Grief is a sacred journey

When Dreams Tell Our Future

Still strong during earlier cancer treatment

Still strong during earlier cancer treatment

“I had a dream last night,” Vic said in a thin raspy voice.

“Really?” I said. Although he’d experienced a lifetime of vibrant dreams, he’d had few during recent months fueled by prednisone, codeine, and Ambien.

“Yeah. I dreamed the Spanish king is dead, but I don’t know about it yet.

King Ferdinand II of Aragon

King Ferdinand II of Aragon

I understood the dead part. Vic had asked me to bring him to the hospital a few nights before because he couldn’t breathe. Doctors promised better times with a new chemotherapy regime. I was skeptical and worried about the level of suffering. But Spanish king?

Vic and I loved dreams. We began reporting dreams to each other when we met in the 1960s. In recent years, we attended dream workshops with Robert Bosnak, a writer, a Jungian analyst, and an inspired dreamworker.

Vic died within a week, but I held on to the mystery of the Spanish king. After his death, I googled Spanish kings, looked at dream interpretation books, and asked friends who work with dream images. What was meant by Spanish kings? Nothing felt right.

Robert Bosnak

Robert Bosnak

In October, Robert Bosnak came to Ithaca for a dream workshop. He helps dreamers embody the images and rarely does interpretation. I asked anyway.

“Robbie, may I tell you Vic’s last dream?”

“Sure,” he said.

The Spanish king is dead, and I don’t know about it.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I’ll think about it,” Robbie said.

Before the afternoon session, Robbie approached me. “You know what I think of when I think of the Spanish king?” he said.

I shook my head no.

“The Spanish kings were the explorers of the New World. Vic was an explorer of new ideas.”

Bull’s eye. The Spanish kings financed explorers from Columbus to Balboa to Ponce de Leon.

Dalai Lama (photo by Vic Mansfield)

Dalai Lama (photo by Vic Mansfield)

Then I remembered the sad conversation Vic and I had the day before that last dream. He sat on the edge of the hospital bed, his legs dangling over the side, and his back slumped forward. It was the only position in which he could breathe and he would not, could not, lie down. It broke my heart to watch his struggle.

“Vic, you need a goal as big as the one of living long enough to teach with the Dalai Lama and present him with your book.” Vic had reached that goal five weeks earlier, but since then, he was in obvious decline.

“Maybe I could still teach, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that anymore,” Vic whispered. “I don’t think I can travel, but maybe I can write. But probably not because I can’t think straight with all these medicines. I don’t know what I can do.”

Last days

Last days

I wrapped my arms around him. He buried his face in my chest and let me support his weight.

The dream repeated the message of our conversation about Vic’s future. Vic had spent his personal and academic life studying new ideas and exploring new worlds of connections in Buddhism, Jungian Psychology, philosophy, and physics. His explorations were over. He wasn’t quite conscious of that yet, but something in him knew.

I believe the dream saved him from more suffering. Knowing, even unconsciously, that there was nothing left in life, Vic surrendered to death and was gone in a few days.

The Spanish king had already died.

***

Do you look to dreams for essential information at critical times? For another post about dreams, please see Finding Balance During Grief: Healing Dreams and Creativity. You might also enjoy reading about Vic’s last meeting with the Dalai Lama in The Last Embrace: The Dalai Lama Blesses a Dying Man (in Shambhala Sunspace, Aug. 15, 2013).

19 Comments
  1. I have always been fascinated by dreams and dreaming. Back in high school, I wrote a paper about the topic, probably with references to Jung.

    Recently, I had a dream in which my daughter is telling me not to write about something troubling in my family’s history in my memoir. Now I believe my conscious mind is telling me do just the opposite – tell my whole truth.

    • Marian, I first looked closely at dreams in a college psychology class. We wrote down our dreams and then tried to interpret them through two different lenses–Freudian and Jungian.

      I wonder what your inner dream daughter would say if you asked her why you shouldn’t write something. What part of you is she portraying? Oh, we could spend a whole hour digging into that one little image. Maybe you have to become aware that a part of you is holding back.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to your husband’s creativity. Dream symbols are so interesting. Sometimes I can figure them out, sometimes not. But with the Spanish King, Vic left you a little mystery behind and a chance to explore his mind once more.

    • I get more from dream images when I discuss them with someone. Vic and I loved to explore each other’s dreams by asking questions rather than interpreting.

