Facing the fear of death


Abstract: Berne wrote a chapter on “Dreams and the Unconscious” in his first book, preserved that chapter through two revisions spanning 20 years, and was still mentioning dreams in his final book, especially as a source of insight into script patterns. The author describes a memorable example of working with a 94-year-old man whose script apparently denied death; and shows how the dreams and nightmares from his unconscious mind brought the underlying issues to attention, and eventually provided resolution to the impasse.

 Berne’s attitude

Eric Berne’s first book, The Mind in Action (1947), contained a whole chapter on “Dreams and the Unconscious,” written from the perspective of Freudian psychoanalysis. In the Author’s Foreword at the time Berne wrote, “The object is to give the reader a better understanding of himself and others.” The book sold well and was re-published in 1957, with some revision and a new title, a Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis. Ten years later, after Berne had spent a decade developing the theory of Transactional Analysis, it was still a popular book, and he extensively revised it for re-issue. Note that Chapter Four on “Dreams and the Unconscious” is still there. In his Foreword to this Third Edition (1967) Berne wrote a new comment: “Part I and Part II treat the human being as an energy system, and for this point of view Freudian theory is the best approach.” Whatever was developing in Transactional Analysis, he still considered the unconscious as basic to understanding the human personality.

    So how did Berne describe it? He compared it to “an energy centre,” like a factory (Berne, 1967, p.135). “The unconscious is a region where feelings are stored. This is …very much live storage, more like a zoo than a warehouse, for all the feelings stored in the unconscious are forever trying to get out. Feelings are stored by being attached to images, just as electricity is stored by being condensed in something. One cannot store electricity by itself.” (p.137). This is a useful metaphor. He then goes on to present the Freudian theory of dreams, much of which has now been superseded by intensive research, such as that published by the International Association for the Study of Dreams in their academic quarterly Dreaming (www.ASD), and new research on brain function (Lewis et al, 2000). But Berne added a valuable thought of his own (p.141): “It is probable that dreams have another function, and that is to assist in healing the mind after emotional wounds and distressing emotional experiences… There is now evidence to show that even ordinary emotional experiences have to be ‘digested’ in some way through dreaming in order for the individual to feel well.” This has since been well documented by research into post-trauma dreaming (Barrett, 1996), which validates the role of dreaming in releasing the powerful emotions generated by traumatic experience.  Although Berne did not write much about dreams in his books on Transactional Analysis, he continued to refer to dreams in passing as valuable sources of insight, particularly in revealing patterns of script behaviour (see Ch.9 in What Do You Say).

    In The Layman’s Guide Berne also described “a fourth force of the personality… which drives people to grow, progress and do better” (p.98). “Religious people might say it was the soul. Scientists have no answer at present.” He then connects this with the ancient concept of “physis, the force of Nature, which eternally strives to make things grow and to make growing things more perfect;” and concludes “that there are other possibilities in the human mind which we must not neglect to think about.” (p.99) It seems to me that many of our dreams are expressions of this inborn unconscious drive for growth and healing.

Dreamwork in the face of death

     Alongside my clinical practice, I am well known as a tutor in the field of Dreamwork. As a result, I frequently provide consultations for people seeking to interpret a particularly puzzling or distressing dream or dream series. I would like to tell you about one such case as an example of how material from the personal unconscious of an elderly man, in the form of nightmares, interfered with his life as he faced the prospect of death. It was a privilege to meet him. I will call him Cedric. He gave permission for his dreams to be quoted.

     One of my TA trainees, whom I will call Faith, asked me to meet with her 94-year-old father, who had always been a strong man in body and mind, but whose heart was beginning to fail. He lived alone in his own home adjacent to his daughter, was much loved by family and friends, and was still alert and quite active. He had been a courageous, kindly and practical leader in the community, and should now be able to pass on in peace. But he had reached an impasse. The problem was his determination not to die, compounded by disturbing nightmares. Faith sat with us while we talked.

     Cedric told me about a dream he had had in hospital, in which he felt “alive in a dead body…as if I was sitting on a fence, and I could go either way. It was the doorstep of death. Then my body started to respond again.” He told the doctor: “To hell with it – I ain’t going!”

    He described a vivid archetypal dream in which he had been doing his old training run to the top of Mt Eden, ( a volcanic cone in Auckland, NZ). Then he found himself in a prison-like building with the doorway blocked by a defiant man and an enormous, vicious-looking black dog. “My father taught me always to confront difficulties, so I walked towards the door. I said to the man, ‘The power that’s within me is far greater than the power within you.’ Instead of attacking me, the dog started to yelp and ran behind the man, who stood up and opened the door, and I went through.” He found himself then at another door, guarded by another defiant man, this time with a lion at his feet! “I walked towards them both. The lion jumped up and ran away with such haste it fell arse over kite. I said to the man, ‘The power in me is far greater than the power in you.’ He stepped aside and opened the door – and I walked out into sunny streets and went home.”

