Daydreams are the land of “what ifs.” A combination of imagination and speculation, daydreams are an opportunity for people to emotionally consider what they haven’t yet experienced. These fantasies may be as simple as thinking of an upcoming graduation and imagining how proud you’ll feel or thinking about falling in love with someone. Sometimes, though, daydreams are a space where we can think about grief, loss, and pain. And for many people, this includes daydreaming about loved ones dying and how we might cope.
Daydreaming about difficult emotions, like how we’d deal with the loss of loved ones, is “more than common; it’s human [and] an essential function of our brains,” says psychologist Breylan Haizlip, LPC, LMHC. In fact, fantasies about death often function as a way for us to process a real-life loss. Experiences that cause us pain can bleed into the unconscious brain, prompting us to imagine future, hypothetical discomfort, Haizlip explains. When this happens, people often turn to daydreaming to “project the feelings onto a loss that makes more sense to our minds,” she says. Simply put? When we feel hurt, we think about feeling hurt.
But daydreaming about losing a loved one can often leave you feeling guilty or strange. So we asked Haizlip and other experts why our thoughts can lead us in that direction, how common it really is, and if it’s ever the sign of a problem.
First: What Is Daydreaming, Really?
“One-third to one-half of our waking hours are spent daydreaming. It’s not only normal; it’s a sign of a healthy human brain,” Haizlip says. If this sounds like a lot of time, note that people only daydream in short spurts, a couple minutes at a time.
According to Haizlip, there are three main types of daydreams, and all are the brain’s way of processing — or avoiding — emotions.
- Positive-Constructive Daydreaming. These daydreams are associated with creativity and can happen spontaneously through inspiration or on demand through concentration. “Let’s say you’re writing a song and get lost imagining hearing your song being played on the radio for the first time. You begin to feel the delight in your body, as you jam out hearing the beautiful cadence of your creation. All the while, you are still writing the song in the present moment,” Haizlip says. This type of daydreaming can involve visualization, escapism, and fantasy — but it can help the brain concentrate and problem solve.
- Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming. Daydreaming about losing loved ones falls into this category. Guilty-dysphoric daydreams are rooted in fear and stress. “Stress often happens when we feel a loss of control,” Haizlip says. So this type of daydream is a way of making us feel more in control, she says: the events are happening in our own minds, so we’re in charge of how they play out — even when we’re imagining something we hope to never experience, like loss, divorce, or injury. These daydreams might seem strange, but they’re actually a normal way to deal with stress and not an indication that you wish ill on anyone else or yourself. And, adds Haizlip, “as the stress decreases, usually the intrusive daydreaming stops.”
- Poor Attentional Control. This final category is not daydreaming per se, Haizlip says, but more like “zoning out” for a moment. If you feel distracted and unable to focus on a desired train of thought — like a business meeting or important deadline — it may be due to poor attention control. Sometimes, these distracting thoughts can take the form of rumination, Haizlip says, which involves obsessive worry or chronic reliving of a past mistake or unkind comment directed your way.
Is It OK to Daydream About Loved Ones Dying?
The short answer is yes. “It’s very normal and natural to think about the ‘what ifs,'” says Olivia Lynch, licensed professional counselor (LPC) and EMDR program manager for Newport Healthcare. “As humans, we often think about things that could go wrong or the worst possible scenarios.”
As stated above, daydreaming about loss is typically a fairly normal stress response. In some cases, this type of daydream can be seen as an unconscious way of mentally preparing yourself to handle those “worst-case scenarios,” Lynch says — especially if you have already been through a loss or are anticipating a loss (as with, for example, a terminally ill loved one).
That said, while imagining how you’d feel or act if you lost someone close to you is sometimes a way to process the pain of an actual loss (from death or a breakup), it’s not always. Most of us are exposed to plenty of traumatic events simply from scrolling through social media or following the news, Lynch points out. “This can be anxiety producing in and of itself and cause us to worry and think about those situations happening to us or people we know or love,” she says.
And although it’s common to feel guilty after playing out one of these imaginary storylines, it’s important to understand that daydreaming about a tragic event doesn’t mean you want it to actually happen, Lynch says. “It’s more about our love for [the person we’re thinking about] and feeling like we wouldn’t know what to do without them,” she explains.
Can Daydreaming Become a Problem?
In general, you shouldn’t be worried about daydreaming of any type — about the death of a loved one or otherwise — as it’s a normal part of the human experience. However, if you experience any of the following red flags, it’s worth taking note.
- You’re unable to maintain focus.
- You have intrusive thoughts while daydreaming. “If these thoughts are reoccurring, disturbing, and interfering with someone’s daily activities, then they may very well be intrusive thoughts,” Lynch explains.
- You feel more connected to a different reality than your own.
- You “compulsively engage in vivid fantasies and daydreaming plots so excessively that it interferes with [your] ability to function,” Lynch says. This may be maladaptive daydreaming, which isn’t a recognized psychiatric diagnosis but which some experts think is associated with certain mental health conditions.
- Your daydreaming, or your feelings about the daydreams, interfere with your regular daily life in any way.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, Lynch suggests seeking professional support from a therapist or mental health counselor.
But if you occasionally find your mind drifting to thoughts about how you’d cope with the death of a loved one, you can rest easy: it happens to many people, and it’s totally OK. But it is often a sign that you’re going through a stressful period. So if you do notice your thoughts wandering in this direction, consider it a reason to take some extra time to yourself and spend it on what nourishes and relaxes you — and you may find your daydreams turning toward greener pastures.