Losing a loved one can already feel so impossibly difficult to endure, and it’s even more excruciating when you also suffer from nightmares about the person or the circumstances of their passing. You’re probably wondering what it means if you have a nightmare about a deceased loved one. First, it’s important to determine if the nightmare is a visitation or your own mind trying to work things out. From there, understanding what makes it a nightmare to you and why, and finally, what needs to be healed or resolved based on what’s showing up. While nightmares about a deceased loved one can feel especially traumatic, they can be addressed and resolved so that they stop frightening or upsetting you while you sleep.

Was it a visitation or a product of your grieving mind?

When a loved one seems to visit in a dream or a nightmare, you might wonder if your mind made it up or if it was really a visitation. From experience, the best way to tell is through observation in the nightmare itself. Was it clear and focused with an apparent theme or message, or was it nonsensical? 

One woman whose sister passed away had a recurring dream that her sister was sternly reprimanding her about her drinking habit. It felt like a nightmare to the woman because it wasn’t a joyful reunion or visitation dream, but she couldn’t deny that it felt lucid, clear and specific. In contrast, another young man whose brother passed away had a nightmare that a demon was trying to trick him into trading places with his deceased brother, so that he could come back to life. On waking, though very disturbing to think about, it was clear that it was his mind trying to work through his survivor’s guilt and grief by fabricating a nonsensical scenario where he could restore his brother’s life through sacrifice of his own. 

It can feel overwhelming to work through these experiences alone, so it can be helpful to talk with an open-minded friend, a support group or a therapist that will listen objectively and help you see things you might be missing, and help you discern what’s really driving the nightmare.

Was it a nightmare or a warning?

What makes a nightmare a nightmare to you? It’s all in how you interpret it. If you lose a loved one and have recurring nightmares about a difficult scenario you’re facing, it could be your loved one trying to give you a heads up about immediate action that’s required. This can happen in instances of substance misuse, domestic abuse or other situations that threaten your wellbeing. 

Even if you don’t see your loved one in a nightmare, but you’re plagued with disturbing bad dreams after they pass away, it’s really important to take an honest look at the underlying message that might be trying to come through. It could either be a warning that your loved one is trying to convey to you to help protect and guide you in a way that you’ll pay attention to, or it could again be your mind trying to process something you’re subconsciously aware of, but potentially avoiding dealing with in conscious day-to-day life.  

One woman whose grandmother had passed away started having nightmares about her grandfather trying to rip her apart from the inside out. While they hadn’t had a physically abusive marriage, it was an unhappy one, and the woman took it as a warning to protect and distance herself from her surviving grandfather with whom she had had trouble connecting with but could never figure out why. While the threat of being ripped apart may have seemed nonsensical to someone else, the woman experienced the dream as rational, lucid and extremely vivid. On waking she knew it was a clear warning and not an unprovoked imaginative thought that her mind conjured up.  

No matter what, it’s important to listen to yourself and trust how you feel as you work through the recollection of the nightmare, and be honest about what was or is really happening.

What needs to be healed or resolved?

Regardless of whether you experienced a visitation or whether your mind invented something, it’s clear that something needs to be healed or resolved. So, taking time to reflect on what that might be, if it’s not already obvious, is really critical to healing from the experience. Many recurring nightmares dissolve entirely once they’re owned and processed, either by verbalizing or writing down the experience and then actively working to resolve the conflict that’s creating the issue. Whether it’s being honest for the first time about how many drinks you have each week, or walking away from that abusive relationship, getting out of a situation that makes you feel stuck, trapped or uncomfortable, or just creating better boundaries with people who bring you down, your dreams (and your nightmares) are pretty much always trying to tell you something.

If you wake up from a nightmare, do some honest reflection, and still have no idea what it means, you can always ask for a clearer sign from God, your guides, your deceased loved ones, whoever you trust is looking out for you on the other side. They’re there to help and they want to support you, so ask! There’s also nothing wrong with asking for less-scary experiences.

I used to be terrorized by recurring nightmares when I was younger and well into young adult life, and now my favorite ritual before bed is to thank God and my guides for the day, and ask for my dreams to be guided while I sleep so that I receive information that is helpful in the most gentle way possible. 

No one’s trying to make you miserable up there, so don’t worry!

Nightmares about deceased loved ones can be resolved

Now let’s recap. Nightmares or bad dreams about a deceased loved one can be even more emotional and difficult to experience than “regular” nightmares, so it’s important to:

  1. Establish the source – was it a visitation or something your mind is calling attention to?
  2. Uncover the meaning – what’s the theme or message embedded in the nightmare?
  3. Resolve the issue – take decisive action (and if you’re not sure what to do, ask for help)

Putting in the effort to unpack the message your nightmare is delivering – regardless of whether it was truly a visitation or the product of your own mind as you process your grief – will help you release the anguish so that it doesn’t continue to occur. As an added bonus, your waking life will improve as well, as you eliminate the circumstances that are triggering the nightmares.

December 10th at 7pm EST:Navigating Holiday Grief Workshop

Join Certified Grief Coach and founder of Umoya Institute, Emily Shutt, for a FREE live group coaching session on Navigating Holiday Grief. RSVP now and join us live on Thursday, December 10th @ 7pm EST (4pm PST) or catch the replay via email if you can't join live.

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