Not only is there is no wrong way to interpret dreams and signs, but they can become catalysts for a great day. This and more when memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with writer, photographer and performing poet Dana Jerman of Chicago. Visit her on

Flush out icky feelings with words 
Use one dream element as a creative impulse for your day
Some relatives are warmer through the mail than in person
Instead of silence, upset somebody with your feelings and opinions
Enjoying the friends of a dead friend is the perk of funerals
Acknowledge good, bad and ugly feelings inside, as they pass
It’s our job to remind grievers that food is love
Signs from the dead are practically calling cards
A dead man’s belongings belong to someone who treasures them
Study a photo, and guess what happens next
Your To Do List


Flush out icky feelings with words (in fragments or strung together)

“I’m a poet first and writer of short fiction. And I take quite a bit of license, especially if I’m intrigued by someone else’s experiences. The humor in my writing is almost always what startles. Writing gives me a forum to go to a dark place by saying things I might not say out loud. It’s a way to flush out anger, or icky feelings about a person who’s passed. If I couldn’t do it on paper, my mourning process might be a bit more complicated and unpleasant.

My Aunt Linda was 59 when she died relatively young, taken by a rare leukemia that mostly shows up in children. She fought back with chemotherapy, really taking care of herself and dialing back from smoking. But when she had a stroke, she realized, This is the end of the road for me.

Linda’s approach to dying was no fears, no regrets. She knew what she had to do.“


Use one dream element as a creative impulse for your day

“Turns out, I have a knack for dream interpretation. A friend suggested that as much as possible I should keep a dream diary. Now I find that thinking about something peripherally in a dream allows me to see patterns and identify things or forces at large that might be trying to get through to me. Particularly after someone close to you has died.

I like especially when I am able to relax inside a dream, freely jumping from one scenario to another. My dreams are not that vivid but there’s typically one standout thing. Like the color red might be important, or some image comes forth, like a guitar. That’s good, because I’ll pull out this one thing from the dream and use it as a focus for meditation throughout the day. Like the guitar. I made a special effort to listen to music that day, and go to a guitar store. I’ll use that one dream element as a creative impulse because I believe it makes things happen in an otherwise unremarkable day.

One time, Aunt Linda came to me in a dream as two blond, playful twin girls. It also featured my father, my cousins, and a couple other members of my family. There they were, in a room with my dad, running in and out as kids will do. But what sticks out in the dream is that underwater there’s this large Craftsman tool safe box. My cousin Sean is helping me pull it out of the water. In it are two giant diamonds; the smaller one rose-colored. The other diamond is bright white, the size of a dinner plate. I woke up realizing these were the family jewels!

How did I know? I don’t know, but …

The rose-colored diamond represented family, that is, family by blood. The larger white diamond were acquaintances; basically everybody else. I guess I was very concerned with protecting these things and I think that’s why so many of my relatives showed up in the dream. I found it particularly interesting that my cousin who is closest in age to me – married with children – started his family early. So I’m thinking, was the dream saying that I should pull up the tools I need to care for the jewels entrusted to me?”


Some relatives are warmer through the mail than in person

“I didn’t see my Aunt Linda in the final chapter of her life. Her last card to me played Fred Rogers sing-songing something like, ‘There never has been someone exactly like you — and there never ever will be again.’

While she could easily express her love and affection in gifts, my aunt did less well face to face. The choice of the Mr. Rogers card was genuine; she definitely had a maternal instinct even though she did not have children. But still, she could be acerbic and cynical in real life. So my feeling now is, take their love any way you can get it.”


Instead of silence, upset somebody with your feelings and opinions

“When my parents split up after 26 years, my mom had her criticisms of Dad and vice versa. But as soon as my mom divorced my dad, my aunt – instead of siding with my mom – didn’t know how to feel and pulled back a little. She was confused because she didn’t have all the information, which led to a sense of decorum, which led to a generalized feeling. The result was that out of politeness she grew cold.

Yet even in the worst cases, you’re still family. If I had been more honest with my aunt and mom and dad and had felt free enough to ask the tough questions, maybe they would have opened up to me and allowed me to love them in a compassionate way … in a way that they didn’t necessarily ask for, but you could tell it would have more suited their needs.”


