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Interpreting the Meaning of Dreams About Death
Like death itself, death dreams are often misunderstood and feared. Much of that fear comes from lack of knowledge. This article is packed with knowledge to help you become more acquainted with the unknown.
Like everything else dream related, death is almost always symbolic—not literal.
In fact, dreams that indicate physical death are highly complex and practically never involve anything at all dying in the dream.
This article covers common misconceptions about death dreams as well as:
- Dying in a dream.
- Others dying in dreams.
- Death dreams and change.
- Death dreams and endings.
- Complicated grief.
Finally, because dream interpretation is often informed by mythology, we will have a look at how death deities figure across cultures.
Death Dream Misconceptions
Let's get started with a dream interpretation spoiler: death dreams rarely, if ever, indicate a physical death. The legend about dying in a dream and dying in real life? How would we ever know? If you're here because of a dream in which you died, well, that means you made it! Congratulations!
There are death omen dreams, but as previously stated, unless a person is well-versed in symbolism, they are difficult to identify. And when we do have dreams that include physical death symbolism, even those are typically not prophecies but more communications from our psyches alerting us that we are in a situation that feels as dire as physical death.
To understand death dream symbolism, it is helpful to look at the waking world process of dying and what it literally means to us.
Physical death is an ending. A final ending. It is a completion of the life we lived in a physical form.
Just as birth means a permanent end to life in the womb, physical death means a permanent end to the physical form the womb delivered to the world. We enter life in tears and we leave tears in our wake when we die.
But while death does deal in endings, it also deals in beginnings. And that may be the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to find meaning in death dreams.
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Greek Mythology: Five Rivers to Get You to the Other Side
Where Greek mythology is concerned, almost all of us are familiar with the River Styx and the ferryman Chiron. But are you aware that there are five rivers leading to the other side?
Here are the rivers where a boat takes you down . . . to the underworld.
The most famous of the river routes to the underworld. It is a river of punishment. According to some sources, the river Styx originated in the Acheron and the legends between the two are often conflated.
Possibly the more important than the river Styx, the Acheron was the primary barrier between the world of the living and the Underworld: Mortals could not cross it and the deceased needed a ferryman to get them to the otherside.
The River of Forgetfulness. This is the river of oblivion: when one drinks from it, one forgets one's entire life. It was thought the drinking the Lethe's water accounted for why mortals cannot recall their previous lives when they reincarnate.
River of Fire. Associated with Tartarus, The river Phlegethon was a boiling river of punishment and according to some sources the souls of the damned spent time in its fiery waters as part of their eternal torment.
Another river of punishment, this river is where murderers found themselves after death. In some stories the banks of the Cocytus is where those who failed to fix a price and pay the ferryman found themselves wandering for all eternity.
Styx: Boat on the River
Dreams of death have far more in common with beginnings than endings. They portend transformation and rebirth: no resurrection happened absent the pain of death.
You Are Dead or Dying: Transformation Dead Ahead!
All due respect to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the truth of the matter is that dying in a dream does not mean instant death in the waking world. I know because I've died in at least a dozen dreams and yet I'm here right now writing this article!
In fact, far from meaning actual literal death, dreams where you are dying typically point to a major life transformation. Events of the past have been gathering steam and the natural progression of those events is on the verge of culminating in a transformation—often a quite positive transformation.
However, the thing about transformation is that it often involves loss. Just as we children outgrow their favorite toys, adults also outgrow relationships, jobs, ways of being that no longer serve the person we've grown to be. A death dream can be the psyche's way of telling us that we need to "leave it all behind."
As painful or bittersweet as moving on often is, the good news is that death dreams can symbolize that the situation or relationship is ending in a gentle, natural way: the process is more like a wave ebbing back out to sea rather than a rug ripped away underfoot.
Honor what was and realize the freedom left in the wake of what is washed away and move on a a completely new path of your making!
