Like many people, you may have dreamed about people you love who have died, or about dying yourself. While these dreams can be sad or frightening, they don’t have to be. Dreams of death and visits from deceased loved ones are not necessarily about death in the literal sense. To find out what these dreams mean, you need to investigate how you have used the imagery of death in order to say something to yourself.

Dreams are a way of problem solving in our sleep. A dream usually concerns something that happened or was thought about the previous day. We prioritize during the night just like we do during our waking hours. From the hundreds of events that occur in a day, your unconscious will choose the most important and literally “dream up” different possible reactions and solutions. Dreams give us a marvelous opportunity to tap into our intuition and to be in touch with our whole selves when making decisions. Our dreams can show us how to become more flexible and more imaginative in our responses to the predicaments in our lives.

Recently a client of mine dreamed her young daughter was dying. The dream presented an emergency situation in which she did not react quickly enough to save her daughter. The dreamer woke in a state of panic. But she had felt no panic in the dream!

In this case the dreamer realized her lack of action in the dream mirrored her behavior in waking life. The dream turned out not to be about her daughter, but about her own inner child who was dying. So much worry and stress had built up in my client’s life that the youthful and playful part of herself was fading away.

“And in life,” I inquired, “would you be at a standstill if your daughter really was dying?”

“Of course not!” she replied.

The dream had served its purpose in seizing the dreamer’s attention. It was time for her to take a vacation and bring back that playful possibility inside her.

So what do our dreams of death tell us? The answer varies, but here are some tools you can use to uncover why you had a dream about death or dying, or why you chose to bring a deceased loved one into your dream on a given night.

Attach your dream to the current issue it is addressing 
To help you attach your dream to a current issue you are attempting to resolve, here are the key elements to study and review.

1.) Write down how you felt in the dream. Ask yourself what situation in the last day or two made you feel the same way. Trust your first hunch when coming up with the answer.

2.) Say the dream out loud. Often the dream’s meaning comes to you when you hear yourself say it. We are constantly playing with words and puns in our sleep. For example, if something happened to you yesterday that made you so embarrassed you “wanted to die,” you might dream you are dying!

3.) What are the people, places or things that stand out in your dream? What pops into your mind when you think about these symbols? Who or what in your life is behaving in a similar way?

Recognize the solution or strength the dream is offering 
Once you find the current problem behind the dream, the second goal is to look back to the dream, because therein always lies a solution or strength; this is the purpose of the dream. It may present a very direct solution to the problem. Or it may offer just a hint to help brainstorm the solution to your problem.

Solutions may appear in the form of a strength that you can use. A TV news anchor in New York City described herself as falling to her death, hitting the ground, then getting up and walking! In the context of a tough situation she was facing at the time, this was probably her unconscious reminding her that when she hits rock bottom she knows how to pick herself up and carry on.

Often dreams shine a spotlight on other people as a way to pinpoint a behavior that is missing in our response to a current situation. If you dream of a dead friend or relative you think was very assertive, you need to react like they would in your current situation. I might dream of my late father when I’m on a business trip, because I need to move closer to that business part of myself. Another question you might ask is if there is someone in your life who is behaving like the deceased person in your dream?

Sometimes Death=Change 
We begin and end relationships, jobs, phases, experiences, and sometimes even behaviors. Endings and beginnings have an impact on us. We work out the effects of that impact in our dreams, sometimes with stories that are one step removed.

A client of mine dreamed her dad was dying. She expressed feeling both saddened and powerless watching the event unfold, knowing there was nothing she could do at this point to stop the inevitable. As we talked she linked the dream to her current dilemma. It was in response to her failed marriage, which she knew was coming to an end. The dream mirrored the death of the relationship, and at the same time helped bring out the sadness she had been holding in.

One fellow dreamed of his deceased high school buddy at a time when his father was near death. The dream helped him reconnect to the sadness he had experienced and recovered from in his past. By reminding him of that past grief, his dream was helping him prepare for the loss he knew he was about to face.

One particularly unnerving type of dream features a person we know is alive who appears dead in a dream. Rather than worry about whether you’re foreseeing a grim future, ask yourself, “What character traits come to my mind about that person?” The answer might help you recognize a part of your behavior you are bidding good-bye.

Spirituality and continuing relationships 
What about when death in a dream isn’t a metaphor? Sometimes seeing someone you love who has died in a dream can be a way of working through that loss – and then sometimes, it feels like more.

When a loved one who has passed on appears in your dream, it is proof that the relationship does not end. You are giving yourself the opportunity to continue the relationship in a new way. One friend wrote of her mum:

“My mother once dreamed that her deceased father was standing near the end of her bed, soothing her as he always did and saying ‘It’s going to be okay… It’s going to be okay,’ during a time in her life when she was particularly troubled. He had always been a calming, loving presence in her life and while she awoke amazed and electrified by the idea that she had seen him again, she also felt bathed in his love and happy he was still available to her.

And who are we to say that dreams about loved ones are not in fact their spirits returning? Does the child in its mother’s womb realize there is a whole world of people, cars, cities, happiness, joy, starvation, wars, and sadness going on right outside its existence? No. It does not. And are we not like children in the womb? Perhaps we are unable to see the vast universe around us, filled with souls who continue to survive and learn.

The point is to stay open. Dreams of death and dying can open the window into another world, and open our eyes to a world within ourselves. If we learn to ask the right questions, and stay receptive to the answers that come from inside, our dreams will show us where our true heart lies. Then we can begin to attend to its desires.