Dreaming in a Liminal Time


Cynthia Pearson

Presented at the Annual Conference of the
Association for the Study of Dreams
University of California at Santa Cruz
July 7, 1999

My subject today is the dreams of caregivers of the dying, which I gathered while conducting interviews for Parting Company: Understanding the Loss of a Loved One: The Caregiver's Journey (Seal Press, 1999). The focus for this work developed as I compared notes with an old friend, Peggy Stubbs, on our experiences of caring for dying family members. We had both been surprised that nothing we came across in the popular or professional literature had prepared us for what we had endured. We came to realize that caring for a dying person and witnessing death had simply not been adequately detailed. The burgeoning literature on death and dying seemed to focus exclusively on the person dying, rather on those who are witnesses and caregivers. Eventually, we resolved to write the book we wished we could have read while going through the deaths of our family members.

We began our project by devising questions to ask of caregivers, and my longstanding interest in dreams led me to include them in our protocol. Our objective was to gather the honest particulars of being with the dying, and as Stanley Krippner once noted in an ASD workshop, "Dreams are real life too."

Asking about dreams helped us to reach important insights into what we now identify as death-in-life: the transformative experience of being a caregiver during, witness to, and survivor after, another's death, including how death happens within our ongoing lives; how we as caregiving family members come to reckon with a loved one's dying; how we come to accept death when it occurs, or sometimes refuse to accept it; and how we stretch, or cannot stretch, to accommodate our loss.

In this presentation, I will focus on three interviewees and their dream experiences. One is a teacher who, after caring for her dying mother at home and losing her brother unexpectedly a few weeks later, experiences a dream not only of reunion, but of parental commendation and approval. Another is a professional home health care aide who is sometimes notified of a client's death in a dream. The third will focus on the experiences of a young widow whose husband shared a blissful dream on the day of his death. Two months later, she experienced a similarly blissful dream which proved to be a turning point in her bereavement.

Each of these examples illustrates our most useful insight, which is that being with the dying is a liminal experience. A primary step in our understanding death-in-life was discovering the concept of "liminality," a transitional state where one is "betwixt and between," neither here nor there. When we are living with dying, we are in a state of liminality, with ever-shifting parameters with respect to particular conditions as well as duration. Along with sadness, living with dying is full of fear, uncertainty and doubt, and dreams can assist and guide us in our sorrow and discomfort.

The more we gathered the honest particulars of experience which characterize the turbulence and transcendence of death-in-life, the more we learned. We now think of the liminal experience of participating in the dying of another as a significant marker in the life course, and one we hope will be more readily understood as caregivers' perspectives become more prominent in our understanding of death and dying.

The first dream example is the longest, and requires some background information. Susan Briggs Russell took care of her mother, Bernice, during her end state cancer, with the assistance of Susan’s second husband and their young son. At first they all stayed at the Briggs’ summer cottage, with Susan’s brother, James, and his dog, Sparky, but the situation grew increasingly difficult.

James, Susan’s only sibling, was a graduate of Yale Law School who had begun to suffer from schizophrenia in his late twenties. He had lived with his parents ever since, and with only his mother after their father died. James was on medication to control his symptoms, but by middle age, like many schizophrenics, he had also become alcoholic. The sicker his mother became, the worse it was for James. Sparky began to be uncontrollable, and eventually the decision was made to put him down. Finally, Susan brought her mother to the her own home in New England for the last weeks of her life, and she died there.

Less than a month after her mother’s death, James was found unconscious. He suffered kidney failure and died within days. Two months later, Susan, grieving the losses of her only remaining family members, decided to attend a large memorial service which her local hospice held for its many family caregivers. The dream she had afterwards started out much like this memorial service, she explained. In her own words:

In my dream, it was the same sort of deal, a large amphitheater setting, only my mother and my brother were both there; it wasn’t entirely clear why the other members of the audience were there. In the amphitheater were hundreds of seats, all full, and people were milling about, talking as they do before a big performance. There was a stage up front, which was sort of like the auditorium at my old high school. I was wearing my first wedding dress—a big bridal gown. My brother was wearing his dark blue suit and looked very professional. He was busy walking back and forth attending to details related to the show, and then he went out to the lobby. He was probably not going to see the show, but that didn’t seem to matter. It mattered that he go to take care of what he was doing, which he seemed to be happy about. The lights were flashing on and off, like they do when it’s almost time for the show. All the other people kind of faded into the background and we turned our attention to the stage. Then the event assumed more of the quality of an exhibit, something you wouldn’t see from your seat. You had to go up and look at the exhibit. Next, my mother and I made our way up to see these caskets on the stage.

My mother was with me, holding onto my arm. She was in a little salmon-colored suit, short jacket, A-line skirt, complete with pillbox hat, which she may actually have worn at my first wedding. The first exhibit was James in his casket in his death pose. He looked fine. But his being was out in the lobby taking care of business. The dead body was on stage. My mother liked that, James’s casket.

