The holidays are generally a time for good cheer. But for some families, an empty chair at the dinner table is a sad reminder of the loss of a loved one.
Joshua Black says it’s common for people to dream of the departed during this time of year.
“The holidays can be very distressing for bereaved individuals, and these dreams may provide them the comfort they need,” says Black, a recent PhD graduate at Brock University.
Black researches grief dreams, which people often have of loved ones who have died.
His master’s and PhD research centred on three questions:
- Are dreams of deceased loved ones a common experience among the bereaved?
- Why do some people have dreams of the deceased and others don’t?
- Why do people have positive dreams and others have negative ones?
In the various studies he conducted over the years, Black focused on losses in three categories: spousal/partner; pet; and miscarriage.
Black says, among the people he has studied, 86 per cent had dreams of their spouse or partner, 75 per cent dreamed of their pet, and 60 per cent dreamed of their children lost through miscarriage.
Grief dreams are overwhelmingly positive, says Black. They tend to consist of the deceased offering comfort to the bereaved and assurances that the deceased person is OK or that they still love the one left behind.
In the case of holiday dreams, Black refers to a dream diary that one of his research subjects kept of her late father.
“One of her dreams had her father arriving at the front door to let her know that he would be with the family on Christmas Day,” says Black.
Pet dreams are usually about the deceased animal and owner doing some kind of activity, or relaxing, together, says Black.
In the case of miscarriage, Black explains there are commonly three stages of dreams. The first is of the baby being born, baptized and presented to the family. The second is when the child is a toddler, learning to walk and say things like “Mama” and “Daddy.” The third involves the child as a teenager or adult assuring the parent of no wrong-doing in the miscarriage.
Sometimes, dreams can be negative, such as the deceased suffering or dying, Black says. This usually occurs when the dreamer is suffering from guilt, blame or post-traumatic symptoms.
Black was inspired to do this research near the end of his undergraduate days about a decade ago.
He and his father Mark were supposed to go to a hockey game one evening. Father and son had a bit of a rocky past, but had worked it out and were getting closer. So, it was with some foreboding that the junior Black waited, and waited, for his dad to show up. Instead, the phone rang with devastating news: Mark was gone.
The grief was overwhelming and “took all the joy out of my life,” the younger Black recalls. But three months later, Black had a life-changing experience that would spearhead a pioneering research program in a little-explored field.
“I had a dream about my dad and acknowledging my loss,” Black recalls. “I walked up to him and I said, ‘I’m going to miss you, I love you.’ And we hugged.
“When I woke up, the power of that dream was that all the happiness in life came back to me. I still don’t understand it to this day, but this type of dream is very common with the bereaved.”
Overall, grief dreams, such as what Black had experienced, help the grieving to regulate their emotions, continuing a bond, accept their loss, and to “learn to live in this world with an open heart,” says Black. “I always like to say that one dream can be like 10 years of psychotherapy.”
In addition to his research, Black created a podcast series called Grief Dreams that he co-hosts with Shawn Ram in which people share the dreams they’ve had of their departed loved ones. He also wrote a book to help children cope with bereavement and grief dreams and conducts talks and workshops on the subject.
Black recently completed his PhD in Psychology at Brock under the supervision of Professor Kathy Belicki, who says Black’s research is cutting-edge, with the “potential to contribute both to theory and clinical practice.”
“Particularly exciting is the identification of a type of dream that is quite different from both ordinary and post-traumatic dreams: specifically, dreams that are positive in emotional tone and usually consist of the dreamer interacting with the deceased,” she says. “These dreams have a different quality from dreams that seem to involve remembering past interactions with the deceased, and instead have the quality of a fresh encounter.”
Black plans to develop programs to teach the public about the power and potential of grief dreams.