held her mom and felt the threads of the red turtleneck she wore.

"It was so good."

Stapleford says she has deep gratitude for the dreams involving her loved ones who have passed. (Submitted by Deborah Stapleford)

The next day, Stapleford wore that turtleneck, baked cookies and dropped them off on the porches of her family members to honour her mother. 

"To have a little glimpse of them here or there, once in a while, is awesome." 

Black said such moments reflect the importance of not discounting these experiences. 

"Overall, the main theme of these dreams is that love still exists."