I am haunted by my dreams each night – and it’s helping me to cope

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Ella Risbridger is having bad dreams. But they are allowing her to process grief in ways she didn’t know she could

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By Ella Risbridger on

I have been having bad dreams. Every night it’s the same dream: the person I loved who is dead is no longer dead. This is a really common thing, apparently. Most people who have lost someone dream this dream, and lately I am dreaming it every night.

It’s never exactly the same twice, and it’s never good.

Sometimes he’s been alive the whole time and I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice. Sometimes he’s been alive the whole time and in hiding. Sometimes he’s been in hiding to hurt me; sometimes he’s been in hiding to avoid me; sometimes he’s been in hiding for his own safety or because he thought it judicious or because he was afraid. Sometimes he has just come back to life just now. Sometimes he’s as he always was, and sometimes he’s still sick, and sometimes he’s caught in between.

But the dream is the same in essence: the person I loved (who is dead) is no longer dead. And then I wake up. That’s how dreams always end. Sometimes I’m relieved to wake up, and sometimes I’m bereft all over again, and mostly it’s both – and lots of other feelings besides. I’ve written before about how grief is deeply contradictory and this bit of it’s no different.

I might be able to be happy or I might be able to move on, were it not that I have bad dreams. If I didn’t have to wake up from these dreams, maybe I’d be able to get on with my day without feeling compelled to write about them, talk about them, think about them – and the whole business of grief.

It’s a hard dream to write about. My friend asks me if I’m sure I want to write about these dreams and I don’t know, honestly – but I wish someone had talked to me about the dreams. I wish I’d known when these dreams started why the human brain is wired to have dreams that make us feel worse; I’ve spent a lot of time feeling betrayed by my brain’s capacity to keep going over and over stuff that hurts to touch.

But then, you see, I found this book: it’s called Why We Sleep by a neuroscientist called Matthew Walker.

So often, when you’re sad, you start to feel like your own worst enemy... Your mind is always tripping you up with flashbacks or triggers or insidious reminders of what you’re missing

The first thing I find is Walker’s assertion that writing about your thoughts and feelings “has a proven mental-health benefit” – and that “the same appears to be true of your dreams”. This makes sense to me, of course it does; I’m a writer. It makes sense that writing things down would help.

But it’s more than just writing them down – according to Walker, the dreams themselves are useful. “REM-sleep dreaming offers a form of overnight therapy,” he explains, about halfway through the book. “It was only those patients [in a clinical study] who were expressly dreaming about the painful experiences around the time of the events who went on to gain clinical resolution from their despair.”  

As somebody struggling to afford “real” therapy – and somebody drowning in these dreams – there’s something profoundly comforting in this.

So often, when you’re sad, you start to feel like your own worst enemy. Your body always needs something you don’t know how to provide, like food or exercise or fresh air. Your mind is always tripping you up with flashbacks or triggers or insidious reminders of what you’re missing.

You start to think that if only you were different, you might be better. If you could just stop thinking about it, stop dreaming and snap out of it, you might be better. And this turns out not to be true.

It turns out that your body and mind – that broken machine and the mean little voice – are working together to help you. Those dreams that haunt you are difficult like therapy is difficult; processing things is always hard. It’s a process, after all; it’s part of a journey. It’s getting you where you need to be.

It’s helping you process – and it’s giving you valuable information. The psychologist Philippa Perry, who works with dream interpretation, has this thing where she suggests you try to retell the dream to yourself from the perspective of everyone else in the dream. “Every perspective is us; it is our dream and everyone in it is us,” she said, at a conference several years ago.

Here’s the lovely thing about this: if you get to be everyone in the dream, you get to have multiple perspectives. You get to have all those contradictory feelings that grief (and other sadnesses) are famous for. You contain multitudes, and that’s OK – in dream-world, there’s space for all of you.

I can be me: devastated and heartbroken and bereft. I can be him: angry, afraid, unable to articulate what’s happened to me; or staggeringly flippant and chill about the prospect of the void; or both at once. I can be a nurse (baffled) and our friends (desperate to get me out of here). I can be a locked door. In these dreams (no matter how tearful I am when I wake) I’m learning to make a space for myself – for all the turbulent emotions of loss.

If you’re one of the many people who dream about the people they’ve lost, or the things they’ve suffered, maybe you’ll find this comforting as I do – you’re not your own enemy, but your own ally. You’re squarely on Team You, and you’re doing fine.


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