A Dream Before Dying

Life’s profound problems often get resolved in the sleep  that comes before the final rest, these authors say

By Anne Underwood
Newsweek Magazine
July 25, 2005 issue

As a hospice chaplain for 10 years, the Rev. Patricia Bulkley confronted the raw emotions of the dying-their terror at the approaching end, their unresolved family problems, their crises of faith. They were people like Charles Rasmussen, a retired merchant-marine captain in his mid-80s who was dying of cancer. He was consumed by fear until, in a dream one night, he saw himself sailing in uncharted waters. Once again, he felt the thrill of adventure as he pushed through a vast, dark, empty sea, knowing he was on course. “Strangely enough, I’m not afraid to die anymore,” he told Bulkley after that dream. Death was no longer an end, but a journey.

As Bulkley reveals in a slender but powerful new book, “Dreaming Beyond Death,” many people have extraordinary dreams in their final days and weeks. These dreams can help the dying grapple with their fears, find the larger meaning in their lives, even mend fences with relatives. Yet all too often, caregivers dismiss them as delusional or unworthy of attention. Not Bulkley, who often discussed dreams with patients at the Hospice of Marin in California. Her experiences were the inspiration for the book, which she coauthored with her son Kelly Bulkeley, a past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. It is the first volume devoted to the (paradoxically) life-affirming power of pre-death dreams. And though the research is still preliminary, the authors inject level-headed analysis into an arena often dominated by seekers of the paranormal.

Accounts of prescient or meaningful pre-death dreams span religions and cultures, from China and India to ancient Greece. The last dream that psychologist Carl Jung was able to communicate to his followers, a few days before his death, was of a great round stone engraved with the words “And this shall be a sign unto you of Wholeness and Oneness.” To Jung, it showed that his work in this life was complete. Socrates and Confucius also spoke of significant dreams they had shortly before their deaths.

Yet there has been little systematic study of such dreams in modern times. The inherent difficulties are obvious. You can’t enroll people with a week or two to live in formal studies-and they’re hardly going to walk into a sleep clinic and volunteer. By default, hospice workers and family members have collected more of these stories than dream researchers. No one even knows what percentage of people ultimately experience such dreams. Still, scientists recognize that they can be deeply meaningful.

There are certain overarching themes that emerge-going on journeys, reuniting with deceased loved ones, seeing stopped clocks. Often the imagery is straightforward. In one woman’s dream, a candle on her hospital windowsill is snuffed out, engulfing her in darkness-a symbol of death that scares her, until the candle spontaneously relights outside the window. A man struggling to find meaning in his life dreams of a square dance in which the partners leave visible traces of their movements, like ribbons weaving a pattern. “There really is a plan after all, isn’t there?” the man asked Bulkley after that dream. “Somehow we all belong to one another.”

But not all pre-death dreams are comforting. They can also frighten the dreamer, who imagines being chased through crumbling cityscapes or hurtling in a driverless car toward a freshly dug ditch or entering the sanctuary of a cathedral, only to have a tornado break through the roof and suck the visitor up into the whirlwind. “I’ve had patients who woke up pounding on the mattress, very agitated, struggling with the idea that they’re going to lose this battle,” says Rosalind Cartwright, chair of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. These dreams are warnings of unresolved issues. But by forcing attention to the underlying problems, nightmares may ultimately help the dreamer find peace. “Ignore them at your peril,” says Cartwright.

It is hardly surprising that pre-death dreams are more urgent, more vivid and more memorable than the run-of-the mill patchwork of dreams. “Throughout life, at acute stages of crisis and transition, the need to dream is intensified,” says psychologist Alan Siegel of the University of California, Berkeley. The more dramatic the event, the more the dreams cluster around solving related emotional issues. Pre-death dreams can be so intense that the dying mistake them for waking reality-especially when the dreams feature dead relatives.

Yet despite the power of these dreams, caregivers often miss the opportunity to explore their meaning. It’s a loss on both sides, according to Bulkley. Talking about end-of-life dreams can give family members a way to broach the uncomfortable topic of death, she says. For the dying, discussing such a dream can provide a simple way to articulate complex emotions-or, if the meaning of the dream is unclear, to fathom its purpose. And to the extent the dying person finds comfort in any such dream, so do surviving relatives. “These are the stories that get repeated at funerals,” says Bulkley. “They become part of the family lore.”

