I often write about the challenges of grieving, but one aspect of grieving that has given me many happy moments is dreaming about my husband who died. I didn’t dream about him for nearly two months after he died. I desperately wanted to; I was hungry for every memory, every story, every reminder of him, but the dreams wouldn’t come. Every night as I waited to fall asleep in bed, I thought only about Tom. It seemed impossible to me that those thoughts I fell asleep to wouldn’t work their way into my dreams.
One day I spoke to a friend on the phone who was also grieving. She said she couldn’t stop dreaming about the loved ones she had lost. She told me the dreams about Tom would come and that maybe I wasn’t ready. I woke up the next morning and immediately texted my friend: I had dreamt about Tom!
It was a good one, too, featuring us living in a post-apocalyptic world, squatting in a four-story apartment building and driving an old Sprinter van. For some reason, we were played by actors in the dream—Tom was played by Jeff Bridges (with a 5’ long beard and wearing a long white robe) and I was played by Kyra Sedgwick. I have no idea why we were played by actors, but the casting was great, so I’m not going to belabor it. Tom was post-stroke in the dream, using a wheelchair and relying on me as his caregiver, but there was no stress or anxiety associated to it. The apartment building where we lived was abandoned except for us, but had a functioning, albeit rickety, elevator. Although I haven’t driven in real life in several years, in the dream I was able to drive the van because in the post-apocalyptic world, there was hardly anyone else around and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally running someone down. We were weirdly happy and carefree in the dream, which is not how I’ve ever thought of post-apocalyptia when I’m awake. I remember one particular moment in the dream when Tom’s 5’ long beard separated into tendrils and blew out around his head, reflecting the sunshine so he looked like a saint. I woke up feeling like I had gotten bonus time with him—it was so clearly a dream but it filled me with the kind of peaceful joy we shared together when he was alive.
It was three months before I had another dream about him, and then I had two within a month. In the first one, he started out using his wheelchair, but at some point during the dream, he stood up on his own, and said, “Hey, babe, check this out.” He was a bit unsteady but not so much that I thought I needed to run over to support him. I said, “Look at you!” and then, in typical Tom fashion, once he got some affirmation, he started showing off: going from crouching to standing, first slowly and then picking up speed. In the dream he was wearing Carharts pants, which he always wore before the stroke but seldom after because I had to dress him and putting Carharts on another person is a serious workout. At one point in the dream, I hugged him, partly to hold him up because he was moving like the Tin Man and it made me nervous, but also because I remembered that he was dead and I wanted to feel his body to see if it was real. He felt lean and strong when I hugged him and I was confused, trying to figure out how I could be calling myself a widow when he was there in front of me showing off his ability to stand.
In the second one that month, we were staying at a hotel made out of rafts on a lake, with each room like a bouncy castle on the water. I was sleeping alone in an inflatable raft room and my room got a leak that made it zip all around the lake as the air whooshed out. I could see Tom, post-stroke, inside the restaurant, another bouncy castle, chatting with the owner and then seeing that I was in distress. After I got rescued by a hotel employee in a kayak and dropped off at the restaurant, a woman told me it was my fault but I knew she was wrong and Tom would back me up. I felt no insecurity whatsoever, I knew he would have my back. When I went to talk to him, he was strong and sinewy, as always, wearing a tight white shirt that showed off his physique. He was lying on his left side on a booth bench so only his right side, which he could still control, showed. He said, “Hey, babe,” as I walked over to hug him. He was strong and healthy and adjusted to not having access to his left side. It felt like we had established a life post-stroke a lot like the life we had pre-stroke.
A couple weeks later, during an acupuncture session, I dozed off and had a dream that Tom was getting out of a car and into his wheelchair in front of our house and I floated down the ramp to meet him. I didn’t have to make any effort to float down the ramp, and it looked like Tom started out having to make an effort to get from the car to the wheelchair, but when I got to where Tom was, he hugged me with both arms, seeming to have the use of his left side, and then sat down in his wheelchair unassisted. I woke up with a start, overwhelmed by emotion.
A week later, napping on the couch at home, I had nearly the same dream, but this time I felt calm and happy rather than overwhelmed when I woke up. After that, Tom started showing up in many dreams as a side character, usually in his pre-stroke form, and always in a crisp white shirt. When he was alive, he had a knack for wearing white shirts that stayed crisp and spotless, even on camping and rafting trips.
In February, I started having lucid dreams about Tom in which I was aware that I was dreaming and could influence the narrative a bit. I don’t remember the details of the first dream, but I do remember at some point in the dream Tom and his mother told me Tom’s stroke was my fault. The thought hit me hard for a moment and then I realized how ludicrous it was for me to take responsibility for his stroke. At the same time, I realized I was dreaming and that my brain was playing a trick on me. I was searching for some kind of certainty about the cause of his stroke, which has been mostly mysterious. Once I realized it was a dream, I told Tom and his mother that I knew the stroke wasn’t my fault and they nodded and accepted it, and I went from feeling panicky to completely calm.
A couple weeks later, I had another lucid dream. In the dream, pre-stroke Tom and I were camping beside a river. We were in our tent and he was wearing his blue and yellow drysuit. We were laughing about something funny one of us had said when his face started turning into a skull from the jawline up. As soon as I realized what was happening, I said, “Uh uh! You don’t get to show up like that. Not in my dream!” and I pointed to the tent’s opening. Tom looked embarrassed and skulked out. I was sad to see him go—it still feels really special to have him show up in a dream—but could tell the dream was going to turn into a nightmare if I let it keep going in the direction it was headed.
My most recent dream about Tom featured him, post-stroke, waking up in the morning and me, as I did everyday, helping him arrange his limbs so that he could sit up without bending anything in a way that would damage his joints or strain a muscle. He was in good spirits and we joked, enjoying each other’s company. There was very little action in the dream—it was mostly just us laughing and hanging out together while I helped him go from lying in bed to sitting up. That was a process that could take up to half an hour. The infinity sign was embedded in the dream in different ways—as a pattern on the bed sheets, doodled on the envelope of a piece of mail, in the loop of my shoelace. Sun streamed in the windows of our house in the dream in a way it doesn’t in real life. I knew it was a dream in part because of that detail–the shafts of sunlight did not reveal dog hair and dust floating free through the air. I felt capable and loved in the dream, not overwhelmed at all.
I’m happy that the dreams are coming more frequently and that I’ve been able to exert some influence over the narrative when they seem to be turning dark. I was surprised to learn that most grief dreams are positive. Dream researcher Joshua Black says that grief dreams can help people experiencing loss understand “the problem of the loved one being gone in a new way” and help us continue to feel connected to the person who died.