Often referred to as a grief dream, having a dream about a dead relative is a common, and much-needed, part of the grieving process. Many people who experience grief dreams report having them as early as one month after losing a loved one, while for some it can take many years. These dreams can be frequent, or you may only have one where the deceased appears.
But what does it mean? Information on grief dreams is still widely unresearched and unconfirmed. While there are various views, ranging from the psychological to the spiritual, how can you determine the significance and meaning of your dreams?
Explanations from Different Views
No matter what your belief is regarding dreams, it’s understandable that you would want to know why these dreams are happening.
What’s important to remember is that the differences in culture, history, research, and even religions make it challenging to pinpoint the exact meaning of any given dream. For example, some cultures believe that dreaming of a dead relative means that an upcoming marriage will fail, while another believes that you will receive unexpected news. Yet another interpretation is that money or possessions that are lost will return to you.
The Psychological Side
Speaking from a scientific and psychological perspective, the dream world is simply our subconscious recreating a condensed version of events that have taken place in our waking lives. These could be events that are real or imaginary, and that have happened to us, to someone we know, or in mixed media. When we dream, it is a combination of memories or experiences mixed with the consolidation and processing of information that we have seen.
The brain is an incredibly powerful tool. Like a computer, we often tend to evaluate situations such as dreaming with tangible, comprehensible evidence. This would explain why people believe that there are many logical reasons why we dream of dead relatives.
Here are a few main psychological reasons why your relative appears to you in your dreams:
1. Wish fulfillment – If, after your loved one has passed, you continue to wish that you could see them one last time, say goodbye, or have another memory of them, your brain will fabricate the visit that you are longing for.
2. You are grieving – During the grieving process, it’s natural to think of the deceased more often than you may have when they were alive. Having their face on a constant loop in your conscious brain can transfer into your subconscious as well.
3. Acceptance and resolution – For those who are struggling through grieving, they may be deliberately avoiding thinking about their deceased relative as a way to suppress and not deal with the situation. Dreaming about a dead relative is the subconscious way to work through the pain that they feel in a safe place where the emotions are real, but doesn’t translate to physical anguish.
Many psychologists believe that dreaming about a family member after they have passed is a natural part of grieving, and can sometimes be necessary in order to help accept their reality and move forward.
The Spiritual Side
Of course, there is that part in all of us that wants to believe that dreaming of a dead relative might have a deeper meaning. Perhaps it’s a sign, maybe they’re trying to tell us something, or maybe it’s a way for their memory to live on. Regardless of what you may think about it, the belief that seeing a dead relative in your dreams has been a focus of spiritualists for centuries.
Here are a few main spiritual reasons why your relative appears to you in your dreams:
1. They are trying to get your attention – In the waking world, spirits that have passed try various ways to speak to us. Because of the sensations and life moving all around us, it can be hard to see the signs for someone who isn’t looking. For this reason, your deceased loved one will attempt to reach out to you in your dreams. When we are asleep, our connection to the spiritual world is stronger, and we are usually more open and aware. Why would they need to get your attention?
- To give you a warning. If they feel that you are making poor decisions, or you are facing unfortunate upcoming events, they may show up to steer you in the right direction.
- To give you advice. Maybe they recognize that you require some guidance in your life, and they have come back to help give you answers.
- To give you comfort. This can be to help you through your grief or any other stressful time that you are facing.
2. They are trying to scare you or get revenge – Now, this isn’t a spiritual school of thought that I subscribe to, but when looking at all options, it can’t be overlooked. The Spiritual Science Research Foundation believes that a massive 30% of visiting dead relatives appear in your dreams to frighten you. While I don’t believe that many of our family members are this vengeful, even in death, if you believe that your parent or aunt has come back to torture and taunt you, it seems entirely possible.
3. They are seeking help – Like with ghosts that appear in our waking lives, many people believe that your relative who has passed on is visiting you because they haven’t actually passed on. Perhaps they need help to resolve an issue from when they were alive, or they need to convey a message. Try to pay attention to what they are doing in the dream, and you may be able to find out how you can help them.
Positive Vs. Negative Dreams
Grief dreams, as with all dreams, can have either a positive tone or a negative one. These dreams can leave you feeling more discouraged when coping with the loss of your loved one, or they can give you a sense of ease and peace.
Many researchers will agree that dreams reflect our waking lives, meaning that if you are having a low day and are generally unhappy throughout the day, you are more likely to have negative dreams. On the other hand, if you feel positive and happy throughout the day, you will have positive dreams.
