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Dreaming at the End of Life

Wise woman and friend Leta McDonald shares some of her experiences with dreams of the elderly and dying with us.

Death Dreams:  Mother


   Leta McDonald

I am a retired Jungian Therapist and have worked with dreams for many years. Dreams have guided and informed my actions regarding the illnesses and death of loved ones. Many dreams have a prophetic, all-knowing quality that is reassuring to the dreamer and points to an intelligence vastly greater than the human mind.

For this essay I will use my own and family dreams. However, those of my clients reveal similar insights.

People often die in our dreams; most often this is not a premonition of actual death, but an indication that some quality needs to transform.  I used to dream about my father being ill and/or dying.  In these dreams, I was being guided to discard a destructive way of relating to the world, one that was taught to me by my father.

Actual death dreams contain highly symbolic imagery – long sea journeys, crossing a river, black birds, candles flickering out, etc.   My close friend Bonnie once told me the dream she had about her husband who was ill with cancer. She “saw the two of them riding in an old fashioned carriage and sitting in the back was a large black bird“.  He died very soon after that.

What was the purpose of this dream?  I can’t know for sure, but such dreams seem to be preparing us, allowing us time to get ready.  Several years later, when she was in a nursing home diagnosed with a terminal disease, I had the following dream:

    I see Bonnie on a floor totally melted from the head down. She is in great distress and asks me to give her some chocolate soup.

I interpreted the dream as a clear call for help. The next day I visited her and saw that she was paralyzed and could only move her head.  She was not speaking, but her eyes revealed great fear and distress.  While speaking to her son, I learned that no pain relief had been administered.  I suggested that morphine could greatly relieve her.  Withholding it in an attempt to keep her alive a few days longer seemed cruel. She died peacefully that night after receiving the morphine (chocolate soup).

The women in my family are prone to prophetic dreams and sightings.  Once, Grandma located my lost brother by falling to the ground and listening for his cry.  The night before Colorado’s Big Thompson flood, my mother dreamed of destructive cascading water.  Because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico, she assumed I was in danger, but the next day’s flood revealed a much larger prophesy.  The week before her sister died, she dreamed Aunt Pearl walked the plank.

Mother and I were close. When I endured a painful separation from my husband, she dreamed I was melting in a hot vat. Months later she happily informed me I emerged just fine from the vat in a second dream, and shortly thereafter the separation ended.

After surgery and chemo for breast cancer my mother had two years of remission.  When the cancer returned, I had the following dream:

     Mother and I are on a large ship that is getting ready to leave port for a long sea journey. We are on the top deck and she asks me to help her get comfortable and to find her a deck chair. I am anxious. She tells me to not be in such a rush.  I know she is taking this trip without me and will depart soon.

The dream tells me that mother is not going to get well this time, and my job is to help make her last days as comfortable as possible.  Of course the dream made me sad, but it also propelled me into action.  I spent most of my time with her, because I knew how little we had left.  I was left with no false hope, but I did not tell mother this dream, as she was still hoping for a cure.  Mother died two months later.  I was grateful for the warning and the opportunity to aid in her crossing.

We’ll hear more from Leta about end of life dreaming next time.

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