Dreams often seem inscrutable, and most people shrug them off in the morning. But during painful transitions—breakups, divorce, the loss of loved ones—dreams can become so vivid, so lifelike, that even the biggest dream-skeptics take notice of, and even solace in, their nocturnal visions.
From the late 1970s through the mid-2000s, psychologist Rosalind Cartwright carried out a series of studies on the dreams of new divorcées. For one experiment, she invited sixty people who were in the midst of a divorce—roughly half of them depressed—to spend three nights in the sleep lab on two occasions, once at the beginning of the divorce process and again twelve months later. At the start of the project, a third of the members of the depressed group reported dreams about their exes. By the end of the year, those who had dreamed about their partners at the outset were more likely to have recovered on both practical and psychological measures; their moods were more positive, their finances were more stable, even their love lives were more satisfying. Dreaming about the divorce, it seemed, had helped them get over it.
In another study, Cartwright took a closer look at the content of the divorcés’ dream diaries, trying to pinpoint what made some dreams more therapeutic than others. This time, she tracked the dreams of twenty-nine women, nineteen of whom started off depressed, through the first five months of their separations. The ones who were on the road to recovery, she found, tended to interact with their dream-exes in a more active, assertive fashion. One woman saw her ex-husband embarrassing himself at a party and felt relieved not to be with him. Another expressed her resentment toward her ex and his new girlfriend.
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These dreams were vivid and convoluted; they featured a diverse cast of characters and drew together disparate strands of the dreamer’s past and present. The dreams of the other group, meanwhile—those who would stay mired in depression— tended to be simple and unemotional, with the dreamer occupying a more passive role. In one characteristic dream, a woman stood by silently as her ex took his new love interest on a date. In another, a divorcée watched her ex look at a pair of shoes.
Dreams can help us cope, too, with universal life-cycle struggles, like coming to terms with death. The mourning process is messy and individual, but for most people, the work of grieving continues in sleep; in vivid, unforgettable dreams, the dead come back to us. In a 2014 study of nearly three hundred mourners at a hospice center in upstate New York, 58 percent could recall at least one dream about the person who had died. Although the dreams were not always pleasant, they usually provided some measure of comfort; they helped mourners accept their loss and led to heightened feelings of spirituality and an overall sense of well-being. Often, the dreams showed the dead person young and disease-free, savoring the pleasures of the afterlife or bearing some hopeful message for the living.
After psychologist Patricia Garfield’s father died, she decided to interview other women who had recently lost someone important and found that she could match their dreams to different phases of mourning. The nature of grief dreams changed as the mourner started coming to terms with the loss. At first, the departed seemed to come back to life, wanting to talk about the circumstances of their deaths. These “alive-again” dreams were disturbing, inflaming the survivor’s irrational sense of guilt over “allowing” the person to pass away.
Six weeks after his dad died, Philip Roth dreamed that his father returned to Earth, angry that he had been buried in the wrong outfit. “All that peered out from the shroud was the displeasure in his dead face,” Roth wrote in his memoir Patrimony. The dreamer might feel resentful that the deceased has fooled him or caused him pain, or the dream might be pleasant in the moment but lead to a keen sense of loss upon waking. Dreams like these, though painful, can help the mourner understand that the deceased is really gone.
During the next phase, which Garfield called disorganization, the departed might reappear and say goodbye or set off on some obscure journey. One widower in a study of Garfield’s dreamed of driving to the airport with his wife. When the couple arrived, she went on ahead of him, waved goodbye, and told him that he would join her later. The man interpreted this dream as permission to engage in life again and credited it with allowing him to reintegrate with the world and even to remarry. In the final stages—once the mourner has accepted the loss—she might experience pleasant dreams in which the deceased is young and well again or offers words of comfort or advice.
The dreams of one young woman, a sleep researcher named Deidre Barrett who had cared for her grandmother as she died of cancer, exemplify this cycle. Her earliest dreams reflected a psyche racked with guilt. In one, her grandmother said they needed to try her death over again—maybe this time, the girl could get it right. In another, she told her to call the police, because she didn’t die of cancer; she had been poisoned. When the young woman was starting to feel better, she dreamed that she was a child again. Her grandmother gave her a warm bath, told her that she loved her, and explained that she was heading to heaven. “Ever since then,” the woman said, “I have been at peace with my grandmother’s death.”
This article is adapted from the new book Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out today.
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