“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has it been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7)
On very rare occasions, I am lucky enough to get a visit from beyond the grave.
That’s not to say I am some sort of medium. Nope. I don’t sense or see or talk to the dead in my everyday life. But sometimes, just sometimes, I will get to see a friend who has passed – in my dreams. Perhaps that is a kind of sixth sense. It’s certainly nice to think of it as such.
It usually starts the same way. I will be busy doing something, in my bizarre dream life, when suddenly they will be there; often as just another character in my nocturnal storyline. Sometimes they are part of whatever is going on. Sometimes they are simply in the background, and I get only a fleeting vision or a quick mundane exchange before moving on.
My sleeping self rarely recognises them as a person who has actually passed away in real life. Most of the time it’s only when I am fully conscious the next morning that I realise the significance of having seen them, and feel the weight of knowing they are gone. When I do, I feel regret that I was not aware of this during the dream; that I missed an opportunity to tell them all the things I longed to say before they died.
Last night my friend Shahram paid me a visit.
I was in what felt like a European city, running around, late to meet some friends. I came to a large, open, space similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only smaller in scale. It was circular, with oversized sidewalks for pedestrians, and lined with tall office buildings, shops and cafes. In the centre was a busy roundabout with vehicles whizzing past.
I crossed to meet my friends, who were gathered in a small group on a sidewalk.
‘You’re late,’ said one, ‘you just missed Shahram. He had to go.’
Before I could respond with disappointment and spit out my apologies, a small car entering the roundabout from behind my pals, pulled to a stop – and Shahram jumped out the drivers side. He called to me in his distinctive accent.
I ran to him excitedly, and he to me, and we embraced on the sidewalk next to the car; one long, strong hug that lasted a good minute or so.
But other drivers were impatient, honking their horns. Shahram was slowing their access and he was in a hurry too, so he broke away from our embrace, hopped back in the car without another word, and drove off. I stood and waved as he disappeared into traffic, then out the other side of the roundabout and off into the night.
That was it.
He said nothing, other than calling my name as he got out of the car. And I said nothing the entire exchange.
It was a quick. Casual even. But I remember feeling very happy that I got to see him, that I hadn’t missed him as first thought. And unusually, I also had a dim awareness, a foggy haunting knowledge, that in the waking world of reality – he was gone.
So I was lucky. He had come back. He had made a point of stopping before his onward journey. He had made a point of coming back to say goodbye. It felt real.
That feeling was still there when my cat woke me. With consciousness came the very real knowledge and ache of his loss. But I felt grateful and comforted that he had appeared. I was glad to have the chance to say goodbye, to have that one last embrace. He was just moving on. He still existed.
Shahram died this past April. In the UK’s ‘first’ Covid wave. He had been fighting kidney cancer when he contracted Coronavirus. One night he was reassuring his partner he would be back quickly, even as he was being loaded into the ambulance. The next morning…he was gone.
Just like that.
He was living in England at the time, away from his Irish friends and the city that had been his second home for over 20 years. None of us got to say goodbye. None of us were with him at the end. Not even his partner was allowed. And of course, after he died, there could be no proper wake, no funeral, not even a chance to have a pint with friends who loved him and toast his memory.
We were all in lockdown.
It was heartbreaking. For if ever a man deserved a good send off, it was Shahram.
He was one of the strongest men I have ever known. Determined, smart, funny. I believed he could do anything, and I trusted him with my life. I really did. In the literal sense. If we had been caught in a warzone, Shahram is the guy I would have followed, the guy who would have known what to do, and when to do it. He made me feel safe. He was courageous. He was unwavering and capable.
He was unique.
And suddenly, this incredibly charismatic and vibrant man was gone from the world. Without a ripple. He was even robbed of his identity. He became one of hundreds. One of thousands. The Covid dead.
It just didn’t feel real. This sudden, open wound. Cruelly devoid.
So the dream parting held special significance for me. A quick but meaningful goodbye such as this was in keeping with Shahram’s character. A long and tearful one was not his style. He was always moving forward. Even in death he would have had other things to do. So, just as in the dream, he probably would have been rushing off. His visit was a gift. I hadn’t been expecting it, and was grateful not to have been forgotten.
It made his appearance in my dream extra special. It was the goodbye we had been denied.
So what is happening when we dream of a loved one who has passed?
Does it mean we are thinking of them on an unconscious level? Did something earlier that day trigger a memory, remind us of them, and inspire our imagination to create a narrative during the night? Or is it something more as some believe; a message from beyond the grave?
I don’t know. I am not sure what I think. I probably lean towards the sceptic. The logical side of me says that it’s all in our own minds. That it’s simply the brain, playing and remembering, wishing and longing. But I would prefer it to be a message. And it could be argued that the brain is in fact, the doorway to another consciousness, and we pass through it from one world – one reality – into another. Another dimension. Another form of existence.
The sights, sounds and sensations experienced by those who have survived near death experiences for example, can be somewhat explained by science. The current prevailing theory is that the experience is not real, but is instead the result of physical and chemical changes that occur when the brain is dying.
Science has suggested these visions could be caused by a shortage of oxygen, or as part of the body’s own neurochemical response to trauma. A brain under stress can also produce a rush of endorphins, possibly triggering a sense of peace or well being.
Gideon Lichfield states in ‘The Science Of Near-Death Experiences’ (NDE’s) that the brain may go into ‘a final, hyperactive spasm when its oxygen supply is cut as it tries to figure out what is happening. If so, that heightened activity might explain why people who say they had an NDE report that what they experienced seemed more real than the physical world.”
But there are documented cases of people who survived a NDE who were not lacking oxygen, and still experienced visions, sensations and awareness that they should not have been able to.
And although science has developed several plausible theories of what happens to those who experience near death, there is still no evidence that they do actually explain what is happening. The data collected has not satisfactorily established a correlation or causation.
As for my dreams, I am comforted by the connection to those I have lost and miss, no matter what plane of consciousness it’s on. It does not matter to me whether it can be definitively proven as a figment of my own imagination or not.
I have been visited a few times by my old friend Mike MacDonald – who’s vast story I told on this blog earlier. And by several other dear friends or even pets who are now gone. All after their passing. And I am always moved when it happens.
It doesn’t always go the way I would like. I can’t control it. Sometimes I get to have a conversation. Sometimes an entire adventure. Sometimes all I get is a glimpse.
But at the end of the day, it is a reminder. A smile. A memento to carry with you into the waking world.
A quick but silent embrace.
And I will take that over empty grief any day.