By Kimberly Mascaro
I’m on a train. Several extended family members (all deceased relatives who have died during different periods of my life) enter through the train doors, but not all at once. Some are already seated, while others enter through different doors on the same train car. We quietly acknowledge each other. The train is moving again. Some prepare to exit as the train approaches its next stop. Then, they begin to leave, some together, some solo, getting off at different stops, exiting through different doors. I am not going with them. I do not protest. After all, I know they are dead. I have my own stop, my own door. I have some awareness that I am dreaming.
This is an example of what is known as a visitation dream. I have experienced them off and on throughout my life. I’m one of the lucky ones who recall only positive visitation dream experiences, even during periods of sadness and grief. For others, these types of dreams can annoy, frustrate, scare, or haunt.
Most psychologists and psychotherapists I know, do not include dreams in their practice. I was never taught to ask about dreams in my training, yet by 2004, my attention turned toward dreaming, especially the extraordinary kind. I use my own dreams to inform my life and work and also ask my clients if they would like to share a dream with me. Some do and some don’t, which is fine. Dreaming is one way of knowing, and for some it is personal.
Dreams can impact our physiology – they are real experiences. Dreams even influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions. For those that report dreams of the deceased, I consider a variety of ways to attend to these experiences. For example, when I am treating someone with PTSD who dreams of a deceased perpetrator, or a scared child, we may approach dreamwork in one way, such as utilizing dream re-entry. When I am working with a grieving client who is dreaming with the deceased loved one and experiencing deep loss, we may use dreamwork in another way.
One of my favorite dreamwork offerings is to teach clients how to build and use altars and shrines to empower, protect and support. I began teaching shrine-making to clients by 2005, although I had already been constructing them for years. As for the grief/loss example above, I have worked with clients to construct a shrine to not only honor the deceased loved one, but also to create a sacred space to continue the relationship with that loved one. In my own family shrine, I have roses there because I have been given a rose in a visitation dream. This demonstrates to the deceased that I am listening, paying attention. If there is something important to tell the deceased loved one, a letter can be placed at the shrine. From there, it is possible that this action is acknowledged by way of a new visitation dream. Some people even incubate a visitation dream with a question for the deceased person. The question can be written down and place at the shrine or altar, or under the dreamers’ pillow. The next morning, a dream may be recalled to include a response. This is just another possibility for this kind of dreamwork. The options here can go in many directions.
Visitation dreams seem to be getting more and more attention lately. From my research, I learned that visitation dreams most often arise in the context of major life transitions and loss (e.g. bereaved individuals as well as those in the dying process). In 2011, Patrick McNamara authored a Psychology Today article titled Visitation Dreams: Can dreams carry messages from loved-ones who have died? McNamara shares his own experiences with visitation dreams of his parents. Each dream occurred about 6 months after each death. Even with his strong Western scientific background, he “could not shake the conviction” that true communication between he and his dead mother and father took place. Like many researchers and scholars of dreams, McNamara is aware of how little research has been carried out on this topic, all the while knowing that these types of dreams can be very helpful. He states that experiencing a visitation dream can carry a bereaved person to “successful resolution of the grieving process.” Visitation dreams have been helpful through the course of my life. Jeanne Van Bronkhorst’s book Dreams At the Threshold: Guidance, Comfort and Healing At the End of Life (2015) is a notable example, providing rich information about visitations reported among these groups. The author, who worked as a hospice social worker and bereavement counselor, describes how visitation dreams bring comfort to the bereaved as well as confidence to those who are moving toward death.
What can one make of a visitation dream outside of bereavement or end-of-life concerns? One commonality among the visitation dreams reported by those grieving, near death, and others (who are not experiencing grief or loss) is the appearance of, along with some form of communication with, the deceased. In such cases, the deceased individual often appears more youthful and in good health. After a neighbor had died, he greeted me in a dream. Effortlessly moving toward me, his body was in better shape than it had been the last time I saw him alive. His essence felt light and jovial.
Another commonality among the visitation dreams of those grieving, near death, and others is that the dream structure is organized and clear. This was the case for my neighborly visitation dream, along with other visitation dreams I have experienced. None have been outlandish, disorganized, or outrageous. My 2018 book, Extraordinary Dreams: Visions, Announcements and Premonitions Across Time and Place, includes more on these types of dreams for those interested in further exploration.
While these sorts of experiences may imply a broad spiritual perspective and a conviction of after-life realities for many bereaved individuals, they may also offer the same for those not experiencing any kind of grief or loss. A vivid dream visitation has the potential to impact anyone! As conscious, soulful beings, these visitations can open doors and change lives.
What can be done so that meaningful dreams become more than a fading memory? Document the dreams and title them in a journal, notepad, or voice recording app – that’s one way. As an artsy healing professional, I really enjoy getting creative with a dream. Making small altars or shrines (or adding to an already existing one) is a favorite delight. Altar and shrine-making allows for photos of our dream visitors to be displayed and provides a space to hold objects that may have once belonged to the deceased loved one. This space can act as a place to pray, remember, or meditate. By honoring deceased loved ones in this way, it is like we are making the statement that the relationship is important and that we appreciate such dream visits. I consider this kind of dreamwork sacred. Truly, it enhances meaning in life.
Kimberly Mascaro, PhD, is a somatic psychologist and licensed psychotherapist with private practices in Nevada City, Auburn, as well as online. Dr. Mascaro is a board member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) – the world’s largest professional dream organizations. She is the author of multiple publications including Extraordinary Dreams: Visions, Announcements and Premonitions Across Time and Place, and presents on the topic to international audiences. Her love for nature and the arts is overflowing. Dr. Mascaro can be contacted at www.ConsciousChimera.com