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
Page 50 [250kb]
Page 51 [250kb]

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean?

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean? by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is a chapter about the history of snake dreams, using psychology and religious studies to explore their meanings.  It comes from my book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey.

If you are interested in how to interpret a dream of a snake, you might take a look at this post.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said about snake symbolism in The Red Book, read this post.

To learn more about actual snakes, check out the East Bay Vivarium.

Chapter 2: Snakes

Animals of various kinds appear in spiritually meaningful dreams. Birds, dogs, bears, wolves, fish, and even insects have come in people’s dreams to deliver important messages from the divine. But the animal that makes perhaps the most powerful spiritual impact in dreams is the snake. People from cultures all over the world report dreams in which they have intensely vivid encounters with snakes. Content analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency. [i] Many reports of snake dreams emphasize their strange, uncanny quality; the dreamer feels both attracted to and yet repelled by the serpent. As the following examples suggest, many people through history have regarded snake dreams as deeply spiritual experiences–for these dreams reveal the ambivalent nature of the sacred, its capacity to be a force of joyful creativity and violent destructiveness in human life.

1) A fifty year-old woman named Rosie Plummer, of the Paviotso people living on the Walker river reservation in Nevada, told anthropologist Willard Park of her shaman father. Rattlesnakes frequently came to him in his dreams and told him how to cure snake bites and other illnesses. Eighteen years after his death, Rosie started to dream about her father. “She dreamed that he came to her and told her to be a shaman. Then a rattlesnake came to her in dreams and told her to get eagle feathers, white paint, wild tobacco. The snake gave her the songs that she sings when she is curing. The snake appeared three or four times before she be lieved that she would be a shaman. Now she dreams about the rattlesnake quite frequently and she learns new songs and is told how to cure sick people in this way. [ii]

2) Lilias Trotter, a Christian missionary who worked in Algeria in the early part of the twentieth century, had these two dreams reported to her by Muslims who were converting to Christianity. A) Trotter says that an Algerian she knew named Boualem had been involved in an angry conflict with a neighbor. She wanted to help Boualem, but didn’t know how; then she says, “now God has dealt with the matter. Boualem told us that a dream had come. ‘I dreamed that a great snake was coiling round my foot and leg, and you [Trot ter] were there, and in horror I called to you. You said to the snake: “In the name of Jesus, let go.” It uncoiled and fell like a rope, and I woke almost dead with joy.’ And the shining of his face told that his soul had got free.” B) Trotter says, “Blind Houriya came this morning with ‘I want to tell you something that has frightened me very much. I dreamt it Saturday night, but I was too frightened to tell you yesterday. To-day my husband told me, “You must tell them.” I dreamed that a great snake was twisting round my throat and strangling me. I called to you [Trotter] but you said: “I cannot save you, for you are not following our road.” I went on calling for help, and one came up to me and loosened the snake from off my neck. I said: “And who is it that is saving me, and what is this snake?” A voice said: “I am Jesus and this snake is Ramadan [the Muslim ritual fasting period].”‘” [iii]

3) Henry Shipes was the son of an English father and a mother from the Maidu Indians of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Califor nia. He grew up at the end of the nineteenth century, during the gold rush era, when the indigenous Maidu culture was coming into conflict with white culture. Henry told anthropologist Arden King of various dreams in which he fought against native shamans who were jealous of his power. In one of these dreams, Henry “had a dream contest with a shaman who was also the headman at Quincy [a Sierra Nevada town]. In this dream Henry and the shaman were contesting with each other to see who had the most power. This was a fight to the death. The shaman acted first. He loosed a snake which pursued Henry Shipes, but was unable to catch him. Henry then tried his white power. This was stated by him to be specifically white. By ruse he caused the shaman to attempt the lifting of a bucket. The bucket exploded and the dream ended.” [iv]

4) The Egyptian Pharaoh Tanutamon is reported to have had the following dream experience in the first year of his reign, as presented by philologist A. Leo Oppenheim in his work on dreams in the ancient Near East: “His majesty saw a dream in the night: two serpents, one on his right, the other on his left. His majesty awoke, but he did not find them. His majesty said: ‘Why has this happened to me?'” His interpreters told him that the dream means that both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt now belong to him. “Then his majesty said: “True indeed is the dream; it is beneficial to him who places his heart in it but evil for him who does not know it.” [v]

