I’m just expanding on what’s already been said, but hope it’s helpful or at least interesting.
My take on the nature of recurring dreams: it may not always be the unfinished business you think it is. In my experience, I may have some strong unresolved feeling in daily life, say frustration, that gets played out using details from something else entirely.
At work right now, I’ve been assigned to analyze an old project, to recommend how best to bring it up to date on a very small budget. The more I look at the project, the less I see worth rescuing, and the more futile it seems to spend money on it at all – ya can’t polish a turd – but it’s not up to me to do anything else.
However, I seldom dream directly about this work frustration in images from my current life. I dream about something that has stuck in my subconscious as iconic of that same feeling: desperately looking for something in a dark, obstacle-filled room, and not being able to find the lightswitch – or when finally finding the switch, discovering that it turns on a 5-watt bulb. When I was a kid, my paternal grandma, very traumatized by the Depression, was indeed a hoarder and a clutterer and a penny-pincher, and finding the lightswitch in rooms in her house was like that. For a little kid, Grandma’s house could be nightmarish after dark.
Grandma passed away years ago. I’ve worked on it, so that I’m no longer creeped out if I encounter situations *literally *like that in real life, such as in the spare room at a friend’s house (though I still get momentarily cross if the switch is behind a bookcase!). You could say that I’ve resolved my feelings about lightswitches in cluttered rooms. But I’ll never be able to completely avoid situations that make me feel powerless and frustrated, and the lightswitch theme shows up in my dreams often when those feelings are on my mind. The lightswitch is a powerful personal metaphor, and my brain apparently finds it handy.
I think the prevailing current neural dream theory is that during REM, part of your brain is doing clean-up, deciding what to do with bits and pieces of things in short-term memory, filing some things for permanent storage, tossing some things out. During this, another part of your brain is watching the leftover bits flying by, interpreting this compost heap of memory as a narrative (because humans are hard-wired to seek narratives in order to make sense of the world). The narrative-making part of your brain may need to borrow a few old, familiar images to stitch the scraps together, and the most potent memories are easiest to pull. (It would be nice if you could put certain memories in a file cabinet marked “ACCESS DENIED for dream-narrative use.”)
Mind you (heh), a third part of your brain may be taking advantage of this process to work through those feelings, those memories, or both; the key idea of this “clean-up” theory is not that dreams can’t be therapeutic, but that they aren’t necessarily designed to be therapeutic. IOW, their therapeutic value may not be optimal, you might have to work to get anything out of them, and sometimes they just aren’t useful.
I never dedicated as much effort as I could have to lucid dreaming, but I have learned to tell my dreaming self, "Oh, this is a f*ing lightswitch dream. I’m really frustrated about something else. This isn’t real." I usually can’t derail the dream completely, but I can at least be bored in it, and detached, instead of panicky.
Obviously, dealing with your husband’s death and emotional legacy is tough stuff requiring ongoing work, but it may help you immediately to clarify whether there’s something in your life that might be echoing how he made you feel, as well as working on the lucid-dream strategy of “It isn’t real.”