Dreaming of a Deceased Loved One: How to Get Better Quality Sleep After a Loss

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    Unresolved conflicts or missed opportunities with the deceased may surface during sleep as our mind attempts to understand issues that seem to defy rationality and reason.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

3 min read

Dreaming of a deceased loved one is a relatively common experience that may or may not affect the quality of your sleep after a loss.

Some welcome them as an opportunity to reconnect with the person they lost. Particularly for those inclined to interpret such experiences in spiritual terms, these dreams are seen as an opportunity to communicate with the deceased, who might share words of encouragement or advice. Contact of this kind is typically experienced as comforting or benign.

Of course, getting a visit from the dead in the middle of the night isn’t always experienced as comforting. So, if you’re having troubling dreams about someone that you lost, here are 3 ideas for working with them in a productive way.

Unfinished Business with the Deceased in Dreams

Unresolved conflicts or missed opportunities with the deceased may surface during sleep as our mind attempts to understand issues that seem to defy rationality and reason.

For example, in a series of interviews with bereaved caregivers conducted by sleep expert, Dr. Patricia Carter, one woman with a nursing background discussed how her guilt for not doing enough for her loved one manifested itself in her dreams: “Being the nurse in the family, I had all the pressure about making the right decisions; I had all these dreams about making the wrong decisions.”

If you think you might be holding onto some unfinished business related to someone that you’ve lost, take our unfinished business quiz for a self-assessment.

Or sign up for a free Lifespark Exclusive membership and try our letter-writing exercise, designed to help you work through unresolved issues with someone who is no longer physically present in your life.    

TRY EXCLUSIVE EXERCISE: Working through Unfinished Business: Writing a Letter to Someone From Your Past

Nightmares about a Deceased Loved One

Recurring dreams about the deceased can take on a life of their own and disrupt sleep by causing sudden awakening and/or avoidance of sleep to prevent further nightmares. It can be hard to know how to break out of this vicious cycle, as attempts to avoid thinking about the loss only seem to make matters worse.

As another bereaved caregiver in Carter’s study described it, “I’m just so afraid to go to sleep. I have bad dreams, and they are so horrible. Everybody wants to have this happy dream about the person they loved; it hasn’t happened.”

If you’re having repeated nightmares about someone you lost, it could be helpful to revisit the dream and work with it using an exercise grounded in the basic principles of Imagery Rehearsal Therapy—an approach shown to be helpful for reducing the frequency of nightmares and the distress associated with them.

READ RELATED: Having the Same Bad Dream Over and Over: How to Stop Recurring Nightmares

Bad Sleeping Habits After a Loss

In addition to providing support and companionship, relationships also serve to regulate our daily routines and habits. Particularly when we live with someone, so much of our days and nights are coordinated with that person, from mealtimes to bedtimes.

Naturally then, people who have lost a spouse or partner (especially when depressed) are prone to experience disruptions in their daily routines, which can negatively impact sleep and daytime functioning.

To develop better sleep habits and get a good night’s rest again, take our sleep hygiene quiz and get personalized recommendations on how to naturally improve your sleep.

TRY RELATED QUIZ: What is Good Sleep Hygiene? Get Personalized Recommendations on How to Stop Bad Sleeping Habits

And if you try any of these strategies, let us know how it goes in the comments below.


Further Reading















Brown, L. F., Reynolds, C. F., Monk, T. H., Prigerson, H. G., Dew, M. A., Houck, P. R., … & Kupfer, D. J. (1996). Social rhythm stability following late-life spousal bereavement: associations with depression and sleep impairment. Psychiatry Research, 62, 161-169.

Buckley, T., Sunari, D., Marshall, A., Bartrop, R., McKinley, S., & Tofler, G. (2012). Physiological correlates of bereavement and the impact of bereavement interventions. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14, 129-139.

Carter, P. A. (2005). Bereaved caregivers’ descriptions of sleep: Impact on daily life and the bereavement process. Oncology Nursing Forum, 32, E70-E75.

Field, N. P., Packman, W., Ronen, R., Pries, A., Davies, B., & Kramer, R. (2013). Type of continuing bonds expression and its comforting versus distressing nature: Implications for adjustment among bereaved mothers. Death Studies, 37, 889-912.

Hall, M., Buysse, D. J., Dew, M. A., Prigerson, H. G., Kupfer, D. J., & Reynolds III, C. F. (1997). Intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors are associated with sleep disturbances in bereavement‐related depression. Depression and Anxiety, 6, 106-112.

Hardison, H. G., Neimeyer, R. A., & Lichstein, K. L. (2005). Insomnia and complicated grief symptoms in bereaved college students. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 3, 99-111.

Klugman, C. M. (2006). Dead men talking: Evidence of post death contact and continuing bonds. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 53, 249-262.

Monk, T. H., Begley, A. E., Billy, B. D., Fletcher, M. E., Germain, A., Mazumdar, S., … & Zarotney, J. R. (2008). Sleep and circadian rhythms in spousally bereaved seniors. Chronobiology International, 25, 83-98.

Stahl, S. T., & Schulz, R. (2014). Changes in routine health behaviors following late-life bereavement: A systematic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 37, 736-755.


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