After public speaking, people’s greatest collective fear is death. Our culture is so obsessed with saving time, preserving our health and achieving immortal status (or at least eternal youth) that one might even say society is an elaborate campaign to avoid the inevitable.
Dreams, however, are not constrained by this taboo. They show us death in a thousand gory forms, helping us get acquainted with our own fallibility and the cyclical nature of existence. Like night giving way to day and spring emerging from winter, the psyche experiences continual death and rebirth.
There’s an urban myth that says if we dream our own death, we will actually die in waking life, but having dream-died myself I can assure you I’m feeling quite well for it.
A friend recently told me about a dream in which she was being pursued by a grizzly bear. She was terrified, but since she had been doing a lot of shadow-work in waking life, decided to face the bear instead of running from it. Wouldn’t you know, the bear ate her up on the spot. Remarkably, instead of feeling consumed by the bear she experienced herself being filled with its powers.
In the shamanic tradition, death is a common form of initiation. The dreambody must be torn limb from limb before the initiate can be called a shaman. Even in the Christian tradition we find a similar story of Jesus’ crucifixion and ensuing resurrection. Taken symbolically, this might be interpreted as the death of his personal ambition to make way for the transpersonal or divine motivation.
As fancy as these examples may be, death is an ordinary part of regular lives. Every time an outlook, relationship or identity doesn’t fit you anymore, it must die to make room for the new thing. For instance, a teenager might dream of his parents being killed when he is beginning to come into his independence. Or someone might dream the death of a loved one when her feelings for them have changed.
If you dream of murdering someone, you might have stored-up anger that you aren’t expressing, or the figure represents an outdated aspect of yourself that you are trying to do away with. You may also be experimenting with death in the dreamtime in order to face what frightens you so that you can live life more daringly. You might even dream of something not-quite-dead, like a forgotten hope, that is trying desperately to come back to life.
In his studies, Carl Jung found that the dreams of dying people expressed very little anxiety about their forthcoming expiration. It is as if the dreammaker is more concerned with living its way forward into the ongoing experience, across and well beyond the boundaries of death.
While it is important to let yourself mourn someone dying in your dream, remember to consider what newness may also come into the space they leave behind.