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Visions of the Departed

A little more than 10 years ago, my Uncle Jim, who was in his 70s at the time, suffered the worst of a series of serious heart attacks. I was very close to my uncle, and was devastated by his failing health — it was the first time I had to face the impending death of someone close to me.

During his illness, I had a startling dream: As I was wandering the halls of the hospital looking for my uncle, I found myself in a large, bright bathroom. The shower curtain was drawn closed, the water was running and the room was full of steam. On the edge of the tub sat the hunched figure of my uncle, naked, withered and lifeless.

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It was a horrible sight. Then the shower curtain was flung open and there, vigorously scrubbing his back with a long-armed brush, was Uncle Jimmy. He greeted me like he always did, by shouting "Heyyyyy, Vinceeeeey-boyyy!!!" in his gruff, gravelly voice.

Then he reached down and grasped the lifeless image of himself by the shoulder. He shook it back and forth. He smacked it lightly in the back of its head. It fell, weightlessly, to the floor. "Bahhh, don't worry about it," he grumbled, "Whaddya worried about?"

Then he sang to himself, the way he always did, "Buh-dump- de-dump-dumm, bada dump dum, bada-bum ... " and as he sang he faded into the clouds of steam.

A Powerful Farewell

I woke with a powerful sense of acceptance and peace. An hour later, my mother called to tell me my uncle had passed away. I told her about the dream. "Maybe it was his way of saying goodbye," she told me.

Maybe. Or maybe my own wishes and emotions had conspired to script that transcendent vision. In either case, it was a transforming dream — it lightened my grief instantly and made my uncle's death much easier to bear. And whether it was the direct work of his spirit, or my own informed intuition of what his spirit might do, I have always considered this dream, and its message of peace and reassurance, as a precious gift straight from Uncle Jim.

So I was especially intrigued by a book from noted dream worker Patricia Garfield, which examines in compelling fashion the healing dreams we dream of loved ones who have passed away.

In The Dream Messenger: How Dreams of the Departed Bring Healing Gifts, Garfield argues that our dreams of the dead carry important messages that can enrich and nourish our waking lives.

"The dead have something to say to us in dreams," says Garfield, "and we have responses to make. Sooner or later we all dream of someone close to us who has died. We need to realize that these dreams contain messages that are important to our own well-being."

Messages from Beyond

Just what are the dead trying to say? According to Garfield, who has analyzed hundred of dreams collected from bereaved dreamers, the messages of the departed can be divided into 20 descriptively titled categories, such as "I'll Always Love You," (in which the deceased offer the dreamer their undying love,) and "I'm OK," (in which the dead appear radiant and vigorous — like my Uncle Jim did — to assure the dreamer all is well.)

Unfortunately, not all bereavement dreams are so comforting. Garfield has also identified categories of dreams in which the deceased curse, threaten or express sharp disapproval of the dreamer. These messages can be devastating to the bereaved, but according to Garfield, they also help us along the difficult path of grieving by forcing us to face up to unresolved personal issues with the deceased and find our way toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

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In her book, for example, Garfield recounts the experience of a woman named Carla, who was guilt-ridden because she had placed her mother in a hospital against her will, where she had died alone.

On the night of her mother's death, Carla had a dream in which her mother lividly denounced her for "letting go" so easily. Carla was deeply upset by the dream. She saw her mother as an "unsettled spirit" and felt her anger as a reflection of the unresolved hurt and resentment between them.

Carla bore a terrible grief for months. Then, in this unforgettable dream of her mother, she found forgiveness:

"I hold her in my arms. We talk of unresolved anger, incidents of conflict from past years. There is a pervasive mutual sense of forgiveness and unconditional love. As I hold her, her body undergoes several magical, dreamlike metamorphoses. She becomes a tiny, vibrant, pink-skinned infant, an unrecognizable animal form, a grotesquely disfigured elderly woman, then back to herself. I am not alarmed or repulsed by these changes; my posture is one of nonjudgmental acceptance and love

"I am crying in the dream as the transformation unfolds, as I know it is a prelude to her final departure. The tears are not of anguish, but of release, for both of us. Peacefully, and with an exceptional aura of surrender in each of our hearts, she dies in my arms."

For Garfield, this sense of forgiveness and connection that Carla found is perhaps the most important reason to pay attention to our dreams about the dead.

"Our relationship with the dead is eternal," says Garfield. "We need to listen for their voices in our dreams. We need to ask ourselves, what part of them do we want to live on in us? It's a way of maintaining a connection. As long as we remember them, as long as we see their faces in our dreams, the best parts of them will live forever."

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