Dreams: Helping The Patient Who Sees Things That Cannot be Studied

Her body stiffened with strong emotion as she shared a vivid dream she’d had after being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

Lung Ta (Windhorse) by jparadisi
Lung Ta (Windhorse) by jparadisi

She me told the dream with tears in her eyes. It brought to mind stories I heard as a child of Saints experiencing visions. Placing my hand on her shoulder was the only supportive gesture I could think of. I didn’t know the dream’s meaning, but I understood its importance.

I had vivid dreams during cancer treatment, a few even while awake during meditation. I recorded them in a journal, paying attention to how they made me feel: peaceful or apprehensive. I was fortunate to have a friend who believes in dreams. She listened to mine, helping me discover their personal messages.

Nursing is based on science. However, I’ve been a nurse long enough to know that science hasn’t found the answer to everything. Some patients, and nurses, see things that can not be studied objectively.

Dreams and visions are narrated with conviction by the alert and oriented, distinguishing them from feverish ramblings, opioid-induced illusions, or the hallucinations of hepatic failure. This personal mysticism commands respect. It does not usually find its way into the patient’s chart.

My patient needed someone to listen to, and validate, her dream. She did not know its meaning. Dream interpretation was not part of my nursing school curriculum (perhaps it should have been), but helping a patient in spiritual distress was.

As I listened, I felt that chilly pull on my gut, alerting me to truth. Maybe not my truth, but certainly my patient’s, who I did not know very well. How could I help her? I resorted to tools I learned from my friend, who helped me interpret my cancer dreams.

First, I asked, “How does the dream make you feel? Does it cause peace or fear?” Although her dream contained dark imagery, overall, it left her feeling hopeful. In dreams, death and dark images do not necessarily symbolize real death, but often represent a significant life change, such as a life-changing diagnoses.

Next, I emphasized that dreams are powerful, personal messages. Only my patient would understand the unique significance of the images she saw.

I asked, “What do the images mean to you?” She was able to describe her personal language of symbolism to me, and in doing so, explained her dream to both of us. I saw relaxation loosen the muscles of her face and body, as she felt the power of the dream take effect.

If you’re interested in learning more about dream interpretation, I suggest reading The Secret Language of Signs, by Denise Linn.

Do you find dreams to be an important part of your patients’ journeys? What do you do when patients present their dreams to you?


  1. Hi JP, excellent blog as usual and very thought provoking. I remember a patient once that was seeing “ghosts” in his room which was keeping him awake at night. He was a young head injured patient with thick glasses so we all thought he was just a little “silly.” As he improved we moved him out of the room close to the nurse’s station (you know what happens in those rooms) and he never talked about ghosts again! It’s not the same as listening to dreams but it was an observation that I still remember, 20 years later. Listening to patients, no matter what they are talking about, particularly when they are also emotional is the highest form of caregiving.


    1. Thanks Peggy. It makes me wonder if your patient expressed anxiety about being left alone in a hospital room, a scary place for seasoned adults, let alone a youngster. Then again, I’ve heard stories from staff and patients about hospital ghosts that ring true.
      In the busy-ness of patient care delivery, it’s easy to forget our patients’ need for spiritual care too. Utilizing hospital chaplains, and social workers is an option, but in my experience the turn around time for a patient in acute distress is not practical. Nurses play the role of spiritual advisor or priest, qualified, ready, or not. It’s a very sacred space to be in with a patient.


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