'Big Dreams' - The Threads Of Our Lives?

"Our dreams have to do with how we internalize the people we love" - Pamela McCarthy, director of counseling services at Smith College.

Rebecca Cathcart in the July 3, 2007 issue of The NY Times wrote an article headlined “Winding Through ‘Big Dreams’ Are the Threads of Our Lives” from which the following is excerpted:

I was a windowless office when my mother called to say my father had died. It wasn’t a surprise. He had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer the year before. At the end of the second week, I had a dream that remains crisp and vivid in my mind. I sat up in bed and saw my father across the room. His figure was full and healthy and framed by the yellow light that glowed in the stairwell outside my door. He was grinning, green eyes on me, and listening to sounds from the dining room below, the clinking of plates and the voices of my extended family laughing and sharing memories of him. He raised his dark eyebrows and laughed with them.

Back to life” or “visitation” dreams, are vivid and memorable dreams of the dead. They are a particularly potent form of what Carl Jung called “big dreams,” the emotionally vibrant ones we remember for the rest of our lives. “Big dreams are transformative,” Roger Knudson said. “The dreaming imagination does not just harvest images from remembered experience, it has a “poetic creativity” that connects the dots and “deforms the given,” turning scattered memories and emotions into vivid, experiential vignettes that can help us to reflect on our lives.”

Grief itself is transformative. It is a process of disassembly. The bereaved must let go of the selves they were, as well as the loved ones they have lost. The dreams we have while grieving are an important part of that process. “Our dreams have to do with how we internalize the people we love,” said Pamela McCarthy. “You learn to look within for the loved one and the particular function that person played in your life, such as caretaking or guidance in the case of a parent. This becomes part of a function that you can provide for yourself.”

Cultural narratives in regions like Vietnam and North and South America consider such dreams actual encounters with the spirits of lost loved ones. “This notion is so widely shared by traditions all across the globe that some scholars have gone so far as to argue that religion itself actually originated in dream experience,” Kelly Bulkeley wrote in his book “Transforming Dreams: Learning Spiritual Lessons From the Dreams You Never Forget” (2000).

Current dream study has its epic narrative in the life and dreams of the pseudonymous Ed, a widower who recorded 22 years of dreams about Mary, his deceased wife. Ed made his journal available to G. William Domhoff, a leading dream theorist. Dr. Domhoff categorized the dreams and cross-referenced them with Ed’s waking reflections on his wife, their marriage and her death from ovarian cancer on June 15, 1980. In a path-breaking study in 2004, Dr. Domhoff asserted that Ed’s dreams could not be the nonsensical noise of a restless brain stem. They represented the currents of loss, love and confusion in Ed’s waking life.

Ed and Mary’s love began on a seaside boardwalk in 1947. They wed a year later, when Ed was 25 and Mary 22. In his more comforting dreams, Mary appears young and radiant as she did that day, with dark hair and bewitching eyes. In Ed’s dreams, his companionship with Mary and her withdrawal during an arduous illness are recurrent themes. Sometimes, his mind weaves these threads together to poignant effect, as when Ed finds himself standing across the street from where Mary sits in a car, unable to cross over. Other times, they form jumbled, comic events. Ed and Mary are lost in a city. They see Jerry Seinfeld and ask him for directions. Soon, Ed realizes that Mary has left with Mr. Seinfeld. He broods behind a building and begins to sink in quicksand. Almost 20 years after Mary’s death, Ed dreams he is walking down a hallway in their old apartment. It leads to Mary’s hospital room, where she lies, gaunt and still. Her head, according to Ed’s journal, is “hanging over the top edge of the bed.” Her hair is sparse, as it was after chemotherapy. “I sit on the bed,” he writes, “and cradle her in my arms.”

Dreams of the dead keep alive our connections to lost loved ones. “Big dreams, those dreams that stop you dead in your tracks, are for precisely that purpose,” said Dr. Knudson, whose father died three years ago. “They pull us out of our headlong rush forward. They yank us back down from our schedule books and our jobs. He continued, “I don’t want to get over my father. That’s not to say that I want to suffer on a daily basis or that I don’t want to understand that he is dead. But I look forward to dreams in which my father will come again. What does it mean to ‘get over’ it? I think that is crazy.”

Have you experienced “back to life” or “visitation” dreams?

Posted July 8, 2007


Anonymous said...

I have experienced one such dream.

After my wife died of cancer I had a lot of difficulty visualizing her except how she looked during her illness. Then I had a ‘visitation’ dream which occurred the night before Easter Sunday. I dreamt that I was with some family members in the home she had lived in with her parents prior to our marriage.

