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The Magazine: the grief of dreams

The Magazine: the grief of dreams

by Marshall Scott

Once again, I was called as the chaplain. I was called because hard news had led to hard decisions. I saw a look I had seen before: a gaze through tears on another place and another time. I heard words I had heard before: “We had so many years together. We still had things we were planning for.”


Some years ago I realized that when we have loss, we grieve dreams as much as we grieve history. More recently I’ve come to believe that we grieve dreams especially, and perhaps even primarily.


As I’ve shared my thought about grieving dreams, people find it easy enough to follow, at least when they think about dreams of the future. After all, when we project the future all we have is dreams.


I’ve been more reflective myself about grieving the dreams of the past. Before I would have described it as grieving history and memories. I would have treated them as if they were somehow different from dreams going forward.


Now I’m not so sure. I don’t know anyone who has an eidetic or photographic memory. Unless one has that, I think we need to wonder how much stories and memories are dreams.


I’m not suggesting that we don’t have histories, or that memories are fabrications.  Nor do I think they are incoherent. I remember in seminary reading that David Hume had written something like, “When I look at my memory I see a collection of discrete moments, but I see no ‘I’ there.” It sent me into a depression for two weeks, until I read Kant (or at least the right words from Kant to refute Hume). I distinctly see me in my memories, mistakes and all (my most recent effort to describe myself in six words: “Wiser, a mistake at a time.”)


At the same time, I am aware that I also project some of my dreams into my memories. Some of my memories are quite dreamlike. I even have a few dreams that I know are dreams that still feel like memories to me. For all my hopes and expectations, my memories are themselves colored by dreams. It is not simply that it is easier to remember those things I want to remember. It is also the case that those things I remember I remember as I want them, and not, perhaps, as they actually occurred.


And so I have come to believe that when we have a loss, we mourn our dreams. Or, perhaps, what we mourn is as reflective of our dreams as of our reality.


I think that makes our mourning more important and not less. Our dreams can be incredibly important. It is as often in our dreams as in what we understand as “fact” that we encounter what is most important.


Consider the history of our walk with God. God’s communication in dreams punctuates the story of the Patriarchs and their families. It is in dreams that God not only reaches out to Abram, but also that God protects Sarai in the hands of foreign kings. It is in his dreams that God guides Jacob that he might become Israel. It is in the dreams of others that Joseph, Gideon, and Esther hear God speaking.


We have just come through the Christmas season, and in Matthew’s understanding of the Nativity God speaks through dreams. It is in a dream that Joseph learns of the import of Mary’s pregnancy. It is in a dream that wandering sages are warned that Herod is untrustworthy. It is in a dream that Joseph is informed when he must lead his family to safety in Egypt, and when he can lead them home again.


I think that helps us appreciate what it means that we mourn our dreams, whether they came in sleep or in reflection. There is something reflective of the holy in our dreaming. Our dreams are, really, about faith. They are about things hoped for, and, as often as not, unseen. Sometimes they are about what we think we know, and sometimes about what we hope is promised. One way or another, they can reflect our faith that God is there.


I will not deny, too, that sometimes they are about hopes and promises unfulfilled. Perhaps those are not “good” dreams; and yet we hold them as tightly, as carefully as other dreams. We often treat our “bad” memories as just as precious as our “good” ones; even as we know that they also are touched by our dreams. I will not deny that sometimes they raise questions about whether God is there. I will claim, though, that even to raise the question is to have an expectation of God.


And so, as I reflect on mourning our dreams, whether our hopes for the future or our recollections of the past, it seems to me that there is something sacred in our mourning. Whatever our losses, all our mourning includes the mourning of dreams. We do that because we know our dreams are true, are important. We do that because all our dreams express faith – promises of things hoped for, even if unseen – and it is in our dreams, whether of futures unknown or of pasts given new meaning, that we have opportunities to see what is holy, and to hear the voice of God.


The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

image: A Dream by David Burliuk


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Marshall Scott

Ann, that captures well one of my points. Even when the dream seems unlikely, it is precious. If it does come about, we can celebrate; and if it doesn’t, we must give it its due.

Peggy, thank you for your testimony. Clearly, you and your friend shared important dreams, dreams that helped make meaning in difficult circumstances.

Peggy Blanchard

Last fall my dearest friend was dying–much more quickly than we realized. We spoke daily (from different states) and after touching on dear shared memories, we began to dream for a future we hoped for. We wanted to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway again, and we wanted to go to the beach. We knew these things might not be possible, but we still had hope for the future, also knew that they just -might- be possible. We thoroughly enjoyed discussing what beaches we might visit, talked about restaurants and music and beautiful skies we’d seen, and could see again. These dreams gave us joy and positive energy, and we didn’t have to know if they’d be fulfilled. As it happened, those dreams were not fulfilled by action, but they were in our imaginations. She died in late November, very suddenly. But both our memories and dreams were life-giving, and continue to be so for me, for which I am deeply thankful.

Ann Fontaine

Marshall: this is so true. All endings mourn dreams even when we knew the dreams would never come true. When my mother died I grieved her death but even more the death of the hope that our relationship would ever change. It most likely never would have changed but death ended any possibility of that happening.

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