Then we moved to the next box, which was a snake exhibit, like the one at the city zoo behind glass. The box held many snakes, boa constrictors and cobras, living and breathing snakes. Nobody was freaked out. We were just a little puzzled by why they were there, because they had not been there earlier when the lights were flashing off and on. We commented on what a wonderful snake exhibit it was and then went right to the next exhibit. Next there were two caskets. We thought that was kind of odd but we were game. In the first casket was my mother as she had been laid out in her real casket, looking nice in her little peignoir, with all the little things we’d placed in there. My mother looked at this exhibit sort of quizzically, and then looked at the next casket. In this one, the view was of what was underneath, like in those 'The Way Things Work' books, where the cover of something is taken off and you can see what’s inside. In this casket she was lying on her side the way she used to sleep all the time, with both hands tucked up under her chin in a prayer-like posture. Her whole body was a skeleton but her face and hair were beautiful, as if she’d just been to the beauty shop. Her hair was perfect. And the mother on my arm who was looking at these exhibits with me said, ‘Well, you did a good job. I didn’t give you much to work with.’

Then we moved on to the next box, which was Sparky’s casket. It was sort of like a Snoopy-type doghouse casket, only it’s not a doghouse. It’s a flat box. But Sparkly was on his chain up on the top of it. Alive and perky. That’s it. Then we went out. That was the end of the show.

"This dream seemed like they were saying, ‘Okay, we want to see what happened. We’re coming back to tell you that what you did was all right.’ And I felt immensely relieved. I felt totally comforted. I felt really great after that dream. It was a good dream. It was nice to see her. She seemed fine, and James seemed much better than he had when he was alive.

“But I also felt a little strange after that dream: I had no idea why I was dressed in such an elaborate way and I didn’t know what to make of the snakes. Those were two items that I just could not figure out. When I told a friend about the dream, she said it was fabulous. Didn’t I know that snakes, because they shed their skins, are common symbols of regeneration, a new beginning? I didn’t. And the wedding dress was a similar kind of symbol, of my being at the threshold, so to speak, of something new. And here my family was again, sort of giving me away to that new life without them. When I thought about it, all of that fit. That first wedding had been a really happy time for my whole family. My brother hadn’t gotten sick yet.”

After interviewing the Russells, we discovered another meaning for a dream of writhing snakes: “A symbol of the act or need to overcome a problem [and] of the tests we must pass before receiving initiation.” Susan agreed heartily with his interpretation. Like a funeral or a wedding, an initiation is a rite of passage, usually one in which the individual advances into maturity and knowledge. Indeed, the term “liminality” was first coined in The Rites of Passage, Arnold van Genepp’s the landmark study of 1909. It is derived from the Latin word "limen" which means threshold. Thinking about the complicated, rich and sad history of Susan’s family, it seemed that the deaths of her family members had indeed been an ordeal, a test that Susan had endured. In doing so, Susan had reached a new level of wisdom. What did Susan think of this interpretation of her dream? “Oh, yes,” she said.

It has always seemed to me that dreams themselves are liminal, a threshold between ordinary waking life and the ineffable. This next interviewee has special importance because I met him at an ASD conference. Richard T. Murray had studied physics in the 1960s at MIT, where Aldous Huxley was teaching. Richard eventually became a student of higher consciousness, and today works as a home health care aide. He makes it a practice to meditate with his clients, and he described several experiences in which a dream informed him of a patient’s passage. Here is one of them, from a case which Richard considers his most clear and deliberate experience of deep spiritual work with a client.

Richard explained that the patient, a retired high school principal, had already “learned to meditate and he’d studied some spiritual teachings. I would go over every week and spend an hour meditating with him and his family. He was one of those guys who sat in a chair in the middle of the house, day and night. His name was Harry, a very friendly man, lots of spunk and play. I encouraged him in my ways of letting go in the meditation, and we would just go into these profound silences together for an hour every week. Then we’d talk to other people in his family and eat and have a good old time. I’d visit for about three hours every week; they paid for an hour. That was fine. One day when I showed up, he raised his head and said, ‘I’m getting weaker.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t fight it, you know what to do, just let go, you’ll be fine.’ He said, ‘I’m glad you think so, Richard.’” Richard laughed at the recollection. “Harry had that kind of wit.”

Two days later, “on a Saturday morning, I had a strange dream. I was in the garage and the door was open, and this big box made of thick metal walls was grinding without wheels into the garage. KRRRRG. I watched it come to a halt in front of me, and then it silently cracked open. These big pieces of metal just fell open. It was empty, an immense box as big as the garage. And dead silence. I woke up and thought, ‘Now that was weird. It must mean that Harry died.’ Within a few minutes, Harry’s wife called me. He had died about the same time as my dream, and so peacefully that she thought that he had just gone to sleep. And the previous day had been very relaxed and happy and he was talking about a lot of people that other people couldn’t see.”