      I had a powerful dream while I was in FL co-creating a workshop on mythology and grief with Jean Raffa. The dream starred elephants and a huge white bear. It felt like an affirmation of this new direction. I’m still waiting for my owl dream.

  3. A touching and heartfelt story Elaine. All your posts about Vic strike a chord with so many of us. I totally believe that all of our dreams have valued significance whether to signal a coming event or to emphasize whatever may be dangling in our subconscious.

    • I love the dream world and have vowed to look back at my many dream notebooks from the years right after Vic’s death. The dreams may lead nowhere, but it would be good to get a wider view of them since I had such an unusual run of strong dreams. I’ll see if there are more stories to tell.

  4. thanks for sharing this Elaine! I agree, getting another perspective on the dream is so helpful. How fortunate to have Robert Bosnak on hand! I sometimes look back on dreams that are from a long time ago and find them quite fascinating and revealing. Sometimes the dream is very direct and relates exactly to whatever is going on in my life …other times (most times) I have no idea … and have to be patient in teasing out its possible meaning. Where would I be without my recognising the value of the dream from my own self …

    Jean Raffa’s ‘6 steps’ has been very useful.

    • Susan, I’ve been working with dreams since 1967 because my first spiritual (and Jungian) teacher was a powerful dream worker. It was fantastic to be able to ask Robert Bosnak, especially since he knew Vic well and had worked with many of Vic’s dreams. Jean Raffa’s approach is very helpful when working on dreams on our own, and she’s so good at digging out meaning. I love telling her my dreams. And then there was all I learned from Marion Woodman. Now I go to a Jungian therapist with a focus on discussing dreams. By now, I know how to approach these mysteries, circle them, and watch for clues. I imagine you do, too.
      Dream on…

      • I too was fortunate to be in a Jungian analysis some years ago for quite a long while and the focus was on my dreams. Maybe I should consider going back – now there’s a thought ..

        • I see my therapist every other week and our focus has been dreams since the beginning. I knew I needed support during Vic’s illness. Now I need someone to help me hold my dreams since they keep me on track. You’re one busy blogger. A bow to you.

  5. When I recalled the dream, I recognized immediately that I was projecting my own feelings onto my daughter and have concluded that I can’t hold back. Even though leaving out the painful parts would make for a more pleasant (and probably boring) story, I must tell the whole truth.

    • I have to agree that leaving out the painful parts makes a boring story. I read an article last night about memoir and the writer said the most important thing is stark honesty. Go for it, Marian. I consult my family when I think something I’ve written will offend them or make them feel exposed. So far they tell me to write the truth as I see it.

  6. Oh those dreams. There were so many vibrant dreams right before and after my daughter’s death. I used to keep a notebook on the night-table to catch and keep them. I no longer try to record my dreams. I let them slip away after sharing them with my dog. Instead of looking to my dreams for information or “visits” with my daughter, I like to think that all the information I seek, and that my daughter herself, surrounds me. I must look at life, in all the dark corners and thin places, in order to find my daughter and all essential information. This post was beautiful and haunting. Cheers!

    • Thanks for your comment, Robin. Maybe it’s problematic to put too much energy into dreams, but I write down every one. After Vic’s death, I dreamed four or more nights a week for a few years. The pace is much slower now and I can go a week without a dream. Vic still shows up in my dream world fairly often. I think of these Vic characters as inner masculine energy still associated with my projections on Vic.

  7. Powerful story, Elaine. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in our minds as we sleep. Sounds like Mr. Bosnak hit the nail right on the head with regard to Vic’s dream… How lovely that you can take a bit of comfort in that.

    • Ann, that ah-ha moment when a dream image reveals its meaning is always exciting, even in this sad situation. I hoped Vic would find a way to let go because I didn’t think he would get anything except suffering by staying alive. But we don’t know. I was grateful to the dream for bringing meaning and also a certain resolution

  8. Very touching piece, Elaine. it’s hard to imagine the pain of those last days together. Did you hear that Oliver Sacks is dying? His acceptance, based on what he has given and received from the world, reminds me of your husband’s gifts: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?referrer&_r=1

    • Carole, I read the Oliver Sacks article this morning (I get the NY Times Death and Dying feed). It shows what a developed soul he is. My first spiritual teacher advised us to “widen the view” when we were afraid of death. I see that Oliver Sacks knew just how to do that and write about it in a moving way. I imagine he will keep teaching as long as he can. He’ll may even offer his voice to the growing conversation about end-of-life care.

      I’m grateful you shared this article and ask you to keep sharing because next time I may not have read what you send.

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