The symbol in the dream has more the value of a parable. It does not conceal, it teaches. ~ Carl Jung
For years, I have heard about the concept of a “visitation dream,” in which the sleeper encounters a known person, often a deceased loved one, in a particularly vivid way during a dream. A Google search of the phrase produces over 700,000 hits. I have never had a visitation dream, and until recently I had no thought of wanting one. To be honest, since I became a parent I sleep so heavily that I rarely remember a dream.
After I lost my brother I was given a copy of Surviving the Death of a Sibling by T.J. Wray. I read it cover to cover. The chapter entitled Dreams raises the topic of the visitation dream, featuring several stories of how bereaved individuals had dreams in which their siblings appeared and communicated something to them. The author offers her own experience of wanting so badly for her deceased brother to visit her in a dream that she became fixated on it. She tried to will it into being, drinking special teas, meditating, using dream-recall strategies. She became jealous of others who told her about their own dreams in which he appeared. She just wanted one more conversation, one more opportunity to be with him. Eventually as she tried to let go of her desire, she did experience a visitation dream, although she wisely remarks that there is no guarantee that anyone will have one, and no surefire method of making one happen.
I admit it: I wanted to have a visitation dream, too. Although my brother and I had been speaking and e-mailing often in the time period before he died, I had not seen him in person for nearly a year. I wanted an encounter in any way that it could happen. I still do. But I haven’t really had one like the ones I’ve read about. He has only been in one dream of mine, about a month after his death, and it was a short and low-key dream, without the intensity that people describe as a feature of their visitation dreams. In the dream we were in the house we grew up in, and he was casually sitting in a chair at the round brown kitchen table, the old one that my mother had gotten rid of when she let me use it in an apartment I lived in during college. He looked to be in his twenties. I was confused to see him – I said to him something along the lines of, “How can you be here? Aren’t you dead?” I don’t recall that he spoke, but he gave me a look and a shrug that said, “Yeah, well, what can you do.” He smiled and looked completely at ease. I think I sat down at the table with him. That’s all I remember.
Two nights ago I had one of those sleep-disordered, up-and-down nights. I fell asleep on the couch after the kids went to bed, woke up in the wee hours, answered a few emails and brushed my teeth, and went back to bed for a brief period of time before my oldest had to get up for school. In that time I had a dream that rendered my alarm superfluous. I dreamed I was in a forest that covered part of the side of a steep mountain. I emerged from the forest and stood on the ridge for a moment. Then out of nowhere an enormous hawk swooped down and grabbed me from behind with both claws. Whether I was smaller than normal or it was larger I am not sure, but relative to it I was the size of a small rodent, so it could pick me up easily. It flew high into the sky, carrying me so that I faced straight down, my limbs pinned by the grip of its claws. I was terrified I was going to be eaten. Each claw dug into my skin painfully as we flew at heart-stopping altitudes. I couldn’t move. All I could do was wait for the end.
But the bird didn’t stop. It kept flying. Nothing else happened. We flew, and the claws gripped and hurt, and I forced myself to look down at the view as it flowed by far beneath us, and I tried to breathe. And then I woke up with my heart pounding.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. I felt there was a message in it. Later that day it occurred to me: The bird is my loss, grabbing me with no warning, pulling me out of my known and more protected world, causing enormous pain – but also taking me high up where I can access a perspective I have never known. And rather than consuming me, it is holding me there, in pain but in motion, with vision I couldn’t have imagined before. Where are we going, my loss and I? What will we see? Where will your own crisis take you? None of us can yet how our journeys will unfold, but we can wonder, and we can breathe.