Her body stiffened with strong emotion in the hospital bed as she shared a vivid dream she'd had after her diagnosis of metastatic cancer.
Her tears were a reaction similar to the stories I heard as a child of a Saint experiencing a vision. Placing a 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, too, 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 counselor friend who believes in dreams. She listened to mine, helping me find their personal messages.
Oncology 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 cannot 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 counselor 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 actual death, but often represent a significant life change, such as a cancer diagnoses.
Next, I emphasized that dreams are powerful, personal messages. Only my patient would understand the individual 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?