Cultural Diversities in Dying, Death and Grief

1998 John E. Perkins, III

It is a Fearful Thing to Love What Death can Touch

--Tombstone Epitaph

Self-Evaluation for "Cultural Diversities in Dying, Death and Grief" Seminar, Logan Utah, May 5-9, 1995. Penny MacElveen-Hoehn, Patti White and Sandra Hartman, co-conveners.

My first seminar--a dizzying swirl of expectations, emotions, connections, reflections and confrontations. The 'seminar' is the whole package, from looking through the offerings mailed to me, to writing this self-evaluations, and beyond.

Penny MacElveen-Hoehn serves as my second core, and I felt that a chance to study with her would be delightful. I sent in my registration and requested the books from my local libraries.

Raymond Moody's book Life After Life had a surprising impact. I was pretty familiar with afterlife Near Death Experiences (NDE). On pages 44-45 Moody describes the four questions asked by the Being of Light who greets the dying person on the other side of the tunnel people describe they spin/fall through. The questions are:

Are you prepared to die?

Are you ready to die?

What have you done with your life to show me?

What have you done with your life that is sufficient?

"Hello," I thought, "this is wonderful news." I felt I had secret information. The ending of projects and relationships, etc. I might consider foreshadowings of death. These questions have universal applications in my life, and eased some of my anxieties. As a diagnostic tool they might turn up where I stopped my self from finishing projects. The phenomena of Near Death Awareness (NDA) described by Callanan and Kelley in their book Final Gifts confirmed this need to be sensitive to the spiritual side of endings. This led to some deep thinking and reordering of my daily worries and priorities. Clearly whether I rent or own and my debt load don't factor. There is a lot I won't be taking with me across the river which divides life and death.

Getting from the Salt Lake City Airport to getting situated in my room turned up some inaccuracies in the travel/conference information sent to me from Union. First, the price for the round trip limousine service was listed as "$31.00" when actually it was closer to $57.31.

The packet said I would be paying $55 for my room which included cafeteria style meals. However, the meals did not begin until a full day after I had been in Logan (and paying for my room), thus I had to pay for three meals myself. I learned that the rates for my room were $42 per night, so I over paid $25 for the first day if you add the $12 or so I spent on food with the $13 already paid for via my room charge.

Even the seminar's start had its moments. The general information for seminars states that they start at 1 PM on the first day. Well, three of us arrived in the appointed room at that time and chatted for half an hour before we decided that the rumor that it started at 4 probably was correct. There were no signs on the door. This change annoyed me, for had I known earlier I could have planned better use of my time that day (as in taking a hike).

I had to "vent" for the last three paragraphs to clear my mind and heart.

Once we began the formal part of the seminar I felt right at home. The co-conveners set the tone that the learners would control the pace and decisions about content for the five days. This felt wonderful, since it follows the general outline of the philosophy under girding Open Space Technology (Owen, 1992). Our assignments had prepared all of us for a rich discussion. Assignments included: interviews with members of our families about practices and beliefs about death and dying, interviews with people from two other cultures about these same concerns, reading the required and recommended text and describing our own most "difficult experience of loss." When we added in the prepared presentations the co-conveners brought it added up to more than five days. I mentioned to Penny that this open format seemed to work well and I would suggest alerting learners in the seminar descriptions just how much freedom and responsibility they will have to set the agenda. I personally would have been able to bring more materials to share on a couple of topics had I known.

Because of this open format we averaged about one hour a day dealing with how to fit the overwhelming material into the available time. The content and process of this seminar I found to be fascinating. The process alerted me to some stark differences in how people think about groups and their participation in them.

In regards to content, we managed to touch all of the bases. I hesitate to select the highlights because each added to the richness of this experience. So, I will annotate some of my experiences:

Chin-ing Helen Chen, learner, Chinese practices and the Death of her Father. This included a videotape of the funeral with Chin-ing's clear explanation of what the culture expected from various people in terms of their roles, and how the family managed with the realities of the people in their family. Examples: the eldest son is expected to take the lead in making the arrangements and facilitating the funeral rites, but because of her brother's relative youth (25), her uncle did this for the family. Chin-ing and her sisters, all well-educated and strong spirited women, had to act within the traditional definitions of womanhood and curtail their assertiveness.