The authors resist the notion that pre-death dreams prove the existence of God. Yet the dying often interpret them as affirmations of faith. On her deathbed, a female cancer patient of Bulkley’s was stricken with doubts about the nature of God. For three nights in a row, she dreamed of huge boulders that pulsated with an eerie blue light. To her, they represented a divine being that was unidentifiable, but very real. “I don’t need to know anything more than that,” she told Bulkley. “God is God.” But she had one final dream. In it, the boulders morphed into steppingstones. In the distance a golden light glowed. “It’s calling me now, and I want to go,” she told Bulkley that morning. She died the next day-at peace.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com

Pictures and Scans of original article 2005 Newsweek
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Dreaming in Christianity and Islam

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam by Kelly BulkeleyAt a time when Christianity and Islam appear to be mortal enemies locked in an increasingly bloody “clash of civilizations,” new insights are needed to promote better mutual understanding of the two traditions’ shared values.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, and Patricia M. Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2009) provides exactly that.  This new book is a collection of articles by international scholars who illuminate the influential role of dreaming in both Christianity and Islam, from the very origins of those traditions up to the present-day practices of contemporary believers.

Dreams have been a powerful source of revelation, guidance, and healing for generations of Christians and Muslims.  Dreams have also been an accurate gauge of the most challenging conflicts facing each tradition.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam is the first book to tell the story of dreaming in these two major world religions, documenting the wide-ranging impact of dreams on their sacred texts, mystical experiences, therapeutic practices, and doctrinal controversies.

The book presents a wealth of evidence to advance a simple but, in the contemporary historical moment, radical argument:  Christians and Muslims share a common psychospiritual grounding in the dreaming imagination.  While careful, sustained attention will be given to the significant differences between the two traditions, the overall emphasis of the book is on the shared religious, psychological, and social qualities of their dream experiences.

Throughout their respective histories Christians and Muslims have turned to dreams for creative responses to their most urgent crises and concerns.  In this book the contributors apply that same imaginative resource to the current conflict between the two traditions, seeking in the depths of dreaming new creative responses to the global crisis of religious misunderstanding and fearful hostility.  Included in the book are chapters on dreams in the Bible and Qur’an; on the early history of Christian and Muslim beliefs about dreaming; on religious practices of dream interpretation; on the dreams of children, women, college students, and prison inmates; and on the use of dreams in healing, caregiving, and creative adaptation to waking problems.

Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health

Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health by Kelly BulkeleyDominican University’s Albertus Magnus Society will present a lecture titled “Sleep, Dreaming, and Human Health” by Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, on Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m. The lecture will be held in Priory Campus Room 263, 7200 W. Division Street, River Forest. The event is free and open to the public.

     Bulkeley will explain how sleep and dreaming are natural processes hard-wired into the human brain, as well as universal portals into religious experience and spiritual insight. He will describe current scientific research on the health benefits of sleep and the evolutionary functions of dreaming. He will integrate these findings with philosophical and religious teachings about the healing power of dreams.

     Established in 2006 by the Siena Center of Dominican University, the Albertus Magnus Society pursues new information and insight in a setting that is both scholarly and congenial, and reflects the Dominican understanding of the compatibility of religion and science. The society was named for Albertus Magnus, patron saint of scientists, and thirteenth century Dominican famed for scientific discoveries and a theology reflective of the emerging science of his day. For more information on the Albertus Magnus Society, please call (708) 714-9105 or visit the website at http://www.dom.edu/ams.

Dreams, Religion & Spirituality Research: Reference Links

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American Dreamers: How Sleep, Dreams, and Religion Intersect

Interested in the ways that sleep, dreams and religion intersect for American Dreamers?  Below are some of the data charts from my book American Dreamers.

Religious Attendance x Sleep

More than once a week Never
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 11 18
6-8.9 hours a night 84 76
More than 9 hours a night 2 6
Insomnia Never 70 51
1-2 nights a week 13 19
3 or more nights a week 13 27

Religious Attendance x Dream Prototypes

More than once a week Never
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 29 41
Magically flying in the air 25 29
Being chased or attacked 33 45
Falling 40 44
Sexual experiences 34 50
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 53 63
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 37 47

Chapter 3 discusses these findings in relation to the religious and spiritual dimensions of the dreams of the journal keepers. For more on dreaming and religion generally, see Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History.