Few things are as scary dreams about death—let’s face it, they’re not exactly the most uplifting material to start your day off with. While the dream may vary—it can be gruesomely violent or eerily peaceful—it will undoubtedly leave you searching for answers. “There’s a variety of reasons why people might have disturbing dreams or nightmares,” says Kelly Baron, PhD, associate professor in the division of public health, department of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah. “In many cases it is because they’ve experienced a trauma, and they are having a form of PTSD.”
This year in particular has been traumatic to many on a global level. Living through a pandemic, widespread job loss and a struggling economy all factor into the rise in vivid dreams we’re all experiencing. “We can see that with the coronavirus where people are having more dreams about death,” says Baron. “While some people are more prone to having vivid dreams for no reason, we do know that people who are going through a stressful time are more likely to have them.”
That’s because the primary function of dreams is to help us better understand the experiences we come across in waking life, Dr. Baron further explains. If you come across countless images of people dying at such a rapid pace in your waking life—as we all have throughout the multiple waves of this pandemic—it is only natural that your brain would still be grappling with the fear of the unknown and what comes after.
What do dreams about death mean?
When you’re dreaming about physical death, it’s important to remember that it isn’t literal—meaning your dream about attending a friend’s funeral is not a sign that someone close to you will pass in the near future. “Death in dreams is symbolic of things that are coming to a close, or ending, in your life,” writes dream analyst Jane Teresa Anderson. So that dream about a friend’s funeral may signify there are qualities to your friend that you’ve become aware of and subconsciously know aren’t a healthy fit for you—it’s not the loss of a friend but the death of bad habits.
On the flip side, death may represent inner changes that you’re either not ready for or don’t want at all. “Endings are not always appropriate, Anderson writes, “there is a time for every season and your dreams can help you to know when the time is right.” She further explains how a dream about losing someone who you see as “fun” could signify your fear of closing out this chapter of your life that is exciting and entertaining. If that’s not what you want, it’s worth considering what you’re doing now that has led you to these feelings and develop a plan to bring the things that you are passionate about and that excite back into your life.
But what if the person dying in the dream is you? Given the great unknown that death encompasses, seeing yourself die and then waking up can make for a major head trip. But Anderson still would advise you hold on the panicking since this is just your mind’s very visceral way of acknowledging self-growth. “These dreams tend to come up when huge areas of your life are changing, with the old you virtually unrecognizable to the new you who is emerging,” she writes.
Can you stop them?
If the dreams about death are making sleep difficult, even to the point where you’d rather just stay awake for as long as possible, therapy may help. “The main treatment is called Imagery Reversal Therapy, and it’s a behavioral treatment where you have people practice rewriting their dreams,” says Baron. “You can’t control images when you’re asleep but you can control them when you’re awake. So we have people practice and make that association.”
If this sounds like rewriting history that’s because it is. Baron says that the negative recurring images can get rehearsed and become a habit and so it’s about introducing new images into your subconscious during the time you can control them. For example, if you keep dreaming of finding yourself in a funeral gathering writing down that people were actually gathered in celebration for a birth could help you pivot it so that you can sleep more at ease.