An excerpt from Dreams at the Threshold by Jeanne Van Bronkorst.
One of the greatest challenges of living through our dying is to open ourselves to each other and connect with each other on an emotional and spiritual level. Some people build that emotional connection with family through their faith; they pray together, read holy books, and talk about their hopes for the life to come. Others find the physical act of caregiving—the intimate acts of washing someone’s body, supporting them as they walk, lifting them, and helping them eat—brings them into an emotional intimacy they had never before imagined. The physical closeness leads to emotional bonding as two people journey on a single path.
Sharing dreams—even when we don’t agree on what the dreams are where they come from—can be another way to build this emotional closeness. Any dream, big or small, meaningful or nonsensical, can help build precious connections with families when the dreams are shared.
Daniel’s dreams gave him a chance to practice talking with others, and he grew to truly enjoy the company of other people. Before Daniel got sick, he and his wife rarely went out with friends or other family. When he first became ill and his family rallied around him, he was often uncomfortable. He didn’t have much practice in small talk, and all the visiting exhausted him.
Daniel’s dreams changed that dynamic. In his dreams he reached out socially, hung out with old friends, had long conversations over dinner, and was rewarded with friendships he enjoyed. The dreams helped him build skills that he then brought back with him into waking life. He found it much easier to talk and laugh with people who came to visit him, even if he wasn’t always sure who they were. It didn’t take long for his extended family and old friends to learn they could engage with this newly social person. His friends returned as their conversations could now center on his adventures. They were able to make a new connection with him based on his dream memories.
Daniel’s dreams gave him another few months of emotional connection with the people he loved. To his family and the staff, Daniel’s dreams became a welcome relief from the strain of his illness. His dreams gave them all new memories that they will cherish and laugh over in their grief for the rest of their lives.
Daniels’ story introduces another important benefit of dreams at the end of life. Before his dreams began, Daniel was no longer contributing to his family. He couldn’t provide for his wife, and he couldn’t live at home safely. He couldn’t remember his family and friends enough to reminisce or engage in any meaningful conversation. He needed help for every aspect of his life.
But when he started telling his dreams, part of that suffering lifted. Through his dream sharing he began contributing to the conversation again. He had a story to tell; he had something to offer. His dreams carried new stories and through them he became an active member of his family once more. Researchers consider this an instance of social reciprocity and a good measure of human dignity. Each person involved had something important to contribute. Daniel again had something to say that others were glad to hear.
Our dreams help us live more fully, even at—especially at—the end of life. Perhaps for the first time dreamers find within ourselves a trusted ally. Our dreams remind us of what we know is most important. Dreams can bring us temporary respite from our pain and fear and remind us of our strength. Dreams help us reflect on life’s meaning when we revisit past decisions and important relationships. One dream image can comfort an entire community when all else seems lost and help soften grief over the years. We dream of something better waiting for us just beyond our sight and wake up feeling hopeful, curious, and ready to move forward. Dreams can do all this and more when we allow them room in our life and by talking about them with people we trust.
Talking about dreams does more than simply help us remember their details. Dreams can also help us with the important, difficult conversations so many people long to have at the end of life but don’t know how to begin. Telling our dreams can bring us closer to the people we love and give us a lasting message of hope.