A Living Person Is Dead or Dying
To interpret dreams involving others who are dead or dying, the first thing to consider is what the person in the dream symbolizes. For example, parents dying in a dream rarely has anything to do with our actual parents dying. The death of parents more likely symbolizes autonomy, the maturation of our own selves, or a sense of greater independence.
However, the relationship we have with our parents can shed more light what their death symbolizes. For those of us with abusive parents, dreams of a father dying might symbolize freedom from a controlling authoritarian figure or a suffocating mother figure.
Try to view everyone in your dreams not just with a symbolic lens, but as aspects of yourself. Dreams that a parent is dying or dead could mean that we feel an aspect of ourselves that resembles a parent is dead or dying. Whether or not that is positive or negative depends largely on the relationship the dreamer has to the parent.
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Dreams of Dead People
For dreams about dead people, look at who appears. Keep first and foremost in your mind the relationship you had with the person who has passed. Our own lived mythology always carries the most weight when interpreting dreams.
For instance, is the person in your dream a grandfather or grandmother who you thought of as the wisest person in existence? If so, they may be showing up not as themselves but as an archetypal figure such as the Wise Man or Wise Woman archetypes. Pay close attention because these figures feature prominently in what Jung called Grand Dreams—unforgettable dreams carrying a high valence.
On the other hand, if it's Grandpa Billy who always wagged his finger at you telling you you'd never amount to anything or Grannie Patsy the mean drunk, they could be showing up in your dreams as vestiges of the past.
If you find yourself haunted by childhood traumas, try taking note of where you are now. Remember that you are here. They are gone. They are completely powerless outside the power you surrender them. Keep your power and sleep soundly knowing you are safe.
Miscarriage Dreams or Dream of Children Dying
Miscarriage dreams and dreams of losing children are common dreams during pregnancy. Take heart. Those type dreams are expressions of anxiety and worry over pregnancy—anxiety and worry that need the room only symbolism can begin to express.
However, dreams of children dying when not pregnant are more troubling. Not because they are prophecies of impending death, but because they reveal a feeling that something has already died.
Typically when death dreams involve children, what the dreamer feels is lost is her own innocence, hope, faith, or even the belief in a dream. Have a look at your life and see if some area that was a source of life is suffering neglect and use the death dream as a springboard for resurrection!
When we die, we are not annihilated but consummated."
— Meister Eckhart
Death and Change
Death is a gradual process. Even if death comes quickly or accidentally, the process of death begins, ironically, from the moment we come into being. Our lives are all heading toward an ending and that ending is the finale of death.
But what does death actually mean?
The 1st Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can only change forms—it cannot be created nor can it be destroyed. When we view death from an energetic perspective, we see that death is not destruction or an event; death is a process.
Death as a dream symbol mirrors waking world death. Dreams of death most often mean that we are already in a process of change or a change is on the horizon. The most positive aspect of death dreams is that they indicate a painless change. They indicate that we are prepared for what is coming and most likely the change will be welcome.
Mythology's Lords and Ladies of Death
Fans of the high fantasy children's book series "The Chronicles of Prydain" know this deity and his undead army as the primary threat to Prydain and its inhabitants. Students of Welsh mythology know him simply as the king of the Otherworld, Annwn.
Sumerian goddess of the underworld, Kur. In mythology, she is primarily associated with her interactions with the goddess Inanna in Inanna's Descent Into the Underworld.
A personification of death appearing in many forms throughout mythology. In some myths, the Grim Reaper is death itself--that is, it is the agent of death. In other myths the Grim Reaper is a psychopomp--a guide to the hereafter, not that which brings about death.
In Roman mythology Mania, along with Mantus rule over the Underworld. Mania is thought to be the mother of ghosts. In Greek mythology she is the mother of madness.
Greek and Roman
Canaanite death deity and underworld ruler. According to Ugaritic sources, Mot is a personification of death itself. Mot's hometown is a place called Mirey and his seat of power a pit.
Husband and brother to Isis, Osiris is associated with the underworld, resurrection, fertility, and, ironically, life itself. He is typically depicted holding a crook and flail--symbols later adopted as emblems of the Pharoah.
