Dreams, Dying and Death – by Helena Daly
Art by Michael Amos
DREAMS, VISIONS AND DEATH-BED ENCOUNTERS
By Dr Helena Daly
When caring for the dying, end-of-life phenomenal experiences such as transpersonal dreams, waking visions and death-bed encounters often occur. These meaningful events have been documented throughout time and across different cultures, and the impact on dying individuals and loved ones has been known to be profoundly meaningful. Yet, there is little awareness and understanding around these events given that they tend to be frequently dismissed and assumed to be due to the effects of medication. When this happens, these spiritual experiences are missed, and therefore, significant clinical, educational and therapeutic implications are lost.
The reality, however, is that dreaming is an intrinsic part of the dying process and intimately connected to death. When confronted with death, different types of dreams come forth, such as life-review dreams, dreams carrying unresolved issues, visitation dreams (deceased loved ones), and a special category of dreams that are archetypal in nature. These latter dreams are known as big dreams within indigenous traditions that carry great significance.
All of these dreams, and in particular transpersonal and visitations dreams, serve a huge therapeutic role in helping prepare psychologically and spiritually for death. From within these types of dreaming events, important messages are transmitted through deep symbolic representations of death and intuitive energetics that indicate the closeness of death approaching. These dreams then serve as a powerful medium through which conversations and reflections on dying and death naturally open, and difficult emotions like fear, anxiety and deep sadness can find expression and release, helping facilitate more peaceful deaths.
One example of a powerful transpersonal dream is what I call the “River of Death” dream. Incidentally, it is also the river of life and rebirth! It is a powerful archetypal death dream that transcends culture and religion and serves to prepare the dreamer for death. This type of dream has been shared with me many times by people of different cultural backgrounds—some holding a particular religious faith, and others with no such faith or spiritual leanings. While details of the dreaming landscape vary according to the type of terminal illness and its progression, the dreamer always finds themselves crossing a vast, powerful river in a little boat.
The following dreaming account was shared with me by a gentleman, who up until having this dream, had never acknowledged or spoken about the fact that he was terminally ill and would die. One morning, while walking into Philip’s room, and before I even had a chance to sit down, he looked me straight in the eye and told me that he knew he was going to die and that he was going to die very soon. Before stopping for breath, he immediately went on to tell me that he had a dream the night before and began to describe it in detail, describing how he was in a little boat, travelling across a vast, expansive river. It was night time, and the moon was full and shining luminously over the water. Philip told me of his strong sense of being carried along by this great river, and that he was unable to do anything about it. He noticed, while looking about him and over his shoulder, a speed boat in the near distance. He felt both amused and confused that this speed boat could not catch up with him, considering he was only in a small paddle boat. This baffled him, but as the dreaming experience deepened within the river’s sacred, numinous landscape, Philip came to realize that he was travelling towards death. And then fear began to close in around him.
Here is this powerful dream, captured by Michael Amos.
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RIVER OF DEATH
This dream, as you can imagine, had a very powerful impact and enabled us to sit together in reflective contemplation of dying and death. Up until this point, Philip had not accepted or talked about his impending death, but this dream served to open this up and helped release fears not previously spoken about. In addition, he was able to talk to his family and make preparations for his death. One week later, Philip died.
In Greek Mythology, this river is referred to as the river Styx (or Acheron) and believed to form a border between the underworld—the world of the dead (Hades) and the world of the living. It is often depicted in popular culture and though art. We see this depiction in the movie, The Clash of the Titans, in the scene where a skeletal ferryman arrives (and who must be paid a fee) in order to take the person across the river of death. Additionally, in Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a wonderful scene when Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) sees her father in a little boat lit up with a lamp, travelling along this river. Many other souls, each in their own lamp-lit boats, can be seen moving along this formidable river too. Elizabeth frantically manages to get her fathers’ attention and they speak briefly, as his daughter tries desperately to get him on board the ship. But in those moments of exchange, her father realizes he must be dead and is crossing over to the otherside. In addition to these fantastic movie depictions, there are also incredible artworks, such as William Blake’s famous painting of souls mustering to cross this river.