In the dream I knew that my wife had died. However, as I looked out of the window I was greatly surprised to see her walking up a path in the garden to the house. I rushed to the door and greeted her. She appeared radiant and in full health and I commented on how amazingly well she looked. She asked me to kiss her and then we walked up to the door of the room where the other family members were gathered. I paused in the hall to check something – she smiled and went into the room closing the door behind her.

That was the end of the dream. I woke feeling very contented that wherever she was in death she was OK and into my head came the words of C. S. Lewis at the end of his book ‘A Grief Observed’:

"So I prayed; and as distant as she was, she smiled and gazed at me. Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain."

Jim Fletcher said...

Anonymous: In what way was the dream different from the normal run-of-the-mill dreams? Could you also say a little bit about the long term effect of the dream?

Jim Fletcher

Anonymous said...


Usually when one wakes up one knows that one has been dreaming. This dream did not seem to have a dividing line between the sleeping and the waking state. It was extremely clear, vivid, normal etc. It left me with the feeling that instead of waking up I had just walked from one room into another.

I would not have accepted that such dreams exist prior to this experience.

Andrew Wilson said...

I took a look at one of the links in this thread


which led me to


I am quite amazed reading the story of Ed at this website as my dreams of my own wife after her death are eerily similar to his. The thing that struck me most is that in the early dreams after my wife’s death she appeared assuring me that she was ok and doing well. Ed’s experience was identical.

I was also greatly intrigued with this article


I recommend that anyone who has experienced the loss of a spouse take a look at these links.

Thank you for bringing this material to my attention. It is quite amazing and I think that people who are experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one will find much of interest in this material.

We are all in the same boat together!


Megan Zamprelli said...


Although I never experienced these types of dream after my husband, Paul, passed on from prostate cancer I couldn’t help but smile at the recounting of Ed’s remarriage to Bonnie just four months after Mary died.

I have seen this mistake made many times with my friends – a second marriage which quickly runs into trouble. Children angry and resentful with the second spouse seeing him/her as having taken a place not rightfully theirs. One male friend of mine remarried after his wife had died of cancer and moved away from both sets of children to ‘be on their own’.

Within a few years they were living in separate rooms in their house locking doors so the other could not enter.

You can see Ed’s dreams reflecting this estrangement from his second wife …. Mary doesn’t give her approval of Bonnie and Mary is always the one in the dream looking radiant and beautiful.

I wonder if grief counselors go into this sort of stuff with bereaved persons. The reactions seemed to be quite common across a wide variety of people. But on the other hand I suppose not many people avail themselves of such services and then fall into mistakes that history knows are going to be repeated.


Anonymous said...


Before my wife died I would watch her doing certain things with the intent that after she died I would remember those specific things.

For example, one time we were in our local shopping mall and we decided to break up to go to different shops. I watched her going down on the escalator to a lower floor and said to myself that I will always be able to stand on the same spot and see her on that elevator.

I also was very conscious while taking her photos knowing that these would be all that I had after she died.

Megan Zamprelli said...

I have been reading through more of Ed’s dreams. In one of them Ed reported

“Somehow I know I must initiate a discussion with Mary about her impending death. I have to broach the subject, ask her how she feels about dying, and ask her if she has any last wishes. Does she want to give me instructions about anything she wants arranged after her death? Surprisingly, Mary is receptive to this discussion.

That is so similar to a real life situation with my husband. About a week before his death I gave him some material about a peaceful death which he read with great interest and then commented that it was unfortunate that this was our of our control. Because of this comment I felt much more at ease a week later when I authorized his physicians not to proceed with life extending measures.

I have been fascinated in reading this material. Somehow it is very reassuring that although we all have different lives and experiences there is so much that we still experience that is singularly common to each of us.


Anonymous said...


I agree. It has been very surprising to me how many of Ed’s dreams are similar to my own experience. Here is another example

Mary says, "This must be hard on you, Ed." She recognizes the pressures under which I am living. I cannot believe that with all of her suffering, she is concerned about me and my feelings. This is so much like Mary -- to put aside her own pain and suffering and to think of others. Her concern for me -- when she has a life-threatening disease -- just broke me up.

I saw numerous examples of this behavior during my wife’s illness. I could not understand how anyone in her condition could be showing more concern about others known to her whose problems were really trivial to what she was experiencing.

Quite amazing and a lesson in life and living that will forever remain with me.