DSC_0996I first read about visitation dreams in Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help us Grow.” In her chapter about these dreams, Lesser opened with the story of her father’s death, and the vivid, near-lucid dreams she and her sisters had about him afterward. I have never had such a dream, but I’ve heard about others having them. Almost universally, they are reported to feel like, well, a visitation, an astonishing kind of reconnection with the dead.

When my grandmother died, I started waiting – hoping, really – to have a visitation dream about her. Perhaps proving that the bargaining stage of grief is at least a real thing, if not a discrete stage, I reread Lesser’s chapter on visitation dreams, wondering in my methodical way how I could get this done. In that chapter, Lesser says that she has tried to initiate visitation dreams many times, with no success. The only advice she can offer, she writes, is to feel the loss you’ve sustained, and truly engage the space opened up in the world by the death of the person you loved.

I put the book down, freshly reminded that my usual way of going about things is not suited to the matter of communicating with the dead. I considered what it meant to feel this particular loss. With the exception of the morning I got the news that she died, when I wrote this piece through tears while listening to Clair de Lune over and over again, I have struggled to feel anything other than numbness. This is complicated by the fact that there is a lot of darkness unfolding in the lives of those around me now: deaths, conflict, illnesses, personal shatterings. The January days fly through my fingers like dark grey streamers. There has been none of the tender openness of present pain; I’ve just been hunkered down, unwilling to move in any direction, numb. I haven’t begun to really engage with the open space, with the gap in my life that she left.

Another reason is that the gap opened gradually. I lost the presence of my grandmother over a long time. Her last coherent words to me were an expression of exhaustion and a wish to be gone already. When old age and dementia take someone, the loss is incremental, and sometimes barely perceptible. But when the loss happens suddenly, there is a sharpness to it that pierces us, and lays us open. You don’t have to work to access the empty space left by a sudden exit. It is unmistakable; it is stabbing at you.

Without the sharp tool of abrupt change to pierce our bubble, the work of grief becomes a little more mysterious, and perhaps more intentional. Grief is work you do for your own sake, and as a recognition that someone was important to you. Wikipedia has an unexpectedly poetic definition of it: “Grief is a multifaceted response to loss.”

It does not necessarily mean deep agonizing or emotional instability, or a gnashing of teeth or wringing of hands, although in some cases those things are certainly called for, absolutely called for. This is work I want to do, regardless of whether it nets me a visitation dream or not. I suspect it won’t, because my mind has never worked that way. But I don’t want her just to slip quietly from my life. I want to mark it in my own way, which means intentionally grappling with the change.

In short, I want to find ways to walk into the empty space where she was, and look at it, see its contours, notice its impact. And then, I’ll just see how time assimilates the gap into my life.



14 thoughts on “Empty spaces and the work of loss

  1. Beautifully written. I tend to experience loss along similar lines … Just a numbness. An inability to move, a haziness, like a hollow that can’t be filled. Take your time, open yourself up & let yourself feel whatever it is that comes through. You will heal in your own time.

  2. I’m so sorry that I missed the original piece about your grandmother. Both pieces are beautifully written. I have been where you are, though in a different place. You and your grandmother will always be connected and you will always be able to find her…in Florida, and wherever you are. She’s right there with you. Hugs.

    1. I think that’s one of the better things about loss — that it’s universal. It’s hard to feel particularly alone in it, because everyone experiences it, albeit in their own way.

  3. I think it was something more than five years before I dreamed about my dad. I woke myself up sobbing uncontrollably and in such pain. It took a very long time to realize why and even then, only snipits of the dream came back to me. That was likely my first real step toward filling the empty space his leaving made.
    The next one was much easier and the last one was actually pleasant – he was laughing and in my mind I could hear his voice. I still cried, but joyfully this time.
    I’ve never tried to direct my dreams, mainly because I rarely recall them. I’m not sure it would actually work for me. But I do hope, so very much, that it does for you. Because when you are finally able to see them again and hear their voice and just “be” with them once more, the incredible feeling you wake with is a high that lasts for such a long, lovely time!

  4. That’s what I hear; that those dreams can be so healing. I did dream the other night that I moved into her house. She was gone in my dream, not there. But the house was full of her things. Also full of the things that I remember about being in south Florida — tons of light, birds, water. I spent a lot of time trying to integrate my things into the house next to hers. That might be my first step. 🙂

  5. I love reading your thoughts on the subject of loss. It is universal, and yet we all experience it individually. I had never hear the term “visitation dreams” but I had them for over a year after my father died. They were good dreams. The circumstances of his death were traumatic (colon cancer), but he was mentally present with us right up until a few minutes before he died. My dreams were of calm, relaxed conversations at the breakfast table of my parent’s house. I asked him questions, like, “Why are you here, Daddy?” and “So, you don’t have cancer anymore?” His answer to that one was, “I guess not.” We both seemed well aware that he was dead, but we still sat and talked. I never even tried to understand what it all meant. We never said goodbye, the dreams just eventually stopped.

    My mom died last August, and like you, I hoped for the dreams that have not come yet. I feel guilty about it. I was very close to my mother, and the space she left in my life is enormous. But she left us gradually, as Parkinson’s and dementia took their toll. I wonder if I put up some protective barriers to get through the grief of her last year of decline. And this sounds terrible, but I wonder if I was perhaps so relieved to let her go from such suffering, that I can’t bear to call her back yet.

    I am so sorry for your loss, and I hope that the good memories sustain you.

    1. Liz, wow, what an interesting comment! What I’ve heard about these dreams is that they don’t seem to bear any relation to how close we were with our loved one. Of course, that makes me wonder again about the nature of them. Thank you again for the story of your own dreams. I always find that so interesting.

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