Carol Archibald, learner, medical ethics and cultural diversity. Carol described her medical facility's struggle to meet the expectations and needs of a Russian mother whose daughter unexpectedly died from a usually non-lethal operation. They had to get translations services, plus try to understand the conflicting advice from the mother, the involved rabbis, etc.

Personal loss, various learners. At first it seemed that everyone would have a short time to share, but it soon became evident that at the pace we took with these accounts, close to one hour each, that for all of us to go would take two full days. Plus some people felt uncomfortable with the degree of emotion expressed and the support offered from the group to the person sharing. I expected to see some emotion and to offer support given the personal and painful at times nature of the material. I joked before the seminar about brining my own box of tissues.

My own sharing brought up deep feelings about loneliness, and hopelessness having to do with my suicidal feelings around the age of eleven. A friend's letter I received soon after my return reminded me that these are not always harmless imaginings—in her small town in British Columbia two thirteen year old children recently killed themselves.

Cross-cultural interviews, learners. We listed the cultures represented by our interviews and people who interviewed the same cultures shared the discussion of what they learned. This created a wonderful backdrop for Penny's summation of common elements found in death, dying and grief beliefs and practices.

Near Death Experience (NDE) and Near Death Awareness (NDA), Patti White, two separate presentations. Very good presentations and following discussions. Patti did her PDE on cross-cultural experiences of NDEs. The meaning given to NDEs varied when comparing the Mexican or Mexican-American NDE with white American NDEs. Mexican people who experienced NDE wanted to return to life to make amends, improve their moral behavior and otherwise "clean up their act." Non-Mexicans expressed reluctance, preferring to linger on the "other side" with no expressed eagerness to return to the living world.

Death and Dying and the Arts, Sandra Hartman. For Sandy, the arts includes greeting cards, poetry, drawings from exercises, and cartoons. Sandy has become a images of death/dying attractor. I remember laughing a lot. One particular letter/poem by a little boy stands clearly in my mind as the best description of what the possibilities after life might be, and how each suggests a different reaction among the living (from my tape of this session):

Dear Grandmother,

Where did you go?  Will you come back?  Please come back.
I will give you a cake, a car, as much gold as you want
and a lot of house and everything you want.

Are you in heaven, or in your grave or are you a ghost?

If you are in heaven I will send you a letter to heaven,
if you are in your grave I will put your letter on your
grave and if you are a ghost I will be scared.

Images of Death, exercise, Sandra Hartman. Using our drawings on overhead gels and small group process we had a chance to explore the images some of us carried about death. Sandy promises to copy our samples and distribute them to us. A wonderful exercise, and quite powerful.

Sex and Death, Penny MacElveen-Hoehn. Penny described the research she has been collecting on some people's heightened sexuality when confronted with death or in extremely dangerous circumstances. Few people who had these experiences had ever spoken of them before to anyone, including the people with whom they had shared sex with. Perhaps to think of mixing the excitement of seduction and orgasm with the grief or fear of dying overwhelms what people are prepared to bear. We don't like trying to balance starkly contrasting emotions. We want sex to be joyful and death to be grief-full.

Crow Indians, Penny MacElveen-Hoehn. A community in disarray and it shows in their excessive rates of death from all causes, including homicide. Children, she described, grow up wondering if they had a place in the world at all. This raises some questions of people growing up in areas with continuing traumatic shock. Very disturbing presentation and raises more questions for me about the impact of the loss of leadership and the escalating violence is some black communities.

Common Elements, Penny MacElveen-Hoehn. She listed 5 which Platt and Persico (no additional information provided) list in their research. (1) Death has been given meaning in all cultures, some view it negatively, others positively, but a meaning has been ascribed; (2) All cultures explain the origins of death; (3) All cultures have death carrying social meanings for the living;
(4) All cultures define how central or distant the remembrances of the dead will be for the living; (5) All cultures find significance in the mode of death, e.g. during battle, during childbirth, in a crash, natural causes, supernatural causes, age at death. Everywhere, death challenges us with our impermanence so we struggle to create a sense of prolonged survival in some way.

