Question from a reader: It’s now been six months since my mother died. In many ways it seems like worlds and eons since then, but in some ways not at all. I really miss her and talking to her every few days, as was our old routine.  The problem I’m having is that I dream about her almost every night.  It’s never the same scenario, except that she’s always sick, like she was toward the end. Sometimes I wake up crying. This has been going on for pretty much the entire time since she died. Is this normal???  I think of her from time to time during the day, but not obsessively so. I’m able to function pretty well. So I’m wondering if this is normal and how much other people have a similar experience.

Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC, responds: Yes, my dear, this is normal, especially now, when you are around six months into your grief. This is the time when all the initial shock and denial have fallen away, and you are confronted with the brutal and painful reality that your mother really and truly is dead and not coming back – at least not in the ways you’ve always known her.

You say that during the day you think of your mom “from time to time but not obsessively so,” but you’re still dreaming of her at night, when she always appears to be very sick. It seems to me that during the day your conscious mind is preoccupied with all that goes on during a normal day, but at night your unconscious mind is free to process whatever is “on your mind” – and that is a very necessary part of the mourning process.

You need time to come to terms with the awful reality that your precious mother is no longer physically present in your life, and dreaming serves an important function in that process. Each time you “see” your mother so sick and dying in your dreams, you are confronted once again with the reality of her terminal illness and the undeniable fact that she has died. Your mind is struggling to accept that brutal reality, and in a very normal way, your dreams are helping you to do that – gradually and indirectly enough that you are able to take it in and tolerate it, in more manageable doses over time.

Many of us don’t even remember our dreams, but at a certain point in the sleep cycle we all still dream, and it is one of nature’s ways of helping us confront and work through whatever is troubling us. Take comfort in knowing that as you move forward in your grief, the content of your dreams will likely change over time, and you can expect that one day you’ll find yourself dreaming of your mother in a healthier, happier state.

If you’re so troubled by nightmares or recurring disturbing dreams that your ability to function during the day is affected, it’s important to know that effective treatment is available.  One method, known as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, was developed by Dr. Barry Krakow of the Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center.  The treatment involves learning some basic guided imagery techniques, recalling the bad dream, consciously imagining and deliberately rewriting the script of the dream, and then rehearsing the altered version of the dream several times during the day.

The technique of image rehearsal is simple enough and safe enough for you to try on your own, if you are so inclined.  Instead of picturing your mother on her deathbed, for example, you might think of her in happier, healthier days, capturing one of your most pleasant memories of a special time you had together.  Write down that memory and read it over several times throughout the day, and once more before you go to bed at night.  Looking at photographs of your mother when she was in a healthier state is another thing you can try.  (You can learn more about guided imagery in the article, Guided Imagery or Visualization, and more about Imagery Rehearsal Therapy in this New York Times article, Rewriting Your Nightmares.  See also Getting Rid of Repeating Nightmares: A Simple, Potent, New Recipe.)  Other resources you may find helpful include Healthful Sleep: Guided Imagery with Belleruth Naparstek,  Tips for Coping with Sleeplessness in Grief, and Looking for Sleep in All the Wrong Places.

If you want to explore ways you actually can work with your dreams, you may wish to read the book, Grief Dreams: How They Help Heal Us after the Death of a Loved One, by T.J. Wray and Ann Back Price. (T.J. Wray is an assistant professor at Salve Regina University, a bereaved sibling and creator of the Web site for Adult Sibling Loss, at; her colleague is a Jungian psychoanalyst on the faculty at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island.)  The authors assert that, “Because grief dreams are a fairly universal phenomenon among the bereaved, they offer the opportunity, when affirmed as important and properly understood, for healing.” They guide readers in ways to understand and value their dreams, how to keep a grief dream journal, and how to use dreams as tools for healing. They explain that most grief dreams fall into four rather broad categories (visitation dreams, message dreams, reassurance dreams and trauma dreams), although there are other grief dream types such as prophetic dreams and dream series. The book offers real-life examples of each type, including their symbols and other important features. Wray and Price show how dreams can be affirming, consoling, enlightening, and inspiring. Grief dreams, they say on page 37, “offer a way through pain to memory and meaning.” Grief dreams act as shock-absorbers, help us sort out our emotions, enable us to continue our inner relationship with the deceased, and make a creative bridge to our future: “Grief dreams often bear meaningful images of a hopeful new life for the mourner [p. 181].”

The authors offer step-by-step guidance for understanding and valuing the various messages from grief dreams – even the nightmarish and shock-absorbing ones. They even give examples of how we can ask for a dream to help us, and suggest a method to use as a possible technique for inducing a reassurance dream. Following each dream story is a “Toolbox” designed to assist the reader to gain the confidence necessary to interpret his or her own dreams. “This confidence is enhanced by the easy-to-learn methods of interpretation that center on the concept that you, the dreamer, are in the best position to accurately interpret your own dreams. After all, your dreams are as unique as you are [p. 6].”

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

Reach Marty through her Web sites, and  She blogs weekly at Grief Healing  and can be found on Twitter, LinkedInFacebook and Pinterest.

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Marty Tousley

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at or through her Web sites, at,, and

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