Letting Go of the Deceased

Dreamwork can be a living, evolving thing. Some dreams stay alive in the imagination for a long time. New perspectives and new insights can appear over time. It might happen that a new insight changes the way a dreamer feels about the dream, and suggest a new kind of response. Here’s an example of this kind of ‘dreamwork in progress’:

Remember the dream I posted a month ago; the dream of a 45-year-old woman who is battling cancer – “Holding Hands Through a Glass Barrier”? Here’s the transcript of the dream again to refresh your memory:

“I’m in very white hospital room with my Mom, she’s lying on a table and I’m sitting by her head behind her. There is a white sheet over her. There’s a glass wall separating us, but there are two holes in the glass and she is reaching her arms up above her head through these holes. She wants me to hold her hands. She is there to have an operation to remove breast cancer from her (in waking life she died of gall bladder cancer, she didn’t have breast cancer). They accidentally cut her on the bridge of the nose and she was gushing blood. She was squeezing my hands really tightly. There were two other women in the room on my left–one of them I didn’t know at all, the other was familiar but I’m not sure who she was. They didn’t do or say anything; they were just there. There didn’t seem to be any doctors or nurses or any kind of medical staff. Nobody was there to help. I felt helpless. On waking–I felt there was some kind of message in the dream, but I’m not sure what it was.”

When the dreamer and I first worked with the dream we both felt that the dream referred to a traumatic period in her life which occurred ten years earlier–following sinus surgery she hemorrhaged and lost 35% of her blood. During her recovery period in hospital her husband did not come to visit her (until ordered to by a doctor after a week’s time) and she felt utterly abandoned and alone. My intuition was that the glass barrier was a depiction of the traumatic split that happened in her psyche at this time, a defensive coping that enabled her to cling to life, to accept the unacceptable, and to survive. As a response I suggested that she visualize a scenario in which she could remove the glass barrier and move close to her mother’s side, an action which would symbolize the healing of this old dissociative split which she no longer needed to maintain. She did this visualization in our session and it felt good, so I asked her to repeat it several more times (as I typically do in cases where the goal is to establish a new positive neural network).

But then something new came into the mix. She told the dream to another practitioner who brought a different perspective to bear on the dream–perhaps the glass barrier represented the barrier between the living and the dead, and the grasping of hands pointed to the possibility that the dreamer might be holding on to her deceased mother and not letting her go in some way that she needed to. In this view of the dream the passive female figures that sat near the dreamer and did nothing might represent the “dark shadows” that people often sense when they are close to death.

She wrote me an email about this new angle on the dream: “we discussed the possibility…that my mom was dead in my dream and not alive. She understood my mom to be dead because of the white room and the sheet placed over her (although it was not over her head).  She felt that I needed to hold onto my mother and that the two shadowy figures were there to guide me. The dream to her signified a low point that I was currently feeling (the treatments are ongoing and very difficult) along with the lack of support from my family (dad and brother) and the feeling that comes sometimes of wanting to give up. These shadow figures are there to guide me and to help me cross when I am ready to do so (this is my understanding of what she said.)  She was very clear in stating that this was not a symbol of impending death but just the hopelessness one can feel at various points. Following this session, I resonated with what we discussed and the hopelessness that I sometimes feel with the brief thinking of “perhaps it would be easier for me to stop fighting…..fighting is hard…..  maybe everyone’s life would be easier if I just gave up”.  These thoughts (in my discussion with fellow cancer battlers) are common….  it is difficult for us to watch family members suffer as we suffer.  We are all suffering on different levels. Further to this, given this different perspective, I also felt that I relied too heavily on my mother…..I call on her in my thoughts constantly ….  I feel that I have never really let her “rest in peace” following her death in 2005.  It was an unsettling dream but I personally feel more at peace having let my mother go…  I believe that I can heal from my 10 year old trauma and that this is something we can work on.”

This way of looking at the dream, quite different from our first take on it, also made sense to the dreamer. She did in fact feel that she had been holding on to her deceased mother in some way that might no longer be necessary or healthy. In this case the desired response would be very different–it would involve letting go and saying goodbye to her mother, rather than moving closer to her.

In such a case (where two differing perspectives lead towards two very different responses) I believe it is best to keep them both alive and open. It is usually not a case of one being ‘right’ and the other being ‘wrong’; if they are both resonant they may both have some truth to them and there may be value in responding imaginally in both ways. I asked her to visualize letting go of her mother’s hands, saying goodbye, and imagining her mother’s spirit leaving her and moving away to the place she needed to be. How does this feel? I asked her. “It feels right”, she replied. I asked her to visualize this letting go a few more times, to be with it for a period of time, and then to let me know if it still felt like the right thing to do. A week later she wrote to me: “I stay firm on needing to let my mother go and rest in peace”.

This perspective brings up a number of fascinating questions. Does a psychological “holding on” to the deceased prevent healing? How? Might it be necessary and helpful for a period of time following a major loss? Does this kind of “holding on” actually prevent the spirit of the deceased person from moving onto the next phase of its own journey? Does “holding on” keep the living in an unhealthy proximity to their own death in some way?

In any case this way of looking at the dream seems to be richer and more resonant for the dreamer right now; so, even though I am not fully satisfied I will encourage her to explore the response that feels more true for her. I have a hunch that we have not yet plumbed the full depth of meaning in this dream. Is there possibly a synthesis of the two perspectives that would take us to an even deeper level of truth? Here’s one possibility–did the healing of the old traumatic split that the dreamer achieved in the first round of dreamwork make it possible for her recognize that she now needed to let her mother go in some way that she was not able to before, something she was then able to achieve in the second round of dreamwork?

It’s a work in progress, as dreamwork so often is.

Christopher Sowton

  • deborah Reply

    For me this dreamwork seemed to be in two resonant parts as you state. I think your work with her that initiated taking down the wall to sitting directly with her mother and facing her with no screen or barrier opened the way for her to feel, see, the need to let her mother go so she could more freely meet her own needs in regard to her health and wholeness….regardless of her current diagnosis. I believe “the holding on” is an obstacle for the living from obtaining a level of healing into their own death or going forward into a remission from illness. Wording / thought is a factor ….. keeping in mind that in any “Battle” Fight” there is a WINNER and a LOSER….only rarely is there a truce….and often even then eventually the “Battle” usually erupts all over again somewhere in the future.
    Thanks for this one Christopher …. definitely something to ponder more deeply.

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