[Skip to Content]

Sweet dreams: Grieving continues even when you sleep


nighttime skyBY AMBER SMITH

The disclosure invariably begins with, “This may sound crazy.” That‘s how psychologist Jeffrey Schweitzer, PhD, can tell a bereaved person is about to relay the story of a dream featuring his or her deceased loved one.

Schweitzer, the primary psychologist at the Upstate Cancer Center, has researched the role of dreams during the bereavement process. He says dreams featuring loved ones can be helpful as a person copes with loss.

For his dissertation, Schweitzer interviewed people about dreams they had after a loved one died. In some cases, the death was anticipated; other times, the death was sudden. In all cases, the dreams were intensely vivid, highly memorable and tended to occur during periods of high emotion.

One example: A woman whose father died of prostate cancer dreamed that someone knocked on her front door. She opened the door and found her father. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he turned into a baby, and the woman cradled him in her arms.

“That physical contact within the dream can enhance the experience,” Schweitzer says.

This woman‘s father had been the epitome of strength and stability, and much of her distress came from the loss of her pillar. For him to transform into a baby in her dream, and for her to comfort him, helped the woman learn that she would be able to be strong on her own.

Were the dreams Schweitzer studied sad? Sometimes. “In most cases not,” he says.

“They produced profound, loving feelings. Feelings of comfort. Feelings of reassurance, in a sense that ‘I can have an ongoing relationship with this person,‘ that they‘re not gone absolutely. In the medium of dreams, we can visit with one another again.”

Schweitzer did not find a way to prompt dreams to occur.

“That‘s part of what made the dreams so significant,” he explains. “They just sort of seem to come out when the bereaved need them most.”

starry sky3 people who are needed during grief

Those who are grieving need three important people in their lives: a listener, a doer and a distracter, says bereavement counselor Susan Bachorik, from Hospice of Central New York. Here are their roles:

The listener listens without judgment.

The doer helps the person to complete any of a variety of tasks.

And the distracter takes the person out of his or her grief, if only temporarily. “You can‘t grieve 24 hours a day,” Bachorik says.

Upstate Health magazine winter 2018 issueHealthLink on Air logoThis article appears in the winter 2018 issue of Upstate Health magazine. To hear Schweitzer discuss grieving and dreams in a "HealthLink on Air" interview, click here.