Dreaming of a loved one who’s died can stir up a range of emotions, from feeling comforted to reliving the grief all over again. And of course, there’s the question of whether loved ones can visit us in our dreams after they’ve died. Here, experts weigh in on what these dreams could mean, what to do about them, and how to know if you were visited.
There are some in the camp who believe dreams are memory consolidation at work and nothing more. Others, however, believe dreams are loaded with messages and interpretations for us to dive into.
As psychologist and dream expert Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg. “Dream interpretation is about decoding the dream. It enlightens us and expands our awareness psychologically, [offering an] expansion of consciousness.”
The key, he says, is to feel into the emotions the dream evokes in you, identifying more about the emotional experience as opposed to the literal visuals in the dream. “We need to learn the dream language; we don’t always have to translate it into waking,” Naiman adds.
When you can pin down which emotions the dream stirred in you, and pair it with the dream’s scenario, it can help you identify something your subconscious is trying to get through to you.
What it means when you’re dreaming of a deceased loved one.
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In the case of dreaming about a loved one who’s passed on, a study by dream researcher Joshua Black, Ph.D., shows these dreams can help us process the trauma of a loss, serve as a way to maintain connection with the deceased, and/or help regulate emotions.
These are essential components of grieving, and as therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., tells mbg, “One of the most interesting things is, when we lose a loved one or pet, the vast majority of the dreams we have about them are comforting.”
Professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg echoes this point, telling mbg her clients often feel comforted when a deceased loved one appears in a dream, and these dreams help with the grieving process. “When it’s in the first couple of years after their death, and if it’s someone you’re very close to, it can still be connected to the grief. And it’s really common,” she explains.
2. You’re projecting emotions.
While a majority of dreams about a loved one who’s died are ultimately positive or comforting, there are cases where this loved one may be angry, upset, or disappointed in you. According to Loewenberg, these dreams are most likely projections of your own feelings.
“If they’re mad at you, for example, it’s not their spirit coming through. This is you being mad at yourself for some reason,” she explains, adding that these types of dreams are common if you feel you had unfinished business with this person or things left unsaid, and/or they died suddenly.
3. You could be self-sabotaging.
Another potential scenario for dreaming of a loved one who’s died involves them trying to harm you in the dream. Loewenberg tells mbg this likely represents a self-sabotaging part of yourself that’s exhibiting similar patterns or behaviors as this loved one.
She suggests asking yourself if you’re doing anything you know is self-sabotaging, or if there’s something this person struggled with that you’re doing now, whether it’s frivolous spending, a substance abuse problem, etc.
4. It could be a visitation dream.
And last but not least, there are some who believe loved ones can visit us from beyond death, including in our dreams. If you’ve ever dreamed of a loved one who’s passed, you may have pondered the possibility yourself.
For what it’s worth, both Ellis and Loewenberg believe it can happen and, further, claim to have experienced it themselves. Ellis was visited by her cat, Shadow, and Loewenberg, her grandfather, both dreams occurring shortly after their respective deaths.
Ellis and Loewenberg both also describe the same telltale ways of knowing whether you had a visitation dream, or if it was just a dream like any other, which brings us to our next point.
How to tell if you experienced a “visitation dream.”
According to Ellis and Loewenberg, visitation dreams feel distinctly different from your average, everyday dreams. For one thing, Loewenberg says, the person (or pet) probably looks great, healthy, radiant even. Ellis adds when she was visited by Shadow, his coat was shiny and he looked to be in great shape, for example.
Visitation dreams are also typically comforting in nature, as if your loved one was letting you know they’re OK, and they’re around, supporting you.
As Ellis tells mbg, a good litmus test for a true visitation is when the deceased tells you something you didn’t already know and it turns out to be true. “For example, a woman dreamed of her great grandmother, and in the dream was told to ask her mother about the back room in her house,” she says, adding, “She did so and her mother burst into tears, telling her daughter this room was filled with dress-up clothes that she and her siblings would play with every Sunday at their grandmother’s house, and these were her happiest childhood memories.”
Visitation dreams are also typically not very long, according to Loewenberg, who notes the dream likely won’t be unusual. It’s often simply communication between you and the loved one in question.
In the case of a visitation dream, there’s nothing to necessarily do besides take comfort in the fact that you feel your loved one reached out to your through the dreamworld. Loewenberg says you could also write it down in a dream journal and keep it in a safe place to treasure it going forward.
In other cases, she says, “it’s definitely a call from your subconscious to try to come to terms with what’s going on.” Whether it’s a feeling of unfinished business or not being able to accept they’ve passed, it’s important to find a way to accept whatever it is.
One great practice for this, she says, is to write them a letter telling them everything you never got the chance to say when they were alive. You can also do your best to look for a lesson if you feel there were things unsaid, and “moving forward in your life, to never let things get to that point again with anyone you care about,” she adds.
“When these dream figures keep returning, it brings a sense of continuity of connection,” Ellis says, adding that toward the end of life, lost loved ones often come to help ease the life-death transition. “So while grief dreams can be painful, most often they help us through the pain of loss,” she says.
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