Richard interpreted the dream: “It was the theme of something rigid breaking open; the stillness; and something coming home, like a car getting parked in a garage. There was a lot of light as well. And the breaking of the rigid structures of this realm, something that just cracks open into space and light and silence. It was a very impersonal dream, which suited his intelligence, and the kind of space I shared with him—a very empty space of complete peace and bliss.”

While most of the professionals we interviewed for Parting Company were calm and philosophical about the dying, no others were as willing to, and as skillful at, occupying the liminal space that the dying must cross.

The last example is from an interview with a 30-year-old social worker, Claire, whose husband, Robert, died of malignant melanoma in their home. She described his last day. She woke first that morning. Robert slept in a hospital bed in their room, and when she looked over at him, “there was a grayish tint to him. Something about him looked different. I got really scared. I tapped him, then started shaking him, and was thinking, ‘He’s in a coma.’“ Claire had once asked the doctor how Robert would die, and had been told, “He’ll just go into a coma.” She shook him some more.

“It took him a really long time to wake up. His breathing was really labored. It took a long time, and then when he woke up he looked at me and didn’t say anything. I walked around the other side of his bed, and he looked at me and said, ‘Would you please go get my wife?’ I said, ‘Honey, it’s me Claire, I’m your wife.’ It took him a really long time to realize this was me. And then he said, ‘Were we on vacation?’ I said no, and he said, ‘We just went on a vacation and it was really beautiful there.” I said, ‘No, you’ve been here, you’ve just been sleeping.’‘Well, don’t let me go back to sleep, because if you do I will die.’ This was terrifying to Claire, but Robert was calm, and later reported to his brother that he would die that day. Late that afternoon, while conversing with Claire, Robert went into convulsions and died. Claire was shocked and horrified that this hadn’t been the calm death she’d expected, and this added to her suffering over the next days and weeks.

She experienced several encounters with Robert after his death, and like a lot of our interviewees, she said the word “dream” wasn’t accurate. But instead of being comforting, these experiences frightened her. In addition, she felt “really, really worried about him. Was he okay? Who’s going to take care of him? Is he lonely? I was obsessive about this.” This spiral of anxiety continued until she had this dream:

Robert came to me while I slept. I was driving some sort of chair in a room with barriers on a long black road. Then all of a sudden, two beautiful white birds flew overhead. I was not afraid, but almost wanted to kiss them. Then I found myself in the most incredible outdoor scenery I have ever seen or felt. I can’t even describe it. I remember gasping and going, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” I couldn’t believe how beautiful this place was. I wanted to cry. I was standing on top of a gorge or a mountain ledge, looking out. I saw beautiful evergreen trees covered with mist. Everything was peaceful and gorgeous. This was no dream; this was Robert. Thank you, Honey. I just wanted to stay in that place. Our souls were connected for that second. Everything was so vivid.

"I woke up feeling, “What just happened?” trying to go back to that place. I knew this was no ordinary dream, but that Robert had spoken to me. He is in a beautiful place. I had to tell someone, but Mom thought I was nuts."

Claire told us, “This was the first time that I realized, there’s something beyond. Even writing it doesn’t describe the feeling I had. I’ll tell you, it’s better than this place we have, this earth. After this experience, I’ve had no fear of death. I fear pain and the process of dying, but no fear of the afterlife. The scene was just amazing. I didn’t see him, I didn’t hear him, but it was him -- the whole scene was him. I’m so happy I experienced that.”

Claire now felt reassured that Robert is in a very beautiful place and that he is okay. “I don’t worry about him the way I used to…I definitely believe now that when you die, you go to some beautiful place. I can’t imagine there’s a hell or purgatory after what I’ve experienced. I do believe in a soul, and it goes to this beautiful place... I don’t know how you get to this dimension…I felt that I was connected in some way. I was consciously aware that this was death or the afterlife. That’s the only basis I have to describe what it was like. I also feel …there’s a sense of being very free-- very, very physically free and very, very spiritually free. Robert was suffering so much in his body. He didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to let go, but I think that once he did let go, there was an incredible sense of freedom for him.”

When a beloved person dies, not only he but the people caring for them are drawn to the border between life and death. It is an intimate time for those who are going through it, and in its way, very compelling for all concerned. As one minister described it, “Sometimes I don’t know if am I with people here or there. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone to the other side with them. Sometimes it’s hard to come back. Because when people invite you, well, the course of a death will just take you in.” I believe now that dreaming in such liminal times is a natural way to make our way between the two worlds, betwixt and between here, and the hereafter.

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