But we all know that nightmares don’t just come on a bad day. Some people believe that if you have negative feelings toward your loss, say if you didn’t get to say goodbye or the circumstances of their departure were traumatic, then your dreams are more likely to be negative. Conversely, if your relative appears happy or you feel positive within the dream, then you are more likely to be in a stage of grief where you are dealing with the acceptance of the deceased.
While many people with a spiritual background may interpret a negative dream as a sign of disappointment, fear, or even intimidation from the spirit of your relative, psychologists urge us not to rely on these opinions. Instead, examine your waking life and determine where the negativity may be coming from within yourself. Seeking bereavement counseling may help to transform the negative into a more positive dream outlook.
Some causes and examples of negative grief dreams may include:
- Feelings of guilt – Accepting blame for not having visited a sick loved one, or not rectifying a broken relationship.
- Need for closure – A loved one who died at war, or one who died too soon from an accident or illness.
- Realization of life fragility – If this is one of the first people who you’ve known to die, you may be realizing that life doesn’t last forever.
Some causes and examples for positive grief dreams may include:
- You miss them – If you are in a good place within the grieving process, you could simply miss seeing their smiling face.
- You’ve received closure – If you didn’t get to say goodbye, maybe your head and heart are giving you permission to do so now.
- Receiving/giving their approval – Perhaps you have reached a point in your life where you believe that they would be happy for you, or maybe they are visiting you to tell you that they are proud of you.
Why Am I Not Dreaming About My Dead Relative?
Have you recently been speaking with other family members or friends who have had dreams of a lost family member, but you don’t seem to be having them? This is not at all uncommon in many people, so don’t worry if your dearly departed hasn’t appeared to you.
Begin with asking yourself is whether or not you remember your dreams in general. If you typically can’t recall most of your dreams, it’s very likely that you have had dreams about the deceased, you just don’t remember them. If you want to start having a better recall, experts suggest trying to remember all of your dreams each time you wake up. You can do this by:
- Starting a dream diary – each morning (or if you wake in the middle of the night), write down what you do remember. Try to do this before you get out of bed, check your phone, or do anything else to start your day. Dreams are harder to remember if we don’t give them attention right away.
- Drinking water before bed – While it sounds strange, drinking water will force you to wake up at some point in the night to use the restroom. Because it breaks up your sleep, you can use this time to reflect on any dreams you may have had.
Another question to ask is how long it has been since your relative has passed away. Keeping in mind that everyone’s brains process information at different rates, it could be that your subconscious just hasn’t gotten there yet. If you want to have a dream of your loved one (for any reason), before you go to sleep try thinking of them or recalling a memory that you shared with them.
My Relative Isn’t Dead (Yet)!
In some cases, you may begin to have dreams that someone who is very much alive has suddenly died. These dreams can be quite confronting and will leave you feeling a bit shaken. So, if your relative is still alive but your brain seems to be sending you messages otherwise, what could it mean? The possibilities are a combination of both psychological and spiritual answers:
- Prediction – Some cultures believe that dreaming that someone has died is a premonition of their upcoming death. It is considered a bad omen, a dream that most of us would prefer not to have. On the other hand, if your living relative is sick, it could be a way for your brain to prepare for what is to come.
- Fear of loss – If you have ever loved someone so much that you couldn’t imagine your life without them, these feelings can be strong enough to present themselves as death in your dreams. The fear of losing a parent, child, or even a sick relative can trigger your subconscious to experience their “death.”
- Negative feelings – Family feuds can happen to the happiest of relatives. If there is a particular family member who you dream is dead, it may be a sign of the turmoil in your relationship and the feelings you have toward them. It could also be a signal that you wish for the ties to that relative would be severed. In these cases, it would seem that death in your dream doesn’t always translate to actual death, but more of the relationship no longer being there.
Addressing Your Dreams
With both the endless amount of online information and the lack of concrete evidence, ultimately the true meaning of the dream may only be known by the dreamer. To the best of your recollection, try to remember as much of the vision as possible and examine why your relative might appear to you in your dreams. Write down any future dreams that you have, and you will be able to determine whether it’s psychological, spiritual, or a mix of both.
As a one-off, you may be able to cope with seeing your loved one again in your dreams. However, if the dreams continue and you want help getting to the bottom of the cause, it would be helpful to seek out professional advice from a grief counselor or someone who can offer you spiritual guidance. Just like your deceased family member deserves to rest in peace, so do you.