The Process

To talk about "the process" makes it sound pre-planned and well laid out rather than the wiggling, sometimes-perfectly-clear-yet-soon-to-be-revised thing that happened. I will write about it to some length, for the differences between what emerged during this seminar and Open Space, which is the cornerstone of my program, are telling. This thinking will contribute to my sensitivity to group processes as I research Open Space and develop my PDE.

As I noted above, I instantly understood what Penny offered us. Not many learners did at first, and for many they never got over the fact that we had major influence on the content and process. One learner told me privately that planning the seminar was the co-conveners's domain--getting involved with all of the planning stuff was more "stress" that she wanted to deal with.

Open Space Technology has been described by Owen (1992) and Danial (1994). I have experienced 14 Open Space events to date. Table 1 shows the differences between Open Space and what emerged at this seminar.

Table 1 - Comparing Open Space to Seminar

  Seminar Open Space
Group Norms discussed, mid course 4 principles, 
1 law
Process Conflicts majority/consensus  OK to walk away
Content conflicts majority/consensus OK to walk away
Whole Group meets the whole time meets at start & end
Small groups for exercises for discussions
Course correction time consuming quick and fluid

With Open Space the facilitator helps set the tone for a new way to use group time and for a de-centralized, self-directed process. Using less than one hour, no matter how large the group it seems, the facilitator outlines the procedure for creating topics to discuss, the 4 principles of Open Space, and the One Law, or what I call the Sole Law.

Anyone with an interest in a topic writes it on a small rectangle of newsprint with their name, announces it to the group and tapes it up on the designated part of the wall with a room/time assignment Post-It. Before the Open Space the facilitator has decided on topic discussion lengths, usually 60 - 90 minutes. After all who want to have made proposals for discussions, people individually show their interest in a topic by signing the same sheet with the topic statement. Topic conveners and potential attendees negotiate changes like combining groups or changing times or room assignments.

The Four Principles are:

Whoever come are the right people.
Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
When it's over it's over.

This prevents a lot of wishful thinking and "If only" type regretting.

The Sole Law or, as Owen named it, The Law of Two Feet, states that at any time a person feels a meeting is not contributing to their learning needs they have the responsibility to themselves to get up and move, that is use their two feet or four wheels to move to a more interesting place. Naturally, this creates two roles: Bumblebees and Butterflies. Bumblebees fly from group to group cross-pollinating the discussions while Butterflies sit around looking relaxed--interesting discussions emerge around them as people find them and pause to chat.

After the initial instructions and sign-up process people meet in small group discussions for hours until the whole group gathers for closing reflections.

Because we negotiated so much as we went along at the seminar, we encountered some difficulties. The incident which generated this fascination with our process occurred midway through the seminar. My roommate Gerry Hunsicker had played the role of challenger throughout the seminar. His questioning about the cross-culturally validity of Near Death Experience research raised the issue of the validity of any type of research. As an example demonstrating the process of research, Penny described the original research and later work around the concept of "power." It happened that this research started with white American males researchers conducting research on white American male college students. Then later research with women (presumably white) different ethnic groups, etc. began to modify the understanding based on the first research.

Gerry, a white American male, felt affronted, but didn't have a clear sense of where the hurt came from, nor a clear sense of what to do bring his pain before the attention of the group in group session.

At the break, an angry Gerry found me walking towards the mountain view. He expressed his frustrations and anger. (I had left the room right after Gerry and Penny began to re-state their previous statements on this topic, so I missed the final moments.) He was going to pass on the afternoon session, maybe even drop the rest of the seminar. This was serious. We had a long talk about it that evening before going to sleep. We decided that the group had need of some norm clarification and we would bring it up for discussion the next morning.

