Dr. Henry Paul, MD

Psychiatrist, Author and Educator


November 21st, 2014

“Dad looked fine, except perhaps for a less-than-flattering white sweater he didn’t, in reality, own. In my dream — that’s what this was — I didn’t know that he had died.” Paula Span, NY Times blog, “Dreaming of the Departed” The New Old Age; Caring & Coping.

Last week Paula Span’s New York Times blog, “Dreaming of the Departed” raised the question of how often family members dream of the dearly departed and what the dreams might mean. In her blog, she focuses on her experience of dreaming about meeting her dad in a deli two years after he passed.

“Seeing Dad left me wondering how often deceased family members enter their survivors’ dreams and what we know about what — if anything — that means. So I called Alessandra Strada, a clinical psychologist and director of integrative medicine and bereavement services at MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care in New York. She has listened to patients talk about their dreams for 20 years.” said Span.

Dr. Strada responded to Span saying, “Dreams are quite a prevalent component of the bereavement process.”

In the blog, Span referenced some interesting statistics from the recently published study in The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care that surveyed 278 caregivers (mean age: 63), nearly 60 percent of whom reported dreaming of relatives who had recently died in hospice care.

Over the years, many of my patients have told me that after experiencing a loss that they often think of the departed. Sometimes they feel as if they heard the voice or had seen an image of the dead person. They very often dream about them.

As a medical professional, I can tell you that dreams have always been a center of interest in a psychiatric practice as they are the most sensitive markers of what is going on deep in our personalities. Sigmund Freud considered the dream the “royal road” to the unconscious. Karen Horney said that early in a therapy the dream was sometimes the best indicator of what the patient is struggling with deep down.

Most patients feel good about having a “visit” from the departed. Others feel different, especially if the relationship with the departed was conflicted. These dreams, when gone into in detail, often reveal a lot about a person’s past and present relationships. Having such dreams is not pathological and should be accepted as a natural and revealing process. Of course, if the patient is suffering from a serious mental illness and such dreams cause great anxiety and instability then they should be seen as signposts to areas that need to be explored as part of the treatment being offered.

Note: Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”

Information contained in this blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical or psychiatric advice for individual conditions or treatment and does not substitute for a medical or psychiatric examination. A psychiatrist must make a determination about any treatment or prescription. Dr. Paul does not assume any responsibility or risk for the use of any information contained within this blog.

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