To paraphrase Jane Austen, there are two truths universally known. Everybody dies and everybody dreams, whether they can remember them or not.
An emerging notion is that the dreams we have before we die may be particularly significant and can be used to ease a terminal person and their families' pain and grief. The Rev. Patricia Bulkley worked as a spiritual counselor at a hospice in Marin County, Calif., for more than 10 years. What she found when speaking to patients was many of her patients had stories to tell and dreams to share.
Her experiences and her son's professional expertise led them to co-author the new book "Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions." Her son, Kelly Bulkeley (spelled in its original English version), is a leading scholar of dreams, spirituality and psychology and is a past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. He is the author or editor of 14 books including "Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming," "Dreams of Healing" and "Transforming Dreams: Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget." A visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Bulkeley conducts workshops and lectures around the country.
Ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1987, Bulkley has taught at the San Francisco Theological in Christian Spirituality and is currently connected to a parish in Sonoma, Calif., where she works with women married to drug addicts and alcoholics.
She gave a talk to Hospice of the Wood River Valley on Tuesday and is speaking Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, in Ketchum.
"When I started at hospice 25 years ago, I started to hear these dreams, they were so distinctive. When people have these dreams their fear of death seemed to lessen to the extent that I was really surprised. There was even a sense of adventure or anticipation," she said in a telephone interview. "I started to collect them and I talked to patients and families, and hospice. Kelly, in meantime, is a true dream professional. We talk about them occasionally, and one day three years ago he said, 'You know, we should write a book about this.'"
She said her son Kelly is "highly educated in this, so it wasn't just anecdotal experience." But it was her direct involvement with the dying that spurred the pair to produce the book.
"Our goal in 'Dreaming Beyond Death' is basically to offer an invitation to discover the surprising potential for personal change and religious transformation that opens as mortal life draws," Kelly Bulkeley said.
They decided to write this for the person who's dying, even though it's of interest to those around the dying person. And they made sure to use language people would readily understand so "they'd be drawn to the (subject matter)."
"My part was the practical. I laid out chapters about ways to plan for the care of the person who's dying, how to be with them and celebrate," Bulkley said. "I believe the need to reconcile one's life can be the best part of it. Every life is interesting—it's the common life that each one of us has to me is so fascinating, it's the story is the most important part of this."
Apparently many others have been drawn to the subject. The first printing in July sold out after Newsweek magazine picked it up and ran an in-depth, two-page story. It sold out again after the second printing and is now in its third printing.
The authors focus on three types of dreams and the symbols inherent in them. These are dreaming that one is going on a journey and all the excitement that entails, seeing dead who act as a guide, and dreams where the dreamer resolves a conflict or faces a recurrent sense of anxiety.
"We find these dreams in literature, in history, in other cultures, religions. But the only one who can interpret a dream is the dreamer."
They write, "dreaming is largely consistent with the dreamer's interests and concerns in the waking world."
Bulkley said they are not making a case for religion or anything. She said they "start with the dream and dreamer, and it's truly fascinating. Dreams are a soft way of opening the door into the death experience."
The book has proven appealing to all sorts of people but it was written expressly for people in a hospice situation, she said.
"A week or so before death there seems to be a transition stage. The transformation to me is valuable enough that we have to pay attention to it. Hospices are so interested. They tell stories about how people who're having the dreams are given the book. It opens the way to dialogue; family can read it together. It's very positive.
"These days with managed pain and care, the last few weeks can be really important for families and the dying person. Dreams are considered a preparatory function. They serve the human mind and soul; even if you have no spiritual bent, these dreams come to people across the board—random almost—to prepare us for transition times in our lives. Dreams prepare us for next step."