Norse goddess with a penchant for hunting seafarer's to drown in the net she carries. She is a personification of the ocean and has 9 daughters in the form of waves.
Santa Muerte, or the Skinny Lady, (she is depicted as a skeleton in a robe carrying a globe and a scythe) is thought to be a personification of death who protects and safely shepherds the dead to the afterlife.
Not exactly mythology. Santa Muerte figures prominently and is revered in folk Catholicism and Mexican neopaganism.
Although death does not equate to destruction, it does mean that something ends in the wake of the birth of the new. Birth means the end of life in the womb. Birth means that our lives of sleeping soundly, curled up in the womb's comfort, come to a close and our lives of learning and maturation begin.
Our first breaths are taken in gasps of tears. In many ways, our first seconds are spent in grief and mourning and fear. Life, that thing we all feel confident navigating now was then the same as death at our births: a terrifying time of being overwhelmed by the unknown.
Death dreams can alert us to the fact that there are endings coming our way.
That which ends can be a job, a relationship, a way of relating to the world around us. No matter how amazing the future becomes, there is mourning and grieving as what was gives way to what will be.
Death dreams can also alert us that we need to honor and grieve what was left behind when we moved forward. Even if the past was dark and our new world is bathed in shining light, the past was still known to us. We knew how to live where we were but maybe not so much where we are going.
Our psyches process all change as death. Even if what is left behind is a complete horror show, we know how to navigate the terror. In fact, we prefer the terror because we know the terror. We do not know how to navigate the new because new means unknown.
We've all heard of the people who win the lottery only to have lost every penny in short order. This happens not because they are necessarily bad with money, but because they are unable to cope with a nagging feeling that they are actually dying. Without help and support, these people will succumb to the urge to return to what they know rather than live with the anxiety of what they don't.
If you have already undergone some change or transformation and you are having death dreams, try to honor it. Try to acknowledge that mourning is occurring. Allow yourself to grieve even if it seems like you should be celebrating, not crying.
And that brings us to the next thing that death dreams can mean: complicated grief.
Death Dreams and Complicated Grief
The more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the grief that accompanies the loss.
Complicated or complex grief differs from other types of grief because complicated grief involves much, much more than grieving a loss.
Complicated grief involves not just the loss of another person but the way that that loss affects ourselves. Complicated grief refers to the experience of losing our own identity when someone else dies.
Whereas grief is an expected and painful emotion, complicated grief occurs when we not only fail to process those emotions but we also become trapped in them. Complicated grief means that we almost find our very identities in our loss, in our sense of pain.
Complicated grief arises when we lose too much to fast, or when we lose that which we depended on for survival, or even when what was lost was precisely what we thought we want to leave behind.
When, for example, an abusive parent dies we may find ourselves experiencing dichotomous emotions or emotions about which we feel shame or feel we shouldn't have. We may feel sadness over our loss but at the same time we may feel a sense relief knowing no more damage is possible.
It is also possible that we feel we no longer know how we are or who we will be if we no longer have a person, career, or a relationship to define us—even if that definition was far less than positive.
Death dreams can be the unconscious asking us to notice and give our emotions their due—including the good, the bad, the ugly, and the ones we feel too terrible to say aloud.
Death dreams can be frightening, but they can portend great things, including mystery, revelation, resurrection, the unknown, and transformation.
Change is rarely easy and often scary. If you are dreaming of death and worried about the changes that may be on the horizon turning to the German theologian, mystic, and philosopher Meister Eckhart.
Meister Eckhart believed that everything in life and especially at the point death is predicated on perspective. The more attached we are to what is around us, the more we see change as evil. If we cling to what we have when change comes we feel as though devils have descended to tear apart our souls.
On the other hand, says Eckhart, the more loosely we grasp where we are and what we have, the more at peace we are when change comes. If we are at peace, transformation is seen from the perspective of feeling that angels are at our side, freeing us from everything holding us back.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Esmé San Bonaventura