I had expected a short general discussion, a few proposed and accepted norms and that would close the matter. My expectations come from my work with groups, especially in my work with one of my internships. In a project with the University of Washington Medical Center one of the task force's first order of business (at my suggestion) was to establish our norms. This is a group composed of medical staff, community members and infant mortality outreach workers. Our norms helped to set a positive tone of mutual understanding and respect. These included:

1 Confidentiality
2 Openness
3 Rumor Control
4 Individual examples only for illustration purposes
5 Minutes will be kept in two notebooks available at each meeting
6 If needed we will make meeting times convenient to clients
7 If we cannot easily decide we will use
(a) five-finger - fist method
(b) conflict resolution models
(c) Seattle Dispute Resolution Center
8 Everyone participates
9 Everyone who attends wants to
10 Recognize differences among ourselves
11 Clarification about differences is allowed
12 Humor is Important
13 Frequency of meeting decided by group
14 Beepers - be respectful
15 Rotation of facilitator/note taker
16 Client representation - for education of group, can participate
in decisions, will be full task force members.
As the discussion at the seminar developed I soon realized that not everyone shared my interest in stated, open norms. In fact many seemed to feel imposed upon. I find this interesting since all human interaction follows rules, whether those rules get openly listed or remain silent and unspoken. The unstated norms of this seminar included sitting in a circle, one person speaks at a time, and turn-taking, for example.

Gerry started it out by saying:

Yesterday I had one of the clearest feelings I have had in my life of it what means to be a minority. I had no option except to leave because I had no power, none, to say "Stop you are continually hurting me." And John and I talked about that. We concluded that was because we have no 'rules of engagement' obviously a military term. We have no rules for handling conflict. I had no way of saying to you 'A point of personal order...' what you're saying makes me feel as if...because we didn't agree in advance on a set of rules for us to conduct discussions and how to object to what may be innocuous or innocent to you but is not innocuous or innocent to other people.

He then proposed that we adopt the "Point of Personal Order" idea from Robert's Rules of Order. Immediately someone shifted the focus to his expressed feelings of being an outsider. I pointed out that some way to make it safe to disagree within agreed rules would help the discussion.

Learner Joe Dragun led a discussion of what to do about safety. After 75 minutes we agreed on two norms: we could use the Point of Personal Order from Robert's Rules of Order, and at the conclusion of the day a Talking Stick procedure would be used to make sure quieter members of the group had a clear turn to speak.

In his book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom devotes an 18 page section to "The Construction of Norms" by the group, with the active nudging of the therapist. He states clearly that "norms invariably evolve in every type of group" (p. 117) including, we can confidently add, Union learners and co-conveners attending a seminar. But our 35 days of residency requirement don't allow lots of time for the building of common norms across almost 2000 learners, faculty and administrators spread about the world. Therefore a clear discussion and agreement to our temporary norms during colloquiums and seminars and peer days will help enhance our mutual learning, not take away from it. Some of Yalom's comments about norms illuminate my point:

Norms may be implicit as well as explicit (p. 117)

Norms are established relatively early in the life of a group and, once established, are difficult to change (p. 118)

In the self-monitoring group, the group begins to assume responsibility for its own functioning (p. 125)

The optimal procedural format in the group is unstructured, unrehearsed and freely interacting (p. 130)

The more important the members consider the group, the more effective it becomes (p. 131)

The group functions best if its members appreciate the valuable help they can provide one another (p. 132)

Behavior undermining the norm of mutual helpfulness should not be permitted to go unnoticed (p. 132)

Before members feel free enough to express disagreement, they must feel safe enough and must value the group highly enough to be willing to tolerate uncomfortable meetings (p. 133)

Even in all-out conflict, there are tacit rules of war which, if violated, make satisfactory resolution all but impossible (p. 359)

Thus the therapist must build a group with norms that permit conflict only after firm foundations of safety and support have been established (p. 133)

Though a Union seminar does not pursue therapeutic goals for its learner members, it does create a temporary group which operates by group norms. From a more organizational standpoint, Johnson and Johnson (1987) make similar points about the process of members negotiating for what they need and want from their participation in a group. They state that "within any group, conflicts of interest arise such that members will need to negotiate agreements with each other." A negotiation relationship develops contractual norms which spell out acceptable behavior. "Thus if violations occur the penalty can be assessed without destroying the possibility of further negotiations...Contractual norms provide clear ground rules for conducting the negotiations and managing the difficulties in reaching an agreement" (p. 284).

