Meaning of Dreams

Oh, to write again! Today I’ll be pouring words onto the page and trying to organize them in some meaningful sense for me and for you. In the meantime, I wrote this (rather eerie now) piece last week, before the shock of Shirley’s death, and I feel I must share it now.

The holiday apparently stirred up my subconscious more than I realized. It’s been awhile since I’ve dreamed of Sue. Until the other night.

It’s led me on a scavenger hunt down weird corridors of the Internet, searching for viable scientific information behind the meaning of dreams.

In this recent dream, Ryan and I were enjoying some relaxing one-on-one time with Sue. She had cancer and was resting, but we were confident that, with a little R&R, she’d be back on her feet again soon.

To my shock and horror, the doctor called and informed me that I had to tell Sue she was going to die within a few days. Could she have been talking about Shirley instead?

Gasping through silent sobs, I couldn’t even get the words out to tell Sue. She remained calm and comforting. It was clear that she knew what I was going to say. Sue silenced me and had but one request: To witness every little thing I could in this world and take lots of pictures to show her later. “Mental pictures,” she said, smiling.

In life, this was a joke between Sue and Ryan. In high school, he took a trip abroad once and returned without any photos. “Why didn’t you take any pictures?” she asked, flabbergasted.”But I did, Mom. They’re all right here,” Ryan said, tapping his head.

This isn’t the only time I’ve had such a vivid dream of Sue. The first and most riveting one was right after Sue passed.

In the dream, Ryan and I were accompanying her down a long road, and there were necessary stops we had to make along the way. The first was a shack where people were turning in things they wanted to leave behind from their life on Earth. Sue was turning in her chemo wigs and new maternity clothes. (She and I had shopped for these clothes on her recent trip to Seattle. She needed the extra room because her abdomen was bloated and painful from the liver failure.) After getting rid of these painful reminders, we continued on.

Stopping along the way, she had cryptic things to show me and was visually frustrated that she wasn’t “allowed,” it seemed, to communicate these things more clearly. One was a children’s art boutique and the other was a collection of three elaborate boxes containing treasures she could not reveal.

As we continued further, we saw other people in the distance, on their own paths advancing forward. Ryan asked Sue if those people could see her (since even in the dream, we all knew she was dead), and if so, how they saw her. “How do you see me?” she asked. To which he replied that, from the many pictures we’d rifled through lately, it looked like she was about 30 years old. She was greatly amused by this. “That makes the mother younger than the son,” she teased.

And that was it. There was a brief moment of urgency and even a little fear on all our parts as we realized this dream was snapping shut. And then she was gone.

Most of the metaphors in these dreams are rather obvious. (I once heard a psychologist say that’s often the case with writers.) But I am increasingly curious about the science behind it, particularly after discovering that several of Sue’s family and friends have had such encounters, too.

It makes sense that dreaming would be a natural cognitive way for our brains to process tragedy and grief. So why haven’t I been able to find good, credible psychological studies of this sort online? (All while trying to avoid the mine field of virus-lurking new age sites, mind you.) has a ton of papers and scholarly info, which helped, but it seems they all merely shoot down theories rather than acknowledging plausible ones.

From there I learned about Dr. Patricia Garfield’s theory of 29 “Universal” dreams (SCSU debunked it), but my dream wasn’t even on the list. Of course, Freud had a lot of theories on dreams, but I couldn’t find anything specific to grieving. Interestingly, he also claimed that all significant words spoken in a dream are from words you’ve read or heard spoken. That would make sense with Sue’s “mental pictures” comment, but not her joke about appearing younger than Ryan. Likewise, Freud’s famous claim that “wish-fulfillment is the meaning of each and every dream” does hold true in the sense that I got to spend time with Sue (or her likeness), but the theory falls apart when she dies at the end. If it were true wish fulfillment, wouldn’t my mind alter reality, so she could continue living in the dream?

Jung also had his theories of dreams, stemming from his belief in a “collective unconscious” and archetypes of our shared life story. (These theories are the basis for Professor Joseph Campbell‘s enlightening lectures on religion, history, culture, and storytelling. If you haven’t seen his “The Power of Myth” interviews on PBS, you really should.) Considering my dreams in a Jungian light certainly explains the obvious nature of the metaphors, but it fails to explain why the brain needs to play out such virtual realities. (Or the premonition nature of this most recent dream, but I feel crazy even going there…)

So where does that lead me? Apparently, nowhere. Maybe some errant psychology grad will stumbled upon this and point me in the right direction? Or maybe you could confirm you’ve had such an experiences, so I feel less cuckoo?

Regardless of the meaning, or even the sadness, it was worth it to have the “mental picture” of being in her presence again.

And, yes, Sue. I’m taking LOTS of pictures. For you and for Shirley.

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