What Can We Learn From Our Dreams About Death?
I had always thought it was impossible to die in your dreams, until I did.
In my dream I was sitting at the back of an airplane as we descended toward the runway. We came down too fast and off balance, and it was obvious we were going to crash. As we touched down the plane lurched violently from side to side, then began ripping apart from front to back. I was terrified, waiting for the impact when the plane would explode.
As seats and suitcases flew through the air, I realized the best I could do was accept my imminent death. I leaned back and closed my eyes as the cloud of dust and debris washed over me. I knew I wanted to die thinking about what I love, so I brought to mind my young son, and waited for the light of my consciousness to go out. I felt euphoric, knowing I was about to join everything I love.
When the moment came I felt no pain. And while I’d expected to lose awareness like falling asleep, I never lost consciousness. I seemed to be passing through purplish space into the stars, where I would join the spirits of everyone I loved, even those who were still living. When I woke up I was crying, not because dying was sad but because it was beautiful beyond words.
According to Sigmund Freud, dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious,” allowing a glimpse into the deepest workings of the psyche that wasn’t possible during our waking hours. For Freud, dreams opened cracks through which we could see our darkest secrets — ones we kept even from ourselves.
Many rejected this view of dreams in the backlash against Freud. A more modern alternative, the activation-synthesis model, posits that the dreaming brain produces patterns of activity that other parts of the brain then try to synthesize and make sense of. What results is a mash-up of bizarre content and connections because the activation patterns during sleep don’t reflect experiences that the meaning-making parts of our brain recognize. Under this view, there’s no deeper message or “meaning” for us to decipher in dreams.
While Freud’s ideas on dream interpretation may have seemed a bit far-fetched, this “random activity” view could feel downright uninspiring. Is there nothing more to these fantasies than nonsensical stories triggered by the random release of dopamine and norepinephrine, serotonin and glutamate?
The fantasies of our dreams are like the unconscious equivalent of television, in that the events depicted didn’t actually happen. And yet they hold such a grip on our imaginations.
How could they not, these magical events that happen while we sleep, somewhere between this world and another? No wonder sacred texts repeatedly use dreams as a way for God to communicate with humans. In the Book of Genesis, for example, Pharaoh’s dreams were prophetic, and led to preparations for famine.
Like death, heaven-inspired dreams offered a connection to the divine. Even today many people believe that a deceased person can visit us in our dreams, perhaps relaying a message from the other side.
Just as dreams can deeply affect us, so too can the awareness of our mortality. I’ve had countless discussions in my therapy office about the specter of death that hangs over all of us:
“I don’t want to die alone.”
“I’m so afraid of dying that I’m not living.”
“I just want to find some joy before I die.”
We fear death, we hope for death, we plan for death, we resist death. We’re preoccupied with a mystery that we never directly experience — until, finally, we do.
Knowing we’ll die shapes our choices. The existential psychotherapist and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom has written eloquently about our relationship with our death knowledge:
“We can never completely subdue death anxiety: It is always there, lurking in some hidden ravine of the mind” (Staring at the Sun, 2008).
The older we get, the harder it is to deny the reality of our eventual death. First it’s our great-grandparents who go, then our grandparents, parents, and eventually our friends. Our great challenge as we look at our approaching death, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, is to come to make peace with the life we’ve lived. The alternative, according to Erikson, is despair.
Knowing we’ll die can actually be a gift, as this knowledge can inform how we live. We can take stock of the life we’re living and ask whether our actions are in line with what we treasure most. What do we want the story of our life to say, once the final chapter is written? If we’ve focused on meaningful goals, we’ll find less despair and greater acceptance of our impending death in our later years.
As a recent article suggested, you can “be fully alive now by meditating on your demise.” Confronting the reality of our mortality tends to change us, often for the better.
This change is never more apparent than among survivors of suicide attempts. One survivor asked me, “If I didn’t die, what did I come back for? To keep following the path I was on where death was the most attractive option?” Like many other survivors, she experienced a profound realignment in her approach to living.
Apparently I’m not the only one who has dreamed my own death—and enjoyed it. Based on her study of death dreams, Dr. Deidre Barrett concluded that “the most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams…is their overwhelmingly pleasant content.”
Dream analysis in psychotherapy generally has moved away from trying to “figure out” what dreams mean and instead asks what the dreamer makes of them. We get to decide what our dreams mean as we connect these imaginary events with our waking experiences.
I chose to believe that my dream of dying reflected something true about the nature of life, and of death. I’ve decided to believe that my dreaming mind revealed something my conscious mind couldn’t conceive of — that my greatest fear and my deepest love were the same thing.
To die was to instantly realize my union with all that I love. What I had imagined as the ultimate separation was in fact the end of separation. My death dream changed my relationship with the idea of death.
I’m pretty sure my beliefs about death don’t affect what actually happens after I take my last breath — whether it’s everlasting union with the divine or cold, black sleep. What we can determine is what our death represents, and how we face it. Do we meet death with terror, realizing we never really lived? With grace and equanimity? With curiosity, as we embark on life’s final adventure?
In our fantasies of death, as in our dreams, we find meaning in the living. Encountering our own death before we die, whether in dreams or in conscious thought, might change not only how we die but also how we live.