Visited in dreams by lost loved ones

Dreams can produce a peculiar combination of vividness and mundanity. Photo: Getty Images
Dreams can produce a peculiar combination of vividness and mundanity. Photo: Getty Images
Last night, I dreamed of him again. My siblings and I were sitting on the sand at Waihi Beach, squabbling over our picnic lunch, and boasting of the waves we were going to catch. John was to my right, munching on a sandy peanut butter and jam sandwich, and not saying much.

It was only upon waking that I realised the strangeness of his presence, and the corresponding brutality of his absence in the real, living world.

On Tuesday this week it was the fifth anniversary of my brother's death. Five years, and still I am visited by him in dreams and nightmares.

When I was a child, my longest recurring nightmare was that of a tall, thin man in a grey suit, with a flat, featureless face, standing behind every closed door I happened to open. The man visited me for months on end, and every time I would jerk awake with a gasp, often to find I had sleep-walked my way into a cupboard, the corridor, or a nearby room. I would give anything to be plagued by that horrid grey man again, instead of seeing my distressed brother when I close my eyes.

I grew up learning about the significance of dreams.

Having a Presbyterian minister for a father meant that I was subjected to long sermons about Jacob's ladder, Joseph's many dreams of wheat, stars, grapes and cows, and Daniel's dream of Nebuchadnezzar's statue, to name a few. I had people tell me that dreams about lost loved ones meant that the deceased was trying to convey a message, or a sense of comfort and peace.

I'm sure Freud would have a field day with my many weird dreams.

After all, he believed that dreams bring forth merely that that lies in our subconscious mind. Dear old Sigmund would probably take a drag from his cigarette, tug on his beard, and diagnose me with a case of wish-fulfillment.

The grief process can be deeply chaotic and nonlinear, but for a great many of us, it continues as we sleep, when the dead return to us in our dreams.

In 2014, a study conducted by Wright et al. found that 58% of the 278 bereaved people surveyed reported dreams of their deceased loved ones. These dreams ranged in content from visions of the deceased free of illness, pleasant memories, the deceased communicating a message, to memories of the deceased's time of death or illness before passing.

It was found that these visitation dreams usually increased acceptance of the loved one's death, helping the recipient to move on with their own life.

My brother didn't struggle with his depression for all that long before taking his own life. I'm lucky in that most of my memories of him are happy ones; vying with each other to see who could swim out the furthest at Waihi Beach, fighting together in judo classes, or seeing him hang out in the quad at school, befriending those who had no other friends.

I'm happiest when I wake from dreams concerning such memories, although it's a bittersweet happiness, because with the light of day comes the gut-wrenching realisation that John is no longer actually here.

I am struck by the changing nature of dreams over time. First, when John died, I was plagued by darker, more insidious dreams of my brother and his final struggles.

Sometimes I still wake sweating and shaking, seeing him lost in the dense, dark bush. In other dreams I see him, forever 18 years old, walking ahead of me in a crowd, turning to smile, and then being swallowed by the masses of people. I run after him, pushing through the throng, but I always lose him. These days, he's just there, part of the family, and his presence barely registers with me until I wake up and realise what I'm missing. It's something of a relief, this amelioration of his visitations, but I can't help but worry if, in seeing less and less of him, he is fading.

I still don't know what to make of my dreams of my brother.

I don't believe there is any spiritual significance to them, although I'd desperately like to believe so. I am often struck by the peculiar combination of vividness and mundanity that these dreams encompass; vividness because they are so intense and kinaesthetic, and mundanity because his appearance is so normal and commonplace to my subconscious mind.

But it's nice to have those dreaming moments, even if they are short and fleeting, where I can roll back the years and talk, albeit briefly, to John again.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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