Many other works describing groups and group process stress the importance of establishing positive norms (Cohen and Smith, 1976; James H and Marge Craig, 1974; Corey et al, 1982). Repeatedly, Gerry had to say he did not feel hurt that morning and yet people kept insisting that he feel better! Learners continually apologized for any unwitting acts which might have caused him injury. That wasn't his goal at all. After I listened with increasing distress and fascination to our discussion at our seminar about the even the value of publicly agreed upon norms, I tried to sum up the difficulty:

What we are dealing with is two different perspectives about what occurs in groups. One perspective is that a person is responsible for what they say, what they feel, what they do and their level of participation. The other perspective is that we are responsible for establishing group situations and group understand. We may be operating by rules which we're not expressing-[not expressing them] does not mean that we have not been operating by rules for the last three days. One of the rules is turn-taking; one of the rules is one person at a time. We have been operating by very clear rules, we just haven't made them formal and we haven't stated them, but they are there. They are just as much there as the law of gravity. I can throw a basket without understanding Newton and formulas which doesn't deny that there is a way to explain that with numbers and formulas. It's just a different understanding for the same phenomena.

We have been operating with very strong rules that are culturally engaged, just to make the rules formal does not necessarily change the nature of our interactions for the last three days. It just helps make some of the rules much clearer and much more shared. So that when things occur we have something up here that we can clearly discuss that we had arranged beforehand. Rather than being in a situation where there is pain and hurt and misunderstanding and then trying to be explicit about which norm or rule has been violated. It makes it easier to work things out when disagreements do occur.

Since we had both the confusion and emotion of the precipitating incident and a discussion of what norms we wanted, the discussion took almost 80 minutes. Usually norms discussions early in the life of a group take less than thirty minutes and have a great bit of positive energy during their discussion/creation since no complicating issues are before the group. The 16 norms we developed for the task force occurred in exactly that fashion.

I feel we missed some vital discussions during the seminar because we did not have the means for safely joining issues and then debating them. These included defining "culture" and debating research methodology and whether each type leads to equally valid truths.

Two days after the seminar I "called" a discussion about "peer norms" at an Open Space event sponsored by the Upper Left Corner Chapter of the Association for Quality and Participation. This small group had a similar diversity of feelings about norms as I witnessed at the seminar. One of the participants continually mixed in "judgment" with norms. For our group, "rules" became defined as the formal written description of expected behaviors and "norms" came to mean what people actual did.

I continued with one participant in a private conversation for about fifteen minutes. She pointed to the word "norm" and said "When I see that I see the word 'conform.'" We soon were in a vital give and take about this merging of words for her. I kept asking: "What does it mean to actively participate in the creation of the norm, would she define it as conforming to follow a norm she helped to create?" She finally, but reluctantly, agreed that to follow a norm she helped to create would not be the same as conforming to a rule or norm she had not participated in creating. But, like many learners I met in Utah, I sense she would rather let sleeping norms lie.

If I could, what would I select as the single, most important, over-riding norm? I would suggest that a discussion of norms be open and remain open for the duration of any group. Hopefully this discussion would start at the very beginnings of the group and everyone would feel safe to contribute their sense of what norms the group had, which needed improvement, which needed to be dropped and which needed to be left alone.


Bratman, Michael E. (October, 1993). Shared Intentions. Ethics: 104:97-113.

Bruteau, Beatrice. (1979). The Psychic Grid: How We Create the World We Know. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Callanan, Maggie & Kelley, Patricia. (1992). Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. New York: Poseidon Press.

Cather, W. (1927). Death Comes to the Archbishop. New York: F. Watts.

Cohen, Arthur M. and Smith, R. Douglas. (1976). The Critical Incident in Growth Groups: Theory and Technique. La Jolla, CA: University Associates.

Corey, Gerald; Corey, Marianne Schneider; Callanan, Patrick J.; and Russell, J. Michael. (1982). Group Techniques. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Craig, James H. and Craig, Marge. (1974). Synergic Power: Beyond Domination and Permissiveness. Berkeley, CA: Proactive Press.

