Dreaming of the Death of Family Members

Reader’s Question

Over the past 3 years or so I have been having some incredibly disturbing dreams about my family — in all of which one or more die from an horrific death. I’ve dreamed that my brother died in a drive-by shooting and from drowning (both separate dreams) and that my Mum died of cancer. I’ve dreamed of my entire family dying from a worldwide terrorist attack, my boyfriend being stabbed to death, my sister being killed by a hit and run driver and just last night, my sister again, dying of a terribly painful disease. As distressing as they are, the most bizarre and surprisingly frightening part is the fact that my Dad has never been involved. Even with the worldwide catastrophe, only my Dad and myself survived. What makes it worse is that they feel so real, I react how I imagine I would react in such a terrible situation. It’s almost as if the foundation of the dream is made up of my consequent emotions after the tragedy has taken place, some of which I ‘see’ take place, others of which I’m told by word of mouth. They wake me up in the night, where I subsequently burst into tears over the fact that I could not only dream something so horrific, but also out of relief that it was just a dream.

I don’t eat late at night and don’t watch many scary movies. I can only imagine they’re related to things we hear on the news, but why is it always my family bar my Dad? What can I do to prevent myself from waking up at 4 am crying uncontrollably over dreams that I’m confused about having to endure in the first place?

I can safely say that I have a great fear of losing my family, even though it is an inevitable fact of life, but I truly believe that these dreams have intensified my fear greatly over the past year. My love for my Mum is just as great as my love for my Dad, which confuses my Dad’s “survival” even more.

A point that might be worth mentioning is that I have been with my boyfriend for almost 3 years now, whom I love very much. Could this be related in any way? Any advice would be much appreciated, as I’m becoming emotionally drained from these dreams and don’t know how many more times I can bear seeing my family die in front of me!

Thanks.

Psychologist’s Reply

Dreams don’t predict anything but they can reflect ongoing issues and experiences. Some general thoughts:

  • Dreams tend to reflect our ongoing mood. Depression prompts depressing dreams of death, funerals, killing, etc. Anxious individuals are being chased or frightened.
  • Dreams also reflect our experiences over the past several days before that evening. Dreams seem to gather subjects/topics from our short-term memory and in this way, if we are thinking about our family recently they are likely to appear in our dreams.
  • What we think about when we first go to sleep can send our dreams in that direction. If you go to bed each night worrying about having a horrible dream — you’ll have one without question. For this reason, it’s best to go to sleep thinking of a calming or neutral situation — sitting on the beach, relaxing in a chair, etc. Using a fan or other “white noise” device in the room also redirects some of your dream focus.
  • Our body “feels” what we think as you describe. If we have an anxious dream, we awaken with tight muscles and cold sweats. Depressing dreams wake us with crying and distress. When you awaken in the morning, change your mood by doing a behavior ritual that is energizing or mood-lifting, such as listening to an uplifting song, exercise, playing with a pet, etc. My article on Emotional Memory may be helpful in suggesting ways to change our mood in this situation.
  • As you have described, our dreams intensify if our mood is outside the normal range. While your question suggests problems with dreaming — your description of 4 am awakening, crying, emotional exhaustion, long-standing worry about family, etc. suggests depression.

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Clinically, I sense you are depressed and may have been moderately depressed for many months. Depression is created by changes in neurochemistry that produce multiple emotional and physical symptoms. I would recommend that you take a few of the depression screening instruments on this website and read about the symptoms of depression. If you are depressed, I would first consult your family physician. He/She may discuss the use of an antidepressant medication. Seeing a counselor would also be very helpful as the combination of depression and tormenting dreams (common in depression by the way) are emotionally exhausting you.

Your situation is very treatable but in evaluating dreams we need to look at the dream mechanism more than the content. The fact that they awaken you crying/upset, maintain a level of distress, surface at 4:00 am, and are emotionally exhausting tell us that the presence of depression is the major issue — not the content of the dreams. With treatment for depression (and some behavioral training such as preprogramming dreams), your dreams should return to normal.

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