And then we have visitation dreams, which are commonly experienced in the days leading up to death. The dreamer feels they have been “visited” by a deceased loved one and describe experiences of having felt physically touched, be that with a kiss on the cheek, a touch on the shoulder or a full warm embrace. During these powerful encounters, dreamers have told of experiencing the most profound love—one that transcends the physical world, crossing boundaries. These deeply healing events experienced in the dream state and on coming out of sleep between dreaming and waking realms, leave a remarkable imprint never to be forgotten. The transformative nature of these types of dreams provide huge comfort as well as spiritual companionship, and for many, offer a renewed faith in an afterlife and belief that they will meet their loved ones again.
Other end-of-life phenomenal events known to occur, are often referred to as death-bed encounters and/or waking visions. Time and time again in my work as a spiritual and psychological care practitioner in hospice and palliative care, I have noticed that these particular experiences, like visitation dreams, frequently happen in the days just before death. More often than not, it is usually three days prior.
One morning, while visiting a patient, I was fortunate and privileged to have witnessed the unfolding of one such event. I had just entered Mary’s room and was introducing myself to her. As we were talking, her eyes moved from my face to rest just behind me, where the door lay slightly open. She then proceeded to turn her head slowly from left to right and around by the bed, as if she were seeing and following something or someone. She then blinked hard several times and then closed her eyes temporarily, before opening them again a few seconds later. Then, turning slightly, she looked to her right side, a little over shoulder. I asked her what had just happened, as I could clearly see something unusual had occurred. Mary told me that her mother had come into the room and was standing by her right shoulder. She told me she was certain it was her and how she had also come to visit the day before too. But when she mentioned this to the doctors, they told her it was just a hallucination. But this was not Mary’s experience. So when it happened a second time, she refrained from saying anything—until this time (now the third time). I responded by just sitting quietly and listening intently, without judgement or bias, and by offering a space to talk about this profound experience. Mary immediately responded by describing her mother’s presence to me in detail and telling me that she looked just like she remembered her as a young girl. I then learnt about this lady’s deep loss on losing her mother to cancer when she was just a little girl, and the devastating, heartbreaking impact this had on her. Some years later, as a young woman, Mary moved to America in the hope of finding and starting a new life for herself. And she did, living many, many good years there.
Here is this encounter, captured again by Michael Amos
MARYS DEATH-BED ENCOUNTER
lastly, I would like to leave the reader with some thoughts and reflections on what are known as sudden awakenings. Some of you may be familiar with these sorts of events, either through personal experience or someone you know. Many of us may have heard stories about people being suddenly woken up from sleep, only to see a loved one standing there. In those moments, the person receiving this vision knows that this person was passing over. One lady told of waking up abruptly in the middle of the night to find her husband’s presence standing right by the bed and who communicated with her while saying goodbye. He had been terminally ill for quite some time, and their journey together through all of it was a very difficult one. When the phone rang shortly hereafter, this lady knew it was the hospice calling to let her know that her husband had just died. This is but one strange-but-true living example. These kinds of events happen a lot, and they happen regardless of distance, connecting loved ones across time and place in those moments of death. Time and time again, these types of experiences have been found to occur precisely at the confirmed time of death.
So, what are we to make of all of this? Can we ever fully comprehend the deeper meaning of these sorts of events and encounters? Well, I am not so sure that we can, but I do know these phenomenal experiences deserve our full attention and investigation for they carry great spiritual significance. It is vital that these mysterious happenings are acknowledged and allowed to speak for themselves and tell their own story. After-all, life and death are a mystery, and as my dear monk friend Brother Mark used to say to me at the end of our many conversations, “it’s a mystery my dear, it’s the great mystery”.
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