After my grandmother Cecile died, she began appearing in my grandfather Leonard’s dreams. They were the only two people on a gorgeous tropical island. She had died of a stroke in a hospital bed at the age of 84, yet on the white sand beach, they were young again. She was radiant, like the first day they met.
"Let’s not tell anyone about this place," Leonard would say to Cecile as they walked along the shore. "Otherwise, it will be overrun with tourists."
Only when he reached out to her would Leonard realize it was a dream. There was always an invisible barrier between them. Just as he was about to touch her, his hand would collide with it. They were separated by something like an unbreakable wall of glass.
Years later, when I began collecting dreams from around the globe for my World Dream Atlas project, the themes of my grandfather's dream would emerge again and again. Confronted with the incomprehensibility of death, the mind seems driven to construct metaphors. The departed are frequently encountered in isolated and idealized places, seemingly subconscious visions of heaven. They are often vibrant and youthful, no longer subject to the ravages of time or illness. Finally, the deceased are almost always inaccessible. They cannot be touched for a myriad of reasons and are perpetually on the verge of disappearing.
Below is an assembly of dreams about the dead—11 dreamers all attempting to comprehend their loved ones in the hereafter.
"I was a musician in America once: New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Several years ago they deported me, and now I live in this park. The bench is my living room. Behind the statue is my bedroom. I can sleep well here, unless the children throw rocks at me. Mostly, I dream about my past, my family. My father—rest in peace—was my best friend. I was 18 when he died. He tried to escape Cuba on a raft in 1968, and he drowned in the sea. I dreamed once that I was with him when the raft began to sink. He tried to save me. We died together." —Havana, Cuba
"After my husband died, I saw him in a dream. He said, 'Come with me.' I said, 'You never took me anywhere when you were alive, why are you taking me somewhere now?' He said, 'Why are you talking so much? Come with me.' I was so happy. I told myself not to open my eyes. I wanted to always stay in that dream." —Mumbai, India
"My mom died several years ago. Since then, she has occasionally appeared in my dreams. In one dream, she left me a manual. It was a book that held the secret to everything, she said. It contained all the answers that I had always been looking for in my life. She made me promise not to read it right away. The instructions were to read one page a year. But, after she left, I read the whole thing immediately. When I finished the book, I was so disappointed. There was nothing in it. Nothing answered any of my questions. None of it was profound. It was just strange and mundane things. Then, I realized, that I had completely missed the point. The point was that the unread part was more important than the part that I had read. It was about how the unknown is frightening, but also necessary for hope to exist. Hope lives in what is unknown. She gave me the book to give me hope." —Montague, USA
"My husband died a year ago of kidney failure. He worked too hard. He drank too much. After his death, I couldn't raise our daughter on my waitress salary, so I became a prostitute. It's so hard to be alone. Sometimes, though, my husband returns to me in dreams. He looks good—strong and healthy again, like when we first met. He is always talking, but as hard as I try, I can't understand what he is saying. It is just a long sequence of words with no meaning." —Pattaya, Thailand
"In Afghanistan, one of my friends was killed by his best friend. It was an accidental discharge. Many months later, back in the States, I dreamed that the doorbell rang. My friend was standing there, lit up and happy, with an overnight bag. He had a 48-hour pass from heaven. We spent the entire weekend together—bar hopping, having discussions, and taking my dog, Roxy, to the park. We saw my friend’s best friend there. He embraced him and said, 'You will always be my brother. I don’t want you to feel guilt in your heart for what happened.' Then, I saw my friend holding his neck with blood gushing out. Then, he appeared in his casket wearing his dress uniform, deader than a doornail. I was sweating profusely, and started to tear up. I awoke to Roxy licking my face." —Columbus, USA
"My mother, who died many years ago, often appears in dreams to guide me. 'You love animals,' she said once. 'So, you should be kind to them. It is better to hear birds sing than it is to eat them.' From that day forward, I never touched meat again." —Aït Benhaddou, Morocco
"They had to drag me from his coffin. The next day, I was googling how to kill myself in the most efficient way. I feel guilty for his death. Maybe if I had been more awake that morning I could have told him that it was raining, so be extra careful. The first thing the doctor said was that he hit a truck. He broke his neck. OK. At least he wasn’t shredded. I see my husband’s face in dreams. He’s always in his uniform. He’s come back from somewhere. I feel so relieved. It’s like a normal morning again. I try to say something, but I just can’t. I begin to feel weak, and I know that I’m dying. I’m dying instead of him, and I’m so happy that the last thing I see is his face." —Tokyo, Japan
"I was sleeping when I heard my dead friend’s voice, but I did not see him. 'Babu, Babu,' he said, 'I am so thirsty. Give me something to drink.' Suddenly, I became very thirsty myself. I walked to the lake and began to drink. I drank the entire lake, but still I was thirsty.” —Devpur, India
"My grandmother passed away, and she really could have avoided it if she had gone to a doctor. It broke my heart when it happened, and I was just so mad at her for leaving me. Right after she died, I had three dreams, three nights in a row. She came and tried to hug me, and I said, 'No! You fucking died, and you shouldn’t have! Get away from me!' Since then, I’ve begged her to come back, but she never did. I’ve always regretted it." —New York, USA
"The day that my father passed away, I dreamed of him. He was floating on a river, and I was pushing his body—guiding it. We came to a temple, and I watched his body leave my hands. It wove around the temple in a maze-like fashion before eventually passing through the entrance and falling down into a hole in the floor. When I woke up, I felt sad, but I also had some relief that I had been able to help him pass into the next world." —Jerusalem
"My mom passed away seven years ago. After that, I dreamed about her a lot. It sounds silly, but I felt like she would visit me in my dreams to come check up on me. I had this one really vivid dream about it. I had just heard about a study that ranked the happiest and most depressing cities in the US. The most depressing place to live was Detroit, and the happiest was Boulder, Colorado. Anyway, a few nights later, I had a dream that I was skyping with my mom. I was crying because I hadn’t seen her in forever. I said, 'Where have you been? I've missed you! I've been worried sick!' And, she looked at me, and she goes, 'I’m in Boulder, Colorado.'" —New York, USA
Roc Morin is a journalist based in San Francisco and the author of &, a book of short stories.