    Even the ancient guards of the underworld could not intimidate him! Yet this was a non-literary man. Such mytho-poetic imagery derives, according to Carl Jung, founder of Analytical Psychology, from the deepest layer of our psyche, called the Collective Unconscious, shared with all of humanity. It seems to be activated at times of major transition in our lives, especially around birth and death, presenting powerful dream figures which do not relate to the dreamer’s personal experience, but to world-wide mythology (Jung, 1967).

    Cedric explained that as the youngest child of eight, he had had very little confidence in himself till his father had taught him how to box so that he could deal with bullies; and he had gone on to become a boxing instructor, training other boys to defend themselves. Clearly his Be Strong driver had been a major force in his life, and he was not ready to give it up!


     But he was also having persistent nightmares, such as walking along a cliff path, holding his little daughter’s hand, but the path was crumbling away. Or walking across a frozen river, but the ice was cracking and he only just made it to the bank. He understood that they were about his health cracking up – but he refused to accept the idea of dying – even at 94! In my mind I contrasted his attitude with the relaxed style of another elderly man, who told me he was “in the departure lounge of life.” Why such denial?

    Cedric had other nightmares which he did not understand, seeming to be drawn from his early life. Of these the one that had distressed him most was about a group of young children knocking on the door of his home on a stormy night seeking shelter, which he and his wife were happy to provide. This was the kind of help they had often given in real life during the Depression. But in this particular dream, a small child sat on his knee and clung to him with such fear in her eyes that he was moved to tears himself. He could not get her enormous eyes out of his mind. So following an intuition that it might symbolise his own inner Child, I asked him what had happened to frighten him when he was a small child himself. At this point Faith was able to remind him of the story he had told her about his mother’s recurring bouts of asthma, when he would be on his own watching as she gasped for breath. It was not hard to imagine his terror that his mother would die and abandon him.

    So this was his image of dying, seared into his earliest memories, repressed into his personal unconscious, and brought back into awareness ninety years later as he faced the prospect of his own death. But how could a man so thoroughly scripted for courage acknowledge this level of terror to his family? The dreams did it for him, demanding integration into his conscious Adult ego-state.


    Faith now knew what to do. She spent time talking quietly with him about the possibility of having a “good death,” surrounded by his family on both sides of the divide; and Cedric became more reconciled to the natural process ahead. The change was signalled by another archetypal dream, recorded by his daughter:

I went for a swim outside our family’s bach on the Island. It was a nice sunny day. I dived into the water from the reef (about 15 metres out from the beach), and when I came up, there was a big white dolphin swimming alongside me. It swam with me until I was in shallow water, where I stood up, about waist deep. As I waded out of the water, I saw a big white dog standing on the beach. It was barking in welcome, and it came out to meet me. For a moment I thought it was Prince (an English setter we used to own), then I realised it was too white for Prince. The dog remained with me until I walked onto the shore. I turned to see the dolphin. I just saw the flip of its tail, and then it was gone.

   I felt comfortable with the dream as I woke. While I was in the water, the reception and support I received from the dog made me think of Christ’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The dolphin didn’t leave me until the dog was right by my side. I was never alone.

  A seashore is a place of transition from one medium of life to another. The island bach held lifelong associations of happiness for him. Dolphins in classical mythology were known as conductors of souls to the next world. Prince had been the family dog at one stage, a very strong swimmer - Cedric used to take hold of Prince’s tail, and get towed along behind him. So out of the unconscious, both personal and collective, came symbols that carried profound reassurance for Cedric, enabling him to die in peace a few months later.

    It is worth noting here that Marie-Louise von Franz, the leading Jungian analyst, and author of the scholarly work On Dreams and Death (1987), concluded that “All of the dreams of people who are facing death indicate that the unconscious, that is, our instinct world, prepares consciousness not for a definite end but for a profound transformation and for a kind of continuation of the life process which, however, is unimaginable to everyday consciousness” (p.156). Even though Cedric had been resisting the idea of death, it seems clear that the unconscious process of his dreams was preparing him anyway.

    As the dream revealed, the crucial issue for Cedric was actually his fear of abandonment; and this was met by the appearance of two inner guides from his own unconscious. The two themes most common in the dreams of people approaching death are a journey and a guide (Bulkeley and Bulkley, 2005) – Cedric’s psyche provided both! It seems to me that his own unconscious processes used nightmares to bring his unresolved trauma to awareness; and, when that was healed, offered him precisely the symbols he needed to feel okay on his final journey through the doors of death.


Barrett, Deirdre, ed. (1996). Trauma and Dreams. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Berne, Eric. (1967). A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis. London: Penguin.

                     (1972) What Do You Say After You Say Hello? London: Corgi Books.

Bulkeley, Kelly & Bulkely, Patricia. (2005) Dreams Beyond Death. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, C.G. (1967) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Fontana.

International Assn for the Study of Dreams, Dreaming journal, www.ASDreams.org.

Lewis,T., Amini,F. & Lannon,R., (2000). A General Theory of Love. NY: Vintage Books.

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1984) On Dreams and Death. Boston: Shambhala.


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