Daniel, Marlene. (1994). An Ethnographic Study of An Open Space Technology Meeting: Self-Organization at Work. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Baltimore: University of Maryland.

Dula, Annette. (1994). The Life and Death of Miss Mildred: An Elderly Black Woman. Clinic in Geriatric Medicine: 10(3):419-430.

Foos-Graber, A. (1989). Deathing: An Intelligent Alternative for the Final Moments of Life. York Beach, ME: Nicholas-Hays, Inc.

Irish, Donald P., Lundquist, Kathleen F., Nelsen, Vivian Jenkins, editors. (1993). Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death and Grief: Diversity in Universality. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis.

Johnson, David W. and Johnson, Frank P. (1987). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills. Third Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

MacElveen-Hoehn, Patricia . (1993). Sexual Responses to the Stimulus of Death, in John D. Morgan, ed. Personal Care. In An Impersonal World: A Multidimensional Look at Bereavement. Death Value and Meaning Series. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing. Pp. 95-119.

Marshak, Robert J. Lewin Meets Confucius: A Re-View of the OD Model of Change. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science: 29(4)393-415.

Moody, Raymond A. (1975). Life After Life. Carmel, New York: Guideposts.

Norman, Marsha. (1983). 'Night Mother. New York: Dramatists Play Service.

Owen, Harrison H. (1992). Open Space Technology: A User's Guide. Potomac, MD: Abbott Publishing.

Preston, Richard. (1994) The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story. New York: Random House.

Steele, Richard L. (1977). Dying, Death and Bereavement Among the Maya Indians of Mesoamerica: A Study in Anthropology Psychology. American Psychologist: 32(12):399-424.

Yalom, Irvin D. (1985). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Third Edition. New York, Basic Books.


Between Two Worlds: Hmong Shaman in the United State.

Conscious Living, Conscious Dying with Stephen Levine. (1988). An Innerwork Videotape with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove. Oakland, CA: Thinking Allowed Productions.


Life After Life

In the Sleep of Death

by John Perkins
for Diversity in Dying Seminar, May 1995

My eyes burn from crying...I shiver from chills, too much of me exposed to the world...I need warmth, someone to hug me; no one is here...My throat, my lymph glands, feel sore, like a fish might feel from being held suspended from under her gills...I just finished watching the movie, 'Night Mother.

My most significant moment of loss occurred while watching the original Broadway play 'Night Mother (NM) by Marsha Norman about eleven years ago. Just two actors, no intermission. Once begun, the actors--and I in the audience--have no relief. I watched in emotional suspense the whole evening. As the drama unfolds we learn that the daughter, Jessie, is planning her suicide that very night.

When she did, I cried and cried and cried. I stood in the lounge and just let myself sob while my partner stood by embarrassed.

I just rewatched it, and experienced a similar reaction.

Externally, Jessie's life was uncomfortable but manageable. She had some epileptic seizures which medication had brought under control. She had a marriage which has soured after producing a son who now seemed to be in continual trouble with drugs and the law. After her marriage failed and her father died, she moved back into the house she grew up in to take care of her mother. Before her medication, she did not have much memory, so the drugs seemed to be helping her remember. She is in good health, and "Feeling better than [she] had felt in years" physically. Her malaise is beyond that: "Moma...I'm just not having a very good time and I don't have any reason to think it will get anything but worse. I'm tired. I'm hurt. I'm sad. I feel used."1

We who have hope, and feel alive, side with the mother, Thelma, and seek some way to stop the daughter, derail her, and restore hope to her. But her mind is made up. There is no break--no interruption--no stopping her; the daughter has seized these two hours, and they are totally hers.

