Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her Research in Death

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004)

On July 8, 1926, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was born. Kübler-Ross was a pioneer in near-death studies and the author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (1969), where she first discussed her theory of the five stages of grief.

“I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.” Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross [1]

Elisabeth Kübler was born in Zürich, Switzerland, one of triplets, into a family of Protestant Christians. Her father did not want her to study medicine, but she persisted. Defying her family, Kübler-Ross left home at the age of 16 and worked a series of jobs. She also served as a volunteer during World War II, helping out in hospitals and caring for refugees. After the war, Kübler-Ross volunteered to help in numerous war-torn communities.[2] Just after the liberation of Europe in 1945, she visited Majdanek, a concentration camp, where she met a girl who had been left behind when the gas chambers would not hold another person. Rather than remain bitter, Kübler-Ross recalled, this girl had chosen to forgive and forget. Elisabeth Küblers experiences in Poland should changed her life for she decided to spend her life healing others.[3] She graduated from the University of Zürich medical school in 1957. In 1958 she married a fellow medical student from America, Emanuel Ross, and moved to the United States. Becoming pregnant disqualified her from a residency in pediatrics, so she took one in psychiatry.

Kübler-Ross moved to New York in 1958 to work and continued her studies. As she began her psychiatric residency, she was appalled by the hospital treatment of patients in the U.S. who were dying. She began giving a series of lectures featuring terminally ill patients, forcing medical students to face people who were dying. In 1962 she accepted a position at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Kübler-Ross completed her training in psychiatry in 1963, and moved to Chicago in 1965. She became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. She developed there a series of seminars using interviews with terminal patients, which drew both praise and criticism.

Her extensive work with the dying led to the book On Death and Dying in 1969. In it, she proposed the now famous Five Stages of Grief as a pattern of adjustment: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In general, individuals experience most of these stages when faced with their imminent death. The five stages have since been adopted by many as applying to the survivors of a loved one’s death, as well. Not everyone experiences all five, she cautioned, but at least two are always present.[4] She also suggested that death be considered a normal stage of life, and offered strategies for treating patients and their families as they negotiate these stages. The topic of death had been avoided by many physicians and the book quickly became a standard text for professionals who work with terminally ill patients. Since the publication of On Death and Dying, the Kübler-Ross model has become accepted by the general public; however, its validity is not consistently supported by the majority of research.[2] Hospice care has subsequently been established as an alternative to hospital care for the terminally ill, and there has been more emphasis on counseling for families of dying patients.[3]

In 1977 she persuaded her husband to buy forty acres of land in Escondido, California, near San Diego, where she founded “Shanti Nilaya” (Home of Peace). She intended it as a healing center for the dying and their families. The respect Kubler-Ross had gained began to crumble as her views became increasingly eccentric. In the late 1970s, she became interested in out-of-body experiences, mediumship, spiritualism, and other ways of attempting to contact the dead. She fell in with Jay Barham, a charlatan from Arkansas who practised “channelling”, “spiritual cloning” and batty sorts of religio-sexual therapy. Four “spooks” from the spirit world called Salem, Ankh, Mario and Willie became her guides and mentors. Her husband, horrified by her antics, divorced her.[5] This led to a scandal connected to the Shanti Nilaya Healing Center.

Kübler-Ross also dealt with the phenomenon of near-death experiences. A firm believer in a god and the life hereafter, she became fascinated with near-death experiences and an advocate for people’s stories of seeing a shining light and familiar faces, before being brought back from the brink. Many doctors believe these are hallucinations connected to the physical process of death and not afterlife previews.[4]

One of her greatest wishes was her plan to build a hospice for infants and children infected with HIV to give them a last home where they could live until their death, inspired by the aid-project of British doctor Cicely Saunders. In 1985 she attempted to do this in Virginia, but local residents feared the possibility of infection and blocked the necessary re-zoning