The way the nightmares disappeared: a story about anger in grief

Anger is a normal part of grief but expressing it can be hard because we tend not to like to feel angry.  Anger can be taboo especially for women, and especially as part of grief. We may recognise it, but often we don’t know what to do with it. Sometimes we can get stuck in grief as a result.

The dream world gives us beautiful creative access to what is struggling to become conscious. That is, anger can be pushed into the unconscious if we’re not okay with it at a base level. The dreams’ rich imaginal world can be used as part of a therapeutic process.dream moon

Here is a story about attending to anger creatively through dreamwork.  This story is taken from my practice, with a client struggling with grief after a friend completed suicide. Names have been changed. 

Joanna had had a rough year: several deaths of (non-immediate) family members, then a month ago the suicide of a close friend.  Then even her cat had been put down the 1st day we met. Until the suicide she’d been managing well enough… some stress and strain on her relationship with her partner, but okay.

After the suicide she said she felt angrier and “not myself”. She said it was harder to deal with the stress. She felt worried that something would now either happen to her boyfriend or her sisters.  

nightmare-photo-by-arthur-tress-dream-collectorIt was our 2nd appointment together when she mentioned the nightmares. She had several a week; they were very intense and graphically violent and always about loosing people. She felt worried about going to sleep. I saw she was visibly disturbed by them as she talked. So with her permission we explored a bit more and I followed my intuition… here’s where it led. 

Grounding, then touching on pain, then grounding

We grounded first – stabilising in the here and now since she was clearly upset having mentioned the nightmares. She felt calmer again.

I invited her to picture the nightmare at a distance, staying connected with herself in her seat. I asked her if she felt okay telling me what happened in the dream. I asked her to keep noticing her level of upset inside as she talked. She recounted a nasty story of angry men attacking her and her boyfriend and slitting his throat. Her distress levels inside were suddenly high. I coached her to let go of the dream and we grounded together again in the here and now. 

Finding a protector

When she was more settled I asked what kind of defense she might need against those scary angry men. I invited her to use her imagination – dream time. She liked the idea of a “bubble protector” that her and her boyfriend could be in. Imaging that she felt stronger inside.

We went through the dream again, but with the bubble. She felt more control. In her imaginal world now the angry men couldn’t get them – they got angrier at first but then lost interest and left the couple alone. 

Becoming the angry part

I normalised the anger that had been showing up in her life, and again in her dream, saying that often these parts represent themselves through the dream world when we can’t deal consciously with them.

I asked her if she’d be up for taking on the role of the angry men in the dream. tunnel3She was. So as she went into it I coached her to feel the sensations of anger inside her body, and as she did, to push with her feet against the floor and the coffee table, and with her arms against the inside of the chair arms (ie pushing outward using the Deltoids and the Latissimus Dorsi – the big muscles involved in pushing/punching). She was able to do that.

I asked if there’s an impulse with her arms and she said she could imagine punching … so I held a padded chair out and invited her (staying tuned in inside) to push or punch it. She bravely pushed through the oddness of this scene and punched for a minute or so and then stopped and started crying. She felt a release, a shift. 

Towards a new beginning

In her imaginal world she was now in a tunnel.tunnel1 She said it felt safe but dark. She looked a bit scared still but calm. I asked what the scene needed – what wanted to happen. She imagined the sun in.  She saw her boyfriend nearby. He was safe. She moved towards him and the sunlight. 

Positive change

I’ve seen Joanna twice since then (over 3 weeks) and she has reported no nightmares. She had a dream instead of going canoeing with her boyfriend and having a good time. She also reported feeling more relaxed with her partner – she felt less reactive and was worrying less about him. 

With thanks to several approaches I draw on in this work: the pendulation practice of Somatic Experiencing (from ground/calm, into a piece of pain, and back to ground), the embodied muscle work of Merete von Brantbjerg, perhaps an appreciation of jungian dream work I picked up from my mother, a Jungian Analyst and likely some Gestault work too. 

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