Jungian Psychology Series: Dreams and the Afterlife (part I)

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that lives above ground lasts only a single summer. What we see is the bloom, which passes. The rhizome remains.”  (Carl Jung, from the prologue of Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

In my post Growing Through Depression (April 22, 2014), I discussed the Jungian view of depression as an opportunity for transformation of our worldview. Depression occurs when the natural flow of our life energy has become blocked, usually because certain aims or attitudes of our conscious mind, or ego, are at odds with our deeper self. (In other words, life is wanting us to move in one direction, but we want to move in another, or not at all.) The depression resolves when the ego surrenders its too-narrow standpoint, and allows the energy and wisdom of our deeper self to flow more freely. This sacrifice and humbling of the ego is often experienced as a defeat, or death, and is frequently symbolized as such in our dreams. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, “Groundhog Day,” sometimes we must go through many “deaths” before we learn how to truly live. The death/rebirth process is a core component of psychological development and is what guides the ego to its proper role as servant to the larger personality.

This article and the next in this series also deal with the subject of death and transformation. But, instead of the symbolic death of the ego, they deal with the experiences of people close to physical death, and with the appearance of dead people in our dreams. The following stories are not meant to “prove” the existence of an afterlife, but they certainly challenge us to explore this possibility. Some things in life are known “directly” through the five senses, such as the color, taste, and texture of an apple. Other things, such as gravity, magnetism–and the afterlife–cannot be known directly, but are postulated based upon their effects.

It is a basic principle of Jungian psychology that the other people in our dreams symbolize some aspect of ourselves that is like that person. So, for example, if you dream of a friend who has a good sense of humor, he/she probably symbolizes the same attribute or potential within yourself. The dream is using your associations to this person to tell you something about yourself. This general principle holds true whether the person we dream of is deceased or living. However, there are some dreams that we have of “the dead” where this line of interpretation may fall short. Examples include dreams and visions where we have an especially profound sense of that person’s actual presence, as if he/she is standing before us in the flesh. Probably the most frequent type of visitation shared by my clients over the years involve dreams and visions of a loved one checking in on them. Oftentimes the observer will catch a glimpse of the deceased person standing at the foot of their bed as they are entering or emerging from sleep. At other times the interactions are more involved. An 85 year-old woman related, “I have occasional dreams of my husband. He hugs and kisses me, but only for a short time as it always seems like he’s in a hurry–like when he was in the Air Force–he can only visit a short time before he is off.” A few months after her husband’s death another woman experienced a fleeting vision of her husband in the hallway of their home, “He seemed very real. He said he was just checking in to see how I was doing. Then he disappeared.”

Sometimes the encounters are tactile rather than visual. For example, one woman reported feeling her husband’s presence on the bed next to her, and experienced the bed to move at these times as well. A 65 year-old man tells of driving home from the hospital in great anguish having just witnessed his wife’s passing. “I felt her hand stroke my face while tears streamed down my cheeks. The sensation of being touched was quite palpable.” A 67 year-old woman felt the distinct sensation of a warm, moist kiss on her cheek as she lay in bed one night. She attributed it to the spirit of her beloved daughter who had died a few years before and over whose death she still grieved. On occasion, a favorite pet may make its presence known. A 45 year-old woman described seeing the ghost of her recently euthanized cat. She added, “I felt her spiritual presence in the room with me and could feel her rubbing up against my legs.”

Occasionally the deceased come to admonish the living, as illustrated in this dream of a 72 year-old man whose wife had died three years earlier. He recalled: “Starla visited me last night and boy was she angry. She called me an ‘asshole,’ told me to stop drinking and moping around and to get on with my life. She said that there are a lot of things I need to get done before I die.” In a similar vein, a woman in her early forties was redirected by her deceased husband to be more strict with their two teenage sons. “Don’t let them yank your chain,” he urged her in a dream.

Sometimes the figure of the deceased shows up to provide reassurance. A woman shared, “Twenty years after my mother’s death she appeared to me in a dream the night before an upcoming surgery. She told me not to worry, that it would come out alright.” Her mother’s presence was encountered again before another operation several years later. She dreamed, “Mom and I are in a car with her driving. We are going too fast down a mountain road and are about to drive off the edge, but she pushes me out of the car at the last second. She goes over the cliff with the car, but I am saved.” Both dreams provided reassurance at times of great anxiety for the dreamer. The last dream may even indicate a possible intervention by her mother in the outcome of her surgery. At the very least, it suggests that mother nature is going to give her another chance at life.

There are times when the dead appear in our dreams to let us know that the spirit survives death. A woman dreamed of her recently deceased best friend: “Within a week of her death Barbara greeted me. She told me that she’s still alive and doing ok.” Another woman dreamed, “John [a good friend who had died the day before] visited me. I had been busy with friends and he didn’t want to disturb me. I tell him I’d like to see him now. He sits down in a chair across from me and lets me know he is fine. He looks healthy and happy, and we are able to visit for a little while before he must leave.”

If we interpret these dreams as genuine visitations, then it is clear that the dead maintain their interest in and concern for those they have left behind. All of the individuals whose dreams and visions have been discussed above found their experiences to be healing and encouraging of faith in a world beyond this one. Sometimes the spirit of a dead loved one is specifically therapeutic, as shown in this dream of a 65 year-old woman whose oldest son, David, had died seven months earlier. David’s death ushered in a very dark time in Margaret’s life, marked by anger towards God and cynicism regarding the purpose of life. She dreamed, “David came to me. He told me he wanted me to plant a flower garden in my backyard. He said it will heal me and help me to remember how all life regenerates itself.” Evidently Margaret planted that garden and tended it well, for during the anniversary week of her son’s death she awoke with a single dream image: daffodils and tulips nodding gently in the breeze of a sunny spring day.

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