Near the anniversary of his mother’s death, the writer is plagued by vivid, tragic dreams. Can these painful episodes actually help him overcome his sadness?
Med thumb dream griever

She is there — on a train, in a shop, sitting in her old house in her old house dress, gussied up at the opera house, and many other places she never cared for in life. And then she is not. She looks like her old self, then her younger self, then another woman altogether. She speaks, or says nothing, or stares, or looks away. She is worrying about something, or reading the newspaper out loud, laughing, once even jogging — in circles no less. She is taller, oddly, and sometimes the size of a cat.

I am, however, always the same: anxious, unable to make the world work, aghast and enthralled, task-driven, weepy.

It is always morning when these dreams come, always just before I shake myself awake, always under the sun, the damned sun, the light that reminds me how acutely I am outside of the rest of the alert and active world tinkering around me because I’ve woken up upset and disoriented, again. It can take an hour to recover or the whole day. The whole, long day.

As the first anniversary of my mother’s death approached, I was beset by a series of terrible, wrenching dreams. Complex and emotionally charged, or, conversely, achingly stupid, nonsensical and even banal, the dreams all boiled down to one narrative: I was with my late mother, she needed me to do something for her and I could not help her. Failure dreams, with a dead parent added for extra kick.

The cycle these dreams prompted was equally frustrating. I’d wake up in a panic, a sad panic, and feel helpless. This, in turn, reminded me of my helplessness as I watched her pass away in the hospital. The rest of the day was then spent attempting to feel useful,  busily distracted or just whole again.

Why were the dreams so vivid and why so draining?

Some days were better than others. On the days when I could not muster the energy to rework my anxiety into productivity, days when I could be nothing but unhappy with myself and attempt any number of inept acts of self-medication, the cycle repeated itself: go to bed feeling useless, sad and guilty, wake up feeling useless, sad and guilty. What to do? As a life-long insomniac who also endures bouts of Restless Leg Syndrome, these dreams were the last thing I needed; when it comes to feeling worn out and enervated, I’m an old hand.

First off, I realize, and realized then, that much of this dream drama was wholly natural, by which I mean predictable. The anniversary of her death loomed, and whatever is on your mind all day will get remixed by your brain in dreams. It would be unlikely that my mother would not turn up in my dreams, but why were the dreams so vivid and why so draining, why so perfectly in tune with my waking emotions that the dreams ticked off all manifestations of my not-so-latent, residual guilt and (likely life-long) regrets as if my emotions were items on a weekly shopping list? Does my own subconscious find me that easy, and so dreary, to read?

My mother was a good person, and if she were alive today and I told her I was having bad dreams about some other deceased person, she’d reach for her dream interpretation book and make me a cup of tea. The woman who passed away in a palliative care ward, in her mid-80s and relatively resigned to the fact that she would succumb to cancer, had spent her life, like so many women of her generation, taking care of other people. That sounds saintly, but she was not a saint. Who would want to be raised by a saint?

She was not hard to make happy, but she was at times impossible to please. The dreams, then, make perfect sense.

My mother could fuss and fret over the smallest things. She was an anxious person by nature (as, now, am I), and the dreams always involve her being in some sort of mild (or terrible) panic over a minute detail. If I failed my mother in her life, it was by not living right next to her and carrying her along in her 10,000 worries.

I lived most of my adult life in Toronto, two provinces away from her home in New Brunswick, and followed that with several years in Berlin, an ocean away. I could stay with my mother for a weekend, month or year, and it would never be enough. “I need you to help me with...” was the start to many of her sentences.

But my mother was not a nagger. Things left untended genuinely drove her to fits of fretting, even aggression. She was not hard to make happy, but she was at times impossible to please. The dreams, then, make perfect sense — except when I’m in the middle of one.

Dream Griever New Inset

When you talk to people about your dreams, you not only risk hearing about their dreams — thus learning how much people hate to hear stories about other peoples’ dreams —but also enduring the most common clichés. Namely, that dreams are the way the mind “goes over” the day that has just finished; that dreams are how the brain “cleans itself”; that dreams are always about the opposite of what they show or provoke; that dreams are coded messages from our more mystically attuned parts of our minds.

Grief works its way through you like a virus, its trajectory mysterious and erratic.

There may well be truth in all of the above statements, and it is known that dreams have psychological value. But none of the typical responses are of much use when dont’t want to know why you’re dreaming, but rather how the hell to stop dreaming what you’re dreaming? And just how much of this “brain tidying” is of any practical value when it comes to the long haul of grieving?

Grief works its way through you like a virus, its trajectory mysterious and erratic. All that Five Stages business is fine for shorthand, if read as a probability and not a map. Dreams don’t factor into strategies for “grief management” (what a dreadful phrase) because dreams, by their nature, are outside of the sorts of cognitive patterns that create strategies in the first place. Professional grief counsellors never tell you about the dreams, likely because they know they’ll be caught short, outfoxed by their irrational lucidity. Nobody told me to dread sleeping.

In his thesis “Encountering the Significant Dead: A Narrative Inquiry into Grief and Dreams,” Jeffrey R. Schweitzer observes that “proponents of modernist discourses have presumed a universality of grief experiences and fail to consider cultural and historical contingencies that influence differential responses to loss…” In other words, perhaps grief “models” are simply too rigid, streamlined and cold; they are, as he puts it, outmoded “artifacts of Western modernity” in the “inordinate value [they assign] to individuation…wherein autonomy and adaptiveness constitute the hallmarks of social development.”

Dreams don’t factor into strategies for grief management.

And then things get interesting. Schweitzer posits that Western therapeutic models assume that “relationships with the deceased are illusory,” compelling people to stop ongoing conversations, for lack of a better word, with the deceased. That’s hardly healthy. I needed to look at my dreams of my mother as not some extension of a pathological grief — nor as another layering of my chronic insomnia — but as a continuance of my relationship with her, no matter how fraught that relationship might be.  

This is not ghost fiction, this is simple sense. Attempting to erase someone from your mind is impossible. Yet, too many grief manuals advise you to “move on” — a kind of “out of mind, out of sight” response to loss.

What if I changed the way I read these dreams? What if — instead of seeing them as irruptive events compelling me to relive my own frustrated and emotionally unfulfilling reactions to my mother’s dying, and thus to relive my foolhardy chasing of a “perfect death” for her — I read these dreams as simply added time with my mother? I could see them as a generous gift from my subconscious, allowing me to better sort my sense of failure at her passing; a second chance to first face my feelings of helplessness and, then, put those feelings to the test when awake.

Did I fail my mother in her last days? Yes and no. Did I do my best, all that I could for her? Yes and no. Am I okay with this ambiguity? Not yet. The benefit of dreams is not that they are unreal, but that they are differently real and thus can be used or ignored as we choose. They are informed make-believe, insider gossip. And I am listening.

RM Vaughan is a Canadian author and playwright who has published more than 20 books of fiction, poetry and essays. His most recent work, Bright Eyed, is a memoir chronicling his lifelong battle with insomnia.