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Another Look at Dreaming at the End of Life

Jungian therapist and wise woman Leta McDonald shares more fascinating insights into the dreams of elders nearing the end of life.

Death Dreams: Father


Leta McDonald

Two years after my mother’s death and already into my fifties, I decided to work toward a doctorate in Jungian Studies at the Union Institute.  During this time I was also caring for my father.  Our relationship had never been close, as he was an alcoholic and could be verbally abusive.  However, with age and loss, he became less angry and seemed to be just a sad old man.  I helped him move out of his house and into assisted living when he was ready.  Then he moved again when he needed more care and eventually he lived in a nursing home.  All this time he would share dreams with me, because he knew I liked to hear them. In fact, I was collecting them for a study of the elderly.  He was very lonely after mom’s death.  One day he excitedly told me this dream:

     I have died and am now in heaven. I am sitting at a table with all my relatives. My sister Katie hugs me and offers me a cold beer – this amazes me because in real life she was against all liquor. Everyone is happy to see me, and we have a great feast. Ida (wife) is wearing a beautiful evening dress and comes over and kisses me.

Dad said he hated to wake up from this dream; he so wanted it to be true.  In another dream mom visited him and told him not to worry about her, that she was fine and had started a new life.  For the next few years, many of his dreams were about being lost and not able to find his way home.

The last two years of his life were spent in a nursing home.  He could barely walk due to a deteriorated back and was legally blind.  Now that he could no longer drink, there was no reason to fear his rages.  I began to feel compassion for him.  It was a sea change when I was able to say “I love you”.   About one year before he died he had the following dream:

    I am standing by a river. A man puts me in a boat. It goes very fast in water that is dirty and full of debris. I want to get to the other side, but I know the boat is heading faster and faster toward the sea, and I am scared.

 We did not discuss what the dream meant.  He did not ask, but I believe he understood at some level.  He talked a lot about being ready for death and wondered why he was still here. The dream told me he still had to deal with the dirty water by reviewing his life – sort of a last chance for understanding and forgiving himself.  And he seemed to do just that in the year he had left.  Today, when I think of my dad, I picture him at a big table, reunited with his family and drinking a beer.

So much about our relationship changed in those final years.  Initially I felt resentment that mother was gone, and I was now in charge of taking care of dad.  But the actual “taking care of” allowed us time to build a kinder relationship that healed me of much negativity and, I believe, also allowed dad to finally let some soul shine through.

Experience with dreams has shown me how effective they are as teacher and guide. Sometimes they comfort us with images of death as a going home, a well earned reward. They can also warn of life’s fleetingness, of work undone and our need to prepare.  Either way, they are a gift not to be ignored.

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