Last night you dreamed your lover died of botulism. Should you worry? Well, I wouldn't. Though people do have dreams that foreshadow their own or others' demise, I think those imaginal car wrecks and accidental poisonings are usually just metaphors to be interpreted. Death dreams are often terrifying, and for good reason: They have a message to deliver about an urgent psychological matter, and eliciting fear is a good way to get us to listen up.
Take, for instance, Tina's dream, in which her best friend of 15 years, Marcia, died. Tina was completely unglued about this because she had heard about people having prophetic death dreams. However, as Tina described her life challenges to me, it became apparent to me that she was most likely not dreaming about the literal Marcia, but about an aspect of herself.
Tina had recently gone through some major changes: she had had a baby, and her husband had taken an executive position that required a great deal of travel. She saw herself as a very strong, independent woman, and was not at all prepared for the exhaustion and vulnerability she experienced as a stay-at-home mom whose partner was often unavailable. Though Tina and Marcia generally had an egalitarian friendship, and Tina felt supported by Marcia, Tina generally saw her friend as a "little sister," someone who was more in need of care than herself. Given her recent life overhaul, and her perception of Marcia, it made perfect sense to me that Tina would have a dream in which Marcia perished.
Tina's circumstances presented some serious obstacles to getting her own need for nurturing met: Her new baby was utterly dependent on her, and her primary support person, her husband, was frequently out of town. Was she even allowed to have needs? Tina was too scared to consciously ask the question. So her unconscious took over and gave her the image of Marcia—the "little sister" friend—to help her understand her experience. She felt, deep down, that her need to be nurtured and taken care of would simply have to die, and that idea is what truly terrified her. When she realized this, she took steps to tend to herself: She asked her husband to call a sitter so they could plan an actual date; she let her friends, including Marcia, know that she would be phoning them more often (in between feedings and diaper changes); and she bought a journal so that she could jot down a line or two about her feelings while the baby was sleeping.
What if the death dream isn't about a friend or lover, but about you? Sometimes we dream of our own death to shock ourselves into facing our mortality, or because some piece of our psyche that is essential to our emotional survival is suffocating in our present way of life.
The late Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung's protégé, addressed this in a conversation with the Jungian analyst and author Fraser Boa (also deceased) in Boa's book,
The Way of the Dream: Conversations on Jungian Dream Interpretation with Marie-Louise von Franz (Shambhala, 1994). Boa asked von Franz, "Are there dreams that announce death, that say a person is actually going to die?" Von Franz wisely replied, "Well, I would say that until they are actually dead, you are never quite sure." She continued with this account of a client's experience:
"A woman consulted me once who had cancer, metastases all over the body. She had shocking death dreams. She dreamt that her watch had stopped. She brought it to the watchmaker, and he said it couldn't be repaired. She dreamt her favorite tree was felled in the garden. I didn't even have to interpret the dreams for her. She said sadly, 'That clearly tells the outcome of my illness.' The doctors told her in the usual way, 'You will get better. You will be all right.' But she was sure she was dying, and that terrible shock made her pull up her socks and face her problems. She had a problem she hadn't faced, and I can only say she's still alive after fifteen years. She had death dreams to give her a death shock. She could have died, and she could have not died. Out of shock, she chose to live.
"After that experience I would say that even if people have death dreams, it might only mean that they should face death. It doesn't mean that death will actually happen but that they must come to a naked confrontation with the fact that their life might come to an end."
Sometimes the life-threatening issue that needs to be confronted isn't cancer, but blocked creativity. A friend of mine awoke from an odd dream about a murderous mad scientist with a horrible feeling that she did not have much longer to live. She had recently turned 50, and had been mulling over various aspects of her life with which she felt dissatisfied, in particular her career in advertising. The sudden, visceral feeling that she only had a very limited time on the planet catapulted her into taking the leap of applying to graduate school to get her master's in education. She had always wanted to be a teacher, and had been holding herself back because of her age. Her death dream gave her the impetus to charge after her life dream. And the rush of energy she felt after she applied to school told her that she was absolutely making the right decision.
In her famous book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés discusses the necessity of embracing the Life/Death/Life nature of human existence in order to truly experience our creative power. If new, juicy experiences are to be born, the worn-out and stagnant must die. My friend let go of her advertising career so that she could make room for more rewarding opportunities in education. Tina said goodbye to her "rock of the family" role in favor of acknowledging her authentic needs. Von Franz's client had to face her mortality before she could release her most troubling issues and engage with life. Each of these situations teaches that, while death dreams may be scary, they are often not a harbinger of pain as much as an invitation to a deeper, more satisfying life.