Within a few weeks of my teenage son Justin’s death in 1993, I realized I was in over my head and called a psychologist who had been recommended by a good friend. It was one of the wisest things I’ve ever done in my life. Even though I had no health insurance then, I took a leap of faith and started seeing Barbara every other Wednesday.
She was the kind of therapist who gives you homework, and so my inner work continued throughout the time between sessions. One of the tools we used was a dream journal.
I had always been fascinated by dreams, but like most people, usually didn’t remember much upon waking. Barbara taught me to keep a journal right next to my bed and to write down whatever I could remember immediately upon waking, whether it made any sense or not. Even if it was only an image or a fragment that remained in my mind, I found that once I started to write it down, it would often lead me to the rest of dream, like following a single strand of yarn to the entire ball.
The dreams gave my feelings a way of expressing themselves in ways my conscious mind would not allow. I had always had a tendency to repress all emotion. In fact, I was so out of touch with my feelings that most of the time I didn’t even know I had any. I now know that this trait can be very toxic to mental and physical health in the long run—and back then, it could have been disastrous.
My dreams also gave me a way communicating with Justin in ways that were very healing to me. For example, here’s a description of a dream I had about six weeks after Justin died.
I was shopping with someone who was Justin’s father in the dream (but not his actual dad) and we were trying to select the proper transportation for him. (Justin had been looking forward to getting his driver’s license within a couple of months.) His father suggested an eagle for him to ride, which seemed ridiculous to me. Then he showed me what the other kids were riding: amazing beasts and exotic contraptions beyond all imagination. Meanwhile, poor Justin had been puttering along in a very mundane 4 x 4. I could see that it was much too limiting for him and that riding an eagle suited him much better.”
This dream left me with the feeling that Justin’s earthly existence may have been too constricting for the expansive, freedom-loving spirit that he was. It brought me some comfort to think of him in another realm, soaring on the wings of an eagle.
Another dream left me with an extremely vivid memory of playing with an eighteen-month-old Justin.
As we wrestled and tumbled around on the floor, I carried on a casual conversation with several people who were sitting nearby. They seemed to be family members, but I only recognized one of them, my Uncle Virgil who died the previous Thursday.
With Barbara’s help, I also began to understand the language of my dreams. Dreams are full of metaphor and symbolism, and their deeper meanings don’t necessarily match the simplistic interpretations offered in the so-called dream dictionaries that have become popular. The only way to fully understand what your dreams are telling you is to observe them over time and slowly discover the landscape, the common themes and the inhabitants that populate your dream world.
Dreamwork became an important part of my healing journey. As I worked more and more with my dreams, I gained access to a rich reservoir of inner experience. I began to discover threads of connection that ran through the entire fabric of my life. I could see patterns that repeated themselves, not only within my own lifetime, but back through my ancestry and forward into the lives of my children. I began to think of life as a much larger tapestry, which helped me to take a few steps back from my grief and gain a better perspective.