The Long Goodbye

Dreaming of the Dead
A study of bereavement.
March 17 2009 11:36 AM

The Long Goodbye

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

After my mother died, one of my brothers told me he had been dreaming about her. He was comforted by this. I was envious. I was not dreaming about her, and my main fear, in those first days, was that I would forget what her face looked like. I told an old friend this. He just looked at me and said, "That's not going to happen." I didn't know how he could know this, but I was comforted by his certainty.

Then, about a month later, I began to dream about her. The dreams are not frequent, but they are powerful. Unlike dreams I had about my mother when she was alive, these dreams seem to capture her as she truly was. They seem, in some sense, beyond my own invention, as if, in the nether-realm of sleep, we truly are visiting each other. These visits, though, are always full of boundaries—boundaries, that, judging from other mourners' accounts, seem almost universal.

Advertisement

The first dream was set in both the past and the present. And it captured an identity confusion that is, apparently, not uncommon right after a loved one dies. In the dream, it was summertime, and my mother and I were standing outside a house like one we used to go to on Cape Cod. There was a sandy driveway and a long dirt road. We were going to get ice cream, and we were saying goodbye to my youngest brother, who is 12 years younger than I am; in the dream, he was just a little boy. When I looked at him, I felt an oceanic sadness, but I didn't know why. He smiled and waved from the porch as my mother and I pulled out; I was driving, which struck me as odd in the dream. (My mother loved to drive, and I learned to drive only last year; she taught me.)

As we headed down the long road, my mother talked about my brother, telling me I didn't need to be anxious about him. It became clear she was going somewhere, though I couldn't figure out where. The conversation replicated one we had while she was in the hospital, when I reassured her that my brother (now in college) would be OK, and that I'd help look after him. Only in the dream, she was playing me and I was playing her. The dream had a quality so intense I can still feel it: I am as sad as I have ever been, as if ice is being poured down my windpipe, and I keep trying to turn so I can see my mother, but I have to keep my eyes on the road.

In the next dream, I am at my parents' house in Connecticut with my father and one of my brothers, when, to our surprise, my mother walks into the kitchen. Somehow, we all know she will die in six days. She seems healthy, although her fate hangs around her and separates her from us. Even so, her eyes are bright and dark, darker than I remember them being.  We ask her what she is doing that day. She tells us, with a sly smile, that she is going to something called Suicide Park. I become upset. She reassures me. "I'm not going to there to commit suicide, Meg," she says. "It's a place where people who know they're dying go to do risky things they might not do otherwise—like jump out of a plane." She's excited, like a bride on the precipice of a life-changing ritual. I am happy to see her face, and I never want her to leave.

(Two days later, I tell her friend Eleanor about my dream, and she goes silent on the phone. Then she asks, "Did you know that your mother told me she wanted to jump out of a plane?" No, I say. "One Friday this fall, when she had to stay home from school, I was at the house with her, and she said: 'I really want to jump out a plane before I die.' I said, 'B, you can't—you'll hurt your knee.' But she got upset. So we tried to figure out how she might really jump out a plane. She also wanted to learn Italian. This was when we thought she had more time.")

The third dream had the quality of a visitation. Again, I am at my parents' house in Connecticut, feeling anxious about work. In the den, I tell my father, who is watching football, that I need to go back to New York, and he gets up to look at the train schedule. As he rises, I become aware in my peripheral vision that there are holiday ornaments on the kitchen table, and that people are sitting there. "Stay another night," I hear my mother's voice say, and I look up to see that she is the person at the table. She looks at me, but her hands are busy—either knitting or kneading dough for apple pie. "Stay another night," she says again, with longing in her voice. "Of course," I say, happy I can grant this wish, so simple yet so fundamental. When I woke that morning, I felt calm and peaceful. The voice was my mother's voice, and for the first time, her face was my mother's face. I felt that she had been saying something important to me; I wasn't quite sure what it was, but it had to do with how she loved me; I was still her daughter.

My middle brother has told me about some of his dreams, too. And I am struck by the continuities among all of them. Our dreams almost seem to follow certain rules of genre. In all, I know my mother is gone and that she will never be back as before. But I am given a moment to be with her, to say something, or to share a look or a feeling. In most, the important conversation comes when we are alone together, although another family member may be present on the outskirts. I am never fully able to grasp her; in the first, the car was a barrier between us; in a recent dream, I held her hand over the barrier of a hospital bed. My brother's dreams are similar. (His, I find, are even more beautiful and evocative than mine.) We both experience a quality of being visited, of being comforted, though we also feel a sense of a distance that cannot be traversed. Many readers who have written to me have reported a similar sense of feeling visited from a great distance.

Every time I wake from these dreams, I am reminded of passages from epics like The Aeneid in which the heroes go to the Underworld to see their fathers and cannot embrace them, though they can see them. Or of the beautiful sonnet by Milton about his wife, who died in childbirth. Recounting a dream about her, he writes, "Me thought I saw my late espoused saint," and then invokes her disappearance at precisely the moment they try to touch : "But oh! As to embrace me she inclin'd,/ I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night." What surprises me is how comforted I feel when I wake. I am sad that the dream has ended, but it's not the depleted sadness I've felt in the past when I've woken up from a wishful dream. I feel, instead, replete, reassured, like a child who has kicked the covers off her in her sleep on a chilly night and dimly senses as her mother steals into the dark room, pulls them up over her, strokes her hair, and gives her a kiss before leaving.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.