5) In Carthage in 203 A.D. Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of twenty-two years, and mother to an infant son, was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. As she waited in prison for the day when she and other Christians would be cast into the arena and killed by wild beasts, her brother came and told her to ask God for a vision to reveal her fate. Perpetua agrees, and says she’ll tell him what she learns tomorrow. “And I asked for a vision, and this was shown to me: I saw a bronze ladder, marvellously long, reaching as far as heaven, and narrow too: people could climb it only one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder every kind of iron implement was fixed: there were swords, lances, hooks, cutlasses, javelins, so that if anyone went up carelessly or not looking upwards, he would be torn and his flesh caught on the sharp iron. And beneath the ladder lurked a serpent of wondrous size, who laid am bushes for those mounting, making them terrified of the ascent. But Saturs [a fellow martyr] climbed up first… And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you–but watch out that the serpent doesn’t bite you!’ And I said: ‘He won’t hurt me, in Christ’s name!’ And under that ladder, almost, it seemed, afraid of me, the serpent slowly thrust out its head–and, as if I were treading on the first rung, I trod on it, and I climbed. And I saw an immense space of garden, and in the middle of it a white-haired man sitting in shepherd’s garb, vast, milk ing sheep, with many thousands of people dressed in shining white standing all round. And he raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘You are welcome, child.’ And he called me, and gave me, it seemed, a mouthful of the cheese he was milking; and I accepted it in both my hands together, and ate it, and all those standing around said: ‘Amen.’ At the sound of that word I awoke, still chewing some thing indefinable and sweet.” Perpetua tells her dream to her brother, and they both understand that she is to die for her faith. [vi]

Dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers

John Adams and Benjamin Rush: dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers, told in Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 1: Dream-Sharing of the Founding Fathers

“Rush set the terms for what became a high-stakes game of honesty by proposing that they dispense with the usual topics and report to each other on their respective dreams.  Adams leapt at the suggestion and declared himself prepared to match his old friend ‘dream for dream.’  Rush began with a ‘singular dream’ set in 1790 and focusing on a crazed derelict who was promising a crowd that he could ‘produce rain and sunshine and cause the wind to blow from any quarter he pleased.’  Rush interpreted this eloquent lunatic as a symbolic figure representing all those political leaders in the infant nation who claimed they could shape public opinion.  Adams subsequently countered: ‘I dreamed that I was mounted on a lofty scaffold in the center of a great plain in Versailles, surrounded by an innumerable congregation of five and twenty millions.’  But the crowd was not comprised of people.  Instead, they were all ‘inhabitants of the royal menagerie,’ including lions, elephants, wildcats, rats, squirrels, whales, sharks….At the end of the dream, he was forced to flee the scene with my ‘clothes torn from my back and my skin lacerated from head to foot.’”

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 214-215.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study these letters between John Adams and Benjamin Rush myself, so I’m relying on Ellis’ reading of this remarkable correspondence (which began in 1805 and continued for many years).  Adams was the country’s second President (1979-1801).  He played a central role in the country’s revolutionary birth but found himself  brusquely pushed aside by Thomas Jefferson, his erstwhile  friend and compatriot who defeated him in the 1800 election.  Rush was another “Founding Father,” a Pennsylvania doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence and who made it his personal mission to reconcile Adams and Jefferson.  He acted as an intermediary between them, writing letters to both men and trying to persuade them to restore some sense of political unity with each other, for their own sake and for the welfare of the young American republic, its visionary system of government still fragile and uncertain of long-term survival.

