What Dreams May Come: A Pastoral Care Perspective

In my work as a hospice chaplain I have the honor of getting to know people at their most vulnerable times and share in their experiences as they often share a review of their life and talk about their experiences. I was recently talking with a patient who talked fondly about her deceased husband, and how her son was struggling to see his young daughter after a breakup with her mother. The conversation started to migrate into a discussion of the music and finally the films the patient found meaningful and a source for reflection as she thought about how she was dying from renal failure and knew her time in this world was limited. I said to her towards the end of our time together, “Do you find it interesting that most of what we have discussed has to do with connection to others? Even the music and films you find yourself thinking about reflect interpersonal relationships.” Music and film can have a powerful influence in how we process and reflect on experiences that influence our emotional and spiritual well-being.

This realization that much of what we call entertainment can serve as an opportunity to help us work through spiritual complications in our lives. I found this epiphany rather revealing about the human condition, and humanities need to connect with other people even through our mediums of entertainment. Like music, Film is another media that often looks at establishing interpersonal connections, and can be viewed as a form of devotion. Nathaniel Dorsky writes about his experience with film as,

In fact, film’s physical properties seemed so attuned to our metabolism that I began to experience film as a direct and intimate metaphor or model of our being, a model which had the potential to be transformative, to be an evocation of spirit, and to become a form of devotion.

Dorsky, Nathaniel . “Devotional Cinema.” In The Religion and Film Reader, Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate, 407-415. New York: Routledge, 2007.  Page 407.

Film, with its visual quality combined with sound and story meld together to create an emotional response in the viewing, and it is this emotional response that captivates the viewer and helps them to make the judgment call of whether or not the film was good or bad. Films are often metaphors for our own existential predicaments, and it is on this level that we can view a film from a philosophical or a theological perspective; and frequently from both.

In my work as a hospice chaplain the theological specialty that I rely upon most is pastoral care. Pastoral care, often called spiritual care, is a practical discipline concerned with the needs of individuals and their well-being; and typically includes a spiritual dimension. What I hope to accomplish in this essay is an illustration of how film can be used to reflect and promote spiritual and emotional wholeness in a pastoral care context. A wonderful film to make this connection is the 1998 film What Dreams May Come. The film itself is a complex film suitable for many types of theological reflection; however, I will be analyzing the film through a pastoral care lens and showing example of pastoral care throughout the film. The basic plot of the film is succinctly summarized by Deacy and Ortiz with,

This is a movie in which Robin Williams plays a children’s doctor who dies in a car accident four years after his two young children were killed in a similar manner. Unable to cope with her loss, his wife, played by Annabella Sciorra, commits suicide and, like her husband, finds herself in an afterlife – only, whereas he ends up in a paradisiacal, heavenly realm more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined on earth, she journeys to a very different plane of existence, namely, a hellish environment where she is perennially punished for her violation of the natural order of things and her failure to honor the sanctity of life.

Deacy, Christopher, and Gaye W. Ortiz. Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.  Page 183.

While this movie is typically evaluated for its eschatological qualities, it is also a film depicting intense love and devotion and the hope and despair resulting from loving and perhaps loving too much. There is a scene in the film where Chris Nielson (played by Robin Williams) travels to hell to attempt to bring his wife Annie out of her despair invested afterlife, and when he thinks it is hopeless he decides that being with her in hell is better than being without her in heaven. The love that Chris and Annie have for one another is expressed throughout the film.

Before Chris is killed in the automobile accident he frequently takes time out to help Annie cope with the emotional turmoil created by the death of their children. There is a scene early in the film where Annie calls her husband unable to deal with the stress of her job, combined with the guilt and distress over the memory of the loss of her children. Chris is attentive to her suffering, and offers compassionate solutions to alleviate her frustrations. Listening is an important part of pastoral care as Carolyn Bohler writes, “Listening to a person, hearing what she is saying, is an ability that takes sincere effort. To listen requires that we move our own assumptions out of the way.”3 The love that Chris has for his wife is the sincere motivation necessary for him to effectively listen to her needs, and help her through her daily routine; however, there are opportunities where Chris – after his death – needs to work through his own emotional turmoil. He is helped by three individuals in the film; Albert, Leona, and The Tracker. It is later revealed that these three individuals are not as they appear, but are actually people from his past; namely, his son and daughter along with a mentor from his days as a medical intern.

In the film after Chris dies in the automobile accident he is greeted by Albert, who helps him go through the process of realizing he is deceased and working through the initial trauma of someone in a new state of being. Initially, it is difficult for Chris to leave the material world, where he can see but cannot be seen. He witnesses his wife’s grief over his death, and eventually withdraws from the material word to his own paradise, but before he was able to cross over he had to be ready, and was told by Albert that he will leave the physical world once he is ready. Albert maintained a steady presence, keeping Chris informed of his situation, and guiding him through the transition needed to move forward. Chris in turn, had to come to an understanding that his presence was not helping his wife’s grieving process as she could sense his presence and it only exacerbated her grief. In the film Chris, seeing his wife suffering over his death, speaks to her, “That’s when I realized I’m part of the problem. Not because I remind you. But because I couldn’t join you. So I left you alone. Don’t give up, okay?” While she couldn’t hear him, he was working through his predicament, and realized it was time for him to move on. Once he came to this understanding and had made the choice to move on he was able to enter his paradise; another new state of being for him. A similar process needed to be negotiated when Chris arrived in heaven, as he learned to cope with his new environment he was assisted by both Albert and Leona.