MAMA: But something might happen. Something that could change everything. Who knows what it might be, but it might be worth waiting for! (Jessie doesn't respond.) Try it for two more weeks. We could have more talks like tonight.
JESSIE: No, Mama.
MAMA: I'll pay more attention to you. Tell the truth when you ask me. Let you have your say.
JESSIE: No, Mama! We wouldn't have more talks like tonight, because it's this next part that's made this last part so good, Mama. No, Mama. This is how I have my say. This is how I say what I thought about it all and I say No. To Dawson and Loretta and the Red Chinese and epilepsy and Ricky and Cecil and you. And me. And hope. I say No! (Then going to Mama on the sofa.) Just let me go easy, Moma.2
Why is this play so powerful to me? My life partner reminds me that this movie/play dramatizes how I might have chosen to end my life. When I was eleven I mentioned to some friends at school that I probably would kill myself before I turned twelve. I spent a year thinking about it. I got little pleasure out of a life which seemed to be mostly dodging my father's ill-temper. I felt deeply alone, and not understood by anyone. I kept my pain to myself as I trusted no one. No one knew of my deep unhappiness.

A year later I felt a little better about living, but I still remembered my promise. I wondered what I would do if any of my friends mentioned it. So another year passed, this time with me hoping no one would recall that promise I had made.

To survive my family I held tightly to the hope that after I left home and began to live on my own things would change. I left home at 16 to go to college, but did not know myself enough to trust my judgment or reactions. Little changed; I still mistrusted people and disclosed no feelings to anyone.

On my 25th birthday my roommates took me to a cafe in New York City to celebrate. I opened up to them the deep pain I felt in my life. My life had no worth to me: I could not seem to sustain any meaningful relationship with women; I worked at a job I detested; I felt trapped in my life. I cried.

But that birthday marked a turning point. A year later I discovered Neuro-Linguistic Programming(NLP). I decided to take the practitioner training. I had already begun to explore dream work and felt NLP would accelerate my process of discovering my true self. I gave myself a year to see if I could sort out the tangled messages which prevented me from being in a sustained relationship.

The rest can be guessed. The process hasn't stopped. Yet, I fear, a different set of circumstances and I could have easily chosen to leave early.

When I first saw 'Night Mother in 1983 or 84. I had had over five years of experience with NLP, dreamwork and hypnosis. I fully felt, that with a clear mind and heart, any one of us might intervene to turn another's life in a more positive direction.

I am reminded of a case Milton Erickson dealt with while making a public presentation of hypnosis in Massachusetts. Erickson had seen a particular nurse during the tour of the hospital where he would speak. He suggested that she might make a suitable hypnotic subject. The administrator informed him that she might not since she had announced to the whole staff that she would commit suicide. Had even told them the date she would do it. The administrator feared that should she later commit suicide Erickson and his ideas would be discredited.

Of course, Erickson insisted that they at least ask her, and she agreed to be a subject. During his demonstration, Erickson put her into a trance, and began to tell a lot of stories about dolphins, whales, how they roam the seas, how whale pods work as communities, about the migration of birds, and other examples of migrating species. A week later, the nurse resigned without notice, and vanished. People suspected the worse.

In another work Erickson reveals that years later she called him. She thought he might be curious what had happened to that strange nurse from many years before. She had joined the Navy, and since she was a nurse, she entered at one of the officer's ranks. She had traveled the world, ultimately falling in love with, and marrying, a fellow officer. She left the Nary to raise a family. Erickson asked her if she recalled the session. She said the detail she recalled the clearest was when he described the birth process of baby whales and how they travel with their pods. That had rekindled for her her own desires to travel.

Today, watching the video of NM I saw that I wanted the mom (Anne Bancroft) to find the key, the magic sentence, the proper tone, the window of escape, just the right 'baby whale' story for Jessie. She struggled, but she had really missed her chance.

Jessie and I share a metaphor: the bus ride. Jessie says:

JESSIE: Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it's hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don't get off is it's still 50 blocks from where you're going? Well, I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride 50 more years and get off then, its the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I've had enough, it's my stop. I've had enough.3
Jessie's calm, deliberate choice about her life, saying no to it and jumping off the bus of living scares me. What if our continuing to live is more choice than accident? Rearranging the elements might expose fresh possibilities. I feel that should my life ever feel hopeless I can always get on a bus and go and get off anyplace and start fresh. To Jessie, all the bus stops look and feel alike. To me I can tell them all apart.

1 Marsha Norman, 1983, 'Night Mother, New York: Dramatists Play Service, p. 22.
2 Ibid. p. 49.
3 Ibid. p. 24.