Why Rush made his dream-sharing proposal to Adams, where he got the idea, what made Adams so quickly agree—these are questions to which I don’t know the answer.  But it’s fascinating to discover evidence that the country’s earliest leaders evinced an enthusiastic willingness to share and discuss the insights revealed in their dreams.  Rush’s “singular” dream reflected the distaste he and Adams both felt toward the political demagoguery of their opponents, whose seductive fantasies were threatening to destroy the federal government’s ability to function as originally intended.  Adams responded with an elaborate nightmare (his reporting of the animals goes on for several paragraphs) in which he’s overcome by the tremendous power and riotous diversity of the animal kingdom.  Ellis suggests, plausibly I think, that Adams’ dream symbolized the angry emotions aroused in him by the split with Jefferson.

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 2: The End

“Rush reported his most amazing dream yet.  He dreamed that Adams had written a short letter to Jefferson, congratulating him on his recent retirement from public life.  Jefferson had then responded to this magnanimous gesture with equivalent graciousness….Then  the two philosopher-kings ‘sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country’….Adams responded immediately: ‘A DREAM AGAIN! I have no other objection to your dream but that it is not history.  It may be prophecy.”

Ellis, Founding Brothers, 220.

In 1809, when Rush described his dream, Adams and Jefferson were still estranged.  However, both men had expressed to Rush a willingness to overcome their differences and bury their hurt feelings for the higher cause of national unity.  Ordinarily I would raise the skeptic’s question myself—Rush’s “dream” sounds too smooth, too allegorical, too conveniently supportive of his conscious goals to be believed.  But as a matter of historical fact, the dream came true in a way I doubt anyone could fabricate.  Adams and Jefferson resumed a cordial, respectful friendship in 1812, and for the remaining years of their lives they wrote each other detailed letters analyzing their roles in the country’s founding and articulating their best understanding of the Revolution’s core ideals and purposes.  In uncanny obedience to Rush’s dream, Adams and Jefferson died on same day—July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Dreams

Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams, told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson 1: Paralysis

“[H]e began having, night after night, a terrifying dream, in which he would see himself sitting absolutely still, in a big, straight chair.  In the dream, the chair stood in the middle of the great, open plains.  A stampede of cattle was coming toward him.  He tried to move, but he could not.  He cried out again and again for his mother, but no one came.”

In Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 32.

Lyndon B. Johnson served as President from 1963-1969.  He told this and the following three dream reports to former White House aide and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Johnson referred to the dreams as meaningful reflections of his deeper character.  This one appears to be the earliest dream Johnson ever remembered, from around the age of five, and it’s a horrifying image of titanic danger and existential vulnerability.  Goodwin’s interpretation moves in a psychoanalytic direction, treating the recurrent nightmares as symbolic indications of Johnson’s oedipal attachment to his mother.  His strenuous effort to deny these powerful desires, Goodwin says, gave him a lifelong fear of paralysis and a corresponding impulse toward restless action and movement.  I won’t dispute her references to Johnson’s personal life, but I think the dreams can also be interpreted as expressions of a precocious awareness of human finitude and weakness in the face of powers vastly beyond his or anyone’s ability to control.  Whatever he may or may not have felt about his mother, Johnson’s recurrent nightmares can be seen as reflecting the primal glimmers of mortality that have haunted the sleep of children throughout history, and that often reappear at moments of crisis later in adulthood.

Johnson told Goodwin that the paralysis dreams came back after his heart attack in 1955, when he was forty-six years old.  He had just been elected Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and the months of recuperation required following the heart attack seemed to create the conditions for the titanic terrors to reappear.  He said, “They [the nightmares] got worse after my heart attack.  For I knew then how awful it was to lose command of myself, to be dependent on others.  I couldn’t stand it.”  This sounds like a pretty good self-analysis of the dreams, more convincing to me than the psychoanalytic approach.

