Why do some people dream of deceased loved ones but other don’t?

New research published in the journal Dreaming provides new clues about why some bereaved individuals dream of deceased loved ones whereas others do not. The findings suggest that “grief dreams” are very common — but those who don’t experience them may just not remember many dreams in general.

“My interest in this topic developed after my father passed away suddenly in 2008. It was 3 months later that I had my first dream of him,” said study author Joshua Black, who recently earned his doctorate in psychology from Brock University and created the GriefDreams website and podcast.

“We were together in my room and I had the chance to say good-bye. I told him that I loved him and would miss him. It was short, but when I woke up I felt the joy come back into my life. I continued to have dreams every 3 or 4 months after that, which were very comforting.”

“After I finished my undergraduate degree I began providing one-on-one bereavement support and the bereaved had questions regarding dreams of the deceased that I was unable to find answers to,” Black said.

“What I found is that bereavement research has overlooked the topic of dreams, and therefore there is little understanding about them. This is when I decided I needed to go back to school and research the topic (which I did for my MA and PhD). One main question from the bereaved was why they haven’t had a dream of the deceased when others had.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 268 American adults who had lost a romantic partner or spouse within the past 2 years. They also surveyed another 162 American adults whose dog or cat had died in the previous 6 months.

“Dreaming of the deceased seems to be a very common experience after loss,” Black told PsyPost. Most of the participants (86.2%) recalled having a dream about their deceased partner or spouse, while 77.6% recalled having a dream about their deceased pet.

Whether a pet or a spouse, deceased loved ones in dreams tended to appear healthy and/or happy and acted in ways that were viewed as comforting. “Dream themes of the deceased were predominantly positive in nature, and it was infrequent for people to endorse only negative dream themes,” Black said.

But why do some people recall having dreams of the deceased while others do not? “Remembering a dream of the deceased is related most strongly to one’s tendency to remember dreams in general,” the researchers found.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. For instance, the study used retrospective questionnaires, which tend to be less accurate than other measures of dreaming, such as dream diaries.

“Given that these studies are correlational in nature, longitudinal research needs to be done to develop a causal model on what factors predict dreaming of the deceased,” Black explained.

“However, even without understanding the causal underpinnings, these findings have immediate application. I have already found in conversations with the bereaved, who ask why they do not have a dream of the deceased, that they are often reassured when they are told that it may simply be that they do not recall many dreams in general.”

“Additionally, it was found in both studies that dreams of the deceased were reported to be predominantly positive. These dreams may be qualitatively different from both ‘ordinary’ dreams and from post-traumatic dreams and, therefore, merit further study,” Black continued.

Given the lack of knowledge in this area, there are several avenues for future research.

“One question that still needs to be addressed is why do some bereaved individuals have positive dreams while others negative. I have recently investigated this and I am currently writing up the findings for publication,” Black explained.

“The lack of research into the topic of grief dreams (dreaming of the deceased) has caused complications for the bereaved and those who work with them. We hope that this article makes people more aware of grief dreams and the importance about asking about them.”

The study, “Who Dreams of the Deceased? The Roles of Dream Recall, Grief Intensity, Attachment, and Openness to Experience“, was authored by Joshua Black, Kathryn Belicki, and Jessica Emberley-Ralph.