When Annie commits suicide she isn’t greeted by Albert or Leona, or by anyone else. She finds herself in a hell of her own creation. In discussing Annie’s situation Albert tells Chris, “Everybody’s Hell is different. It’s not all fire and pain. The real Hell is your life gone wrong.” Annie’s despair lead her to suicide, and upon death she denied her own death and lived a liminal state of perpetual despair. Once Chris discovers that his wife has committed suicide, and will not be reunited with him in the afterlife, he resumes his previous role of providing care for her. He seeks the help of The Tracker, a guide who can lead him through the maze that is hell. He is warned that the longer he spends with Annie, the likelihood increases that he will be sucked into her world of despair and unable to return to the paradise he enjoyed. Eventually Chris is able to get his wife to recognize her despair, and challenge it; this, in turn, allows him to take her out of hell and into heaven to meet with Albert and Leona who are actually their children Ian and Marie. The implications of pastoral care seen in the descent of Chris into hell displays an important feature within pastoral care and how the care-giver attends to the person receiving care; namely, that the care provider needs to stay focused and attentive and not get too wrapped up in his or her own emotions in the process. It is often stated that laughter is contagious; the same can also be said for despair, hopelessness, and frustration. In an intensely emotional situation it can be a challenge to keep enough emotional distance to be effective, while still maintain a sufficient level of empathy to provide the necessary care. In the film, Chris is able to maintain the balance between emotional distance and empathy and is able to facilitate the change necessary within his wife so that she can let go of some of the pain she felt and leave her self-imposed prison.

The film concludes with both Chris and Annie choosing to re-enter the physical world via reincarnation; however, Annie has chosen to return to the realm of the living as a means of accepting responsibility for her suicide and desiring to live again in hopes that she will live more effectively a second time around. Chris, because of his intense love for her, chooses to return to the world of the living in the expectation that he will always be with her. The desire to take responsibility for her actions, and return to life is a profound pastoral care lesson. Elizabeth Liebert alludes to this taking of responsibility in her essay Coming Home to Themselves,

Adequate spiritual care of women will include assisting women to become more deeply in touch with reality, however it is expressed in a given woman’s life situation. It will assist women in their moves toward self-transcendence and will help them come home to themselves as creative, autonomous and life-giving members of human communities. It will deal, at moments, with beliefs, convictions, and patterns of thought, with emotions, with desires, and with behavior, all in relationship to what the women themselves judge to be Ultimate.

Liebert, Elizabeth. “Coming Home to Themselves: Women’s Spiritual Care.” In Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, Jeanne S. Moessner, 257-284. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.  Page 265.

In the film Annie works to transcend herself, and her depression, and seek her own self apart from her children and her husband. This does not diminish the love she has for either of them, but allows her to ground more firmly in reality and see more objectively.

What Dreams May Come is a film that expresses deep interpersonal relationships, and captures multiple aspects of the human condition. Everyone will eventually die, and everyone will experience loss of some kind in their life. Being able to cope with change and loss is an important aspect of pastoral care, and helping others manage change in a healthy and life affirming way is indicative of good pastoral leadership – whether the care is given in a clinical, clerical, or everyday setting matters very little. What is important; however, is the spiritual and psychological care of the person in need. Listening, being present, offering guidance are some examples in which care can be given. What Dreams May Come is a film that reminds us that we are not alone in this world, or the next. In the film there is a scene were Chris asked Albert, “Where is God in all this?” With Albert responding, “Oh, He’s up there. Somewhere… shouting down that He loves us. Wondering why we can’t hear Him.” Often when depressed it is important to be reminded that God does love us, and often tries to tell us through our interactions with others. What Dreams May Come accomplishes as a film is to make us mindful of the transforming effectiveness of love; both the love that God has for us by offering opportunities for redemption from our mistakes, and the love that others can share with us. Love is the essence of the Resurrection of Jesus, overcoming the powers of evil and becoming whole again. Jesus gives us hope and anyone who has experienced depression knows what despair is and knows what it is like to feel lost, abandoned, and discarded. Sometimes we cannot get through our depression without the help of another and pastoral care done right can help someone get off their cross and live a resurrected life of wholeness and joy. God is “up there” and constantly shouting down to us that we are loved. Sometimes we need someone to help us hear the message.


[1] Dorsky, Nathaniel . “Devotional Cinema.” In The Religion and Film Reader, Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate, 407-415. New York: Routledge, 2007.  Page 407.

[2] Deacy, Christopher, and Gaye W. Ortiz. Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.  Page 183.

[3] Bohler, Carolyn S. “Female-Friendly Pastoral Care.” In Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, Jeanne S. Moessner, 27-49. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.  Page 28.

[4] Liebert, Elizabeth. “Coming Home to Themselves: Women’s Spiritual Care.” In Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, Jeanne S. Moessner, 257-284. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.  Page 265.

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