Lyndon Johnson 2: Chained to His Work

“In the dream, I had finished signing one stack of letters and had turned my chair toward the window.  The activity on the street below suggested to me that it was just past five o’clock.  All of Washington, it seemed, was on the street, leaving work for the day, heading for home.  Suddenly, I decided I’d pack up and go home, too.  For once, I decided, it would be nice to join all those people on the street and have an early dinner with my family.  I started to get up from my chair, but I couldn’t move.  I looked down at my legs and saw they were manacled to the chair with a heavy chain.  I tried to break the chain, but I couldn’t.  I tried again and failed again.  Once more and I gave up; I reached for the second stack of mail.  I placed it directly in front of me, and got back to work.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 167

Johnson said this dream came in the early 1960’s, when he was serving as Vice-President to John F. Kennedy.  It merged his recurrent paralysis nightmares with his current political dissatisfactions.  The Vice-Presidency carries enormous prestige but little actual power (until recently, at least), and Johnson’s acute fear of losing control meant he found the position frustrating in the extreme.  His unhappiness with his job resonates, of course, with the multitude of work-related nightmares discussed in previous pages.  Like many, many other American workers, Johnson felt trapped in his job, cut off from his family, and too weak to escape the greater powers that controlled his life.

Lyndon Johnson 3: The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson

“[H]e was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House….His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was [a] thin, paralyzed body….”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 342

This version of his recurrent dream started in 1967, when Johnson was reaching the end of his first full term as President.  He associated the awful vision to 1) his grandmother, whose frail body frightened him as a child, and 2) Woodrow Wilson, President from 1912-1920, a fellow Democrat whose failures Johnson saw as emblematic of weak, impotent leadership.  Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 that effectively ended his presidency.  Johnson worried about his inherited vulnerability to strokes (many in his family had died from them), and he had good reason to fear that his administration would be judged, like Wilson’s, as a failure given the worsening war in Vietnam and the terrible race riots flaring up in several American cities.  His emaciating physical transformation in the dream signaled, I suspect, Johnson’s growing awareness that he would soon be joining the ranks of the presidential ancestors.  Goodwin says that when Johnson had these dreams he would get out of bed and walk through the White House with a small flashlight until he reached Wilson’s portrait, where he would physically touch the portrait in hope of consolation, or sympathy, or perhaps forgiveness.

Lyndon Johnson 4: Swimming in Circles

“In the dream he saw himself swimming in a river.  He was swimming from the center toward the shore.  He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer.  He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere.  He was simply going round and round in circles.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 344

Johnson faced a truly paralyzing situation in 1968, the time when he reported having this dream.  The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese marked a terrible setback the American war cause, the urban racial unrest was intensifying all over the country, student protests were growing in size and passion—if Johnson tried to run for another term he would face a terrible battle against his opponents for the dubious prize of four more years of the same, and yet if he simply gave up and retreated to his home in Texas he would be roundly denounced as a shameless coward.  According to Goodwin, this new variation of his paralysis dream helped Johnson find his way beyond the either-or dilemma.  He decided he would not campaign for a second term so he could better serve the country as a non-partisan leader and peacemaker during the dangerous months ahead.  Goodwin says Johnson connected this dream with a story his grandfather told about cattle getting caught in river whirlpools, which I believe deepens the thematic relations with his early childhood paralysis nightmares of the thundering herd of cattle.  In this dream, more than fifty years after the bad dreams first started, Johnson discovers that even the mighty cattle are vulnerable to the greater power represented by the whirlpool—just so, even the mighty President of the United States must yield to the greater power of historical forces beyond his individual ability to control.  I see the image of the circles as key here.  Johnson decided to devote his final years to the cause of historical continuity, carrying on the legacy of leadership from one President to the next, responsibly ending the service of his administration in order to prepare the country for the next cycle of political decision-making.  He stopped trying to fight against his existential weakness, and chose instead to
embrace the final stage of his political career as an opportunity to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the swirling currents of history.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term. 

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next. 

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]


Hillary Clinton’s 1994 Dreams

1994 dreams of Hillary Clinton: article from Detroit News

On May 19, 1994 The Detroit News published an article on the front of its “Accent” section titled “I Dream of Hillary,” along with a sidebar article on the recently published book Dreams of Bill by Julia Anderson-Miller and her husband Bruce Miller.  The Hillary dreams were gathered by Frank Marafiote, editor of The Hillary Clinton Quarterly newsletter.  Reporter David Jacobson asked Marafiote, psychologist Robert Van de Castle, and myself to comment on a selection of the dreams.  To see a pdf of the original article, click here.

I regret using the phrase ‘big old’ in the article’s featured quote. It was an unnecessary choice of words.