Shortly after my sister died I had a dream. It was unlike any dream I’d had before, or have had since. It was crystal clear and in full colour, with none of the sepia fuzz or blurred edges of regular dreams. It was absolutely indistinguishable from real life.
I was in a corridor at a party, surrounded by people, with music blaring. I looked up and I saw my sister dancing toward me. Tanya had been ill for years before she died, but in the dream she was healthy, beautiful, and radiantly happy.
She smiled at me, and we had a brief conversation, too intimate to be repeated here. But I said what I needed to say to her, and her reply was just what I needed to hear.
I woke up with an absolutely overpowering sense of having just had a conversation with my sister. Her voice rang in my ear, as real as the sounds you can hear now. It was odd and unsettling, but incredibly comforting to me.
Tanya has appeared in my dreams many times since, but never again in that same way. My dreams of her are often distressing; she is there, but I know that she shouldn’t be there because she is dead, and my dream self is confused trying to work it all out.
I asked friends if they ever dreamed of their lost loved ones and, overwhelmingly, they do. Some like D, whose husband died suddenly last year, have profoundly upsetting dreams in which their loved one is lost over and over again.
“I'm always chasing him, begging him to come back, to stay with me and our three sons. He never answers my questions, never looks at me in these dreams. He just walks away and ignores my pleading. I hope to one day have a comforting dream with him in it.”
Others find their dreams to be uplifting, offering another glimpse of that deeply missed person.
“I recently renovated and moved into my late parents’ home,” says M, “and they visited me in a dream – they were so happy to be at my housewarming. I believe they were just letting me know they approve.”
And C, who dreamed of her late father when she was pregnant. “He came and sat next to me in his favourite tennis shorts, put his hand on my belly and told me we're having a girl and she will be fine. Two weeks later we found out we were having a girl and she is now almost seven. I believe dreaming of our departed is them coming to say hello.”
And yet many others, like me, feel bereft when they wake, as their conscious mind remembers what their dream state did not.
“It is comforting during the dream,” said S, who lost a parent, “but achingly sad when I wake and have to process the loss again.”
Of course it is sad. There is always going to be sadness in death. And I wouldn’t wish my dreams of Tanya away, not even the ones that cause me pain. It is okay for me to feel pain when I remember my sister, or when I conjure her in my dreaming. She was in my life for 37 years, and she will always be part of the fabric of who I am, whether or not she is still alive.
I’ve long since stopped wondering whether my initial, hyper realistic dream was anything more significant than just my brain grieving a loss. I know now that it really doesn’t matter. Whether it was my sister visiting me from beyond, or my subconscious being super kind to my conscious, is irrelevant. It helped me more than any grief counselling or sympathy. At the time it was just what I needed.
My sister is gone, but she lives on in my dreams. And I cherish that. It means she is still with me, that she is not forgotten. I hope that I dream of her for the rest of my life.
This column first appeared in Sunday Life magazine