Enjoying the friends of a dead friend is the perk of funerals

“At Aunt Linda’s funeral, it was the first time that I had seen my uncle Tad in a while. There always was a very sketchy relationship between Linda and my uncle, her younger brother. While we spent plenty of time together at dinner parties and Xmas, I never felt there was the kind of warmth-building that brought in emotional bonding. Yet at the funeral, remarkably there was family and all these lovely people – co-workers – coming from all across PA extending their sympathy and gratitude. And clearly they enjoyed spending time with one another. In terms of this experience, I felt very happy and was filled with gratitude that Linda had people around her that she could build camaraderie with.“


Acknowledge good, bad and ugly feelings inside, as they pass

“As for the jealousy that crops up in family members (or even in myself) – that’s got to be one of the ugliest things I can feel right now, but it’s an emotional impulse I don’t try to squelch but listen to. Maybe it’s because I’m a performer, but I try to remain as objective as possible. Even with overwhelming happiness you still need to acknowledge your feelings, and know that feelings pass. Watch yourself in the present, and give your full ear over to what’s really happening. But hang on to those feelings too long, and your body begins to react (and not in a good way).

And while I know poetry can be too cerebral at times, I like that in a poem you’re mentioning things that are stuck in your mind in no particular order. There’s a kind of dark brand of humor that comes from the notion that you’re looking out into the audience and see that here’s someone else who will remember this exact same event and have a completely different set of memories and associations.


It’s our job to remind grievers that food is love

I don’t think words are the most helpful thing at a time of extreme grieving. My husband Don was reading from Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” the other day.   There’s a passage about appetite; how the body changes to acclimate itself to an intense grieving process. How a grieving person doesn’t think about food (unless it’s put in front of them), but that it also doesn’t occur to them to acquire it, or even acknowledge that they are hungry.

So I appreciate when someone is intensely grieving, that you bring them something hot and extremely nourishing. Don’t burden them with an extended phone call or even a card with ready text. That can be cold in its own way – and even comes across as an empty gesture. A sympathy card is not a bowl of soup. So I always appreciated after the viewing of Aunt Linda that a family would have us over for a reception after the viewing. I It was summertime and beautiful out, early July, but we didn’t notice. Until we bit into those fresh fruits, all those strawberries and blueberries.

The living must go on living. Putting color and aromas in front of grieving people in the form of hot food or fresh berries is very very pleasant. The more sensory input the better.”


Signs from the dead are practically calling cards

“I see signs – which remind me of people who have passed. I remember when Linda’s mother Patricia passed away in Fall of 1998, shortly after that in college I had this experience. I would be walking and I’d see that the wind would suddenly be picking up speed, whirling the leaves up into a little vortex in front of me!

It would always be the same. I’d be going about my business and then stop, look over to my right and see this little dancing vortex happening. One even chased me down the street in a teasing kind of way. There was always this light, gentle feeling associated with it, and every time it happened, Patricia would be on my mind.

Further along in college, there was a girl killed in a car accident. Her name was Emily. She was hit and killed by a tractor trailer. She used to wear an ankh ring and I had ankh earrings; they had a funny habit of spinning around in my ears, and end up facing upside down. I was working in a college radio station at the time and Emily was on a ladder, organizing shelves and shelves of CDs. She turned and noticed my earrings were crooked, and reached down and righted them for me. I remember she had these big brown eyes. She was such a creative person, she really had a good eye for detail. One of these people that makes you mad, because she’s so good, so smart – so why her?

When we had a memorial service on campus, I mentioned this story about when she fixed my earrings. Then Emily’s mother asked whether she should wear her daughter’s ankh ring this way or that way, and I said, ‘Ask Emily!’ She smiled because she knew that it was true.

It isn’t that the dead are reduced to being an object or a sign or a symbol, but rather that it chooses you. These things become tied to a memory of what they stood for. I imagine that I’m not alone there. She tends to pop up for others as well.”


A dead man’s belongings belong to someone who treasures them

“If it feels as if it would be cathartic to do it – I believe purging is always good. If I can get rid of certain extraneous items or adopt new ways of organizing things or channel a new voice or tone with writing – I will give myself permission to do that.

An acquaintance of mine, Rebecca has this Jack Russell who died. Part of her grieving process was taking her pet’s ashes and sprinkling them over her mom’s grave in Tennessee. I spoke with her recently and she told me that she has all this equipment for a dog, but doesn’t really want to buy another dog. She has the crate, the leashes, but she hasn’t given them away yet. However, she’s planning on moving soon so it may happen on its own. She’ll either have to donate to a shelter, or put them on the curb.

The question you have to always ask yourself is: How do I make the best use of it? By making a move, any move.”


Study a photo, and guess what happens next

“I have a cache of photographs of my growing up days; high school; college; summertime. The majority of them have been digitized – but I still have plenty of prints in a suitcase. As much as I can, I try and put them into an album, but then I’m stymied because you could draw a Venn diagram of overlaps because there are always photos that go with this, and photos that go with that.

So I have a hard time organizing them. But I’ve made small projects with them, where I take sepia photographs and fold them in half, glue one to the back of the other to make a book. If there is room to write on the image, I’ll take a marker and write on those glossy pages. I suppose it could be sacrilegious to write on an image if it’s not an autograph but they’re my pictures and I like them to be living things for as long as they can.

All of these photographs I love, and they remind me of so many things. If I spend time with one or a few of them, I surprise myself, remembering more than I thought possible. Even when I’ve told the story over and over again, there’s always this new detail that crops up as I stare hard at a photo. And as you know, poems crop up around details.

It can happen that I’m writing down some lines, and I don’t know where it’s going. That’s Process. But if I go back to memories and things that happened to me, which informs the next step, and I arrive at my ending and work towards that.

All my poems or stories ever really need is an ending. Your life goes on forever, but short stories don’t. I suppose you’ve got the story when you have a beginning, a middle and an end. But even if there’s an ending, I sometimes get critiques from readers that there is still something more there. They’ll tell me, ‘This is not done…it’s not finished …there is more to this!’

Maybe there is another chapter that I don’t know about that I’ll continue later on.”


Your To Do List

Dana Jerman keeps the memories in old photographs “alive” not by sliding her photos into frames or by making albums, but by folding them into books.

If, like Dana, you enjoy more of a tactile experience with your photographs, here are some ideas to consider (as long as you’re not tampering with the originals):

  • Buy pre-cut, re-positionable talk bubbles and place them directly on your photographs next to people who used to say funny (or horrid) stuff out loud (or to themselves). Fill up books with these narrated photos, each representing a single decade.
  • Scan your favorite photographs so you can print them onto fabric, creating photo-lampshades, or quilted squares or even photo-skirts, with images artfully cut on the bias.
  • Use photographs in a dollhouse: place photos of scenery into a window; cut out people and glue them to a piece of foam core or some other 3-D material pre-cut into a human figure.
  • Enjoy your photographs as home decor: have a specialty photo lab make you custom wallpaper for a wall in your kitchen. Or have a ceramicist turn a photograph into a giant tile (or four square tiles) to act as a backdrop in the shower.

You’ll find playing with a photo’s scale gives you control over the past in ways you’ll never have with the future. It’s endless fun.



Tragicomedia is an oral history project conducted by memory artist, Nancy Gershman about the healthy ways comedic artists process loss and regrets.

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Nancy Gershman

Memory artist and psychotherapist, Nancy Gershman creates pictures of memories you have (or wish you had) of your loved one for healing, legacy and celebration. Bring her the stories that mean so much to you, and she will fashion a fine art, storytelling “photograph” from your personal photos and her own image library. So versatile, so dreamlike and so spot-on are her “Dreamscapes" that families display them at memorial services, mail them as thank you cards, wear them as reunion T-shirts, or snuggle up with them as blankets. To see how her bereaved and end-of-life clients feel about their Dreamscapes, visit Nancy’s gallery website, Art For Your Sake online, or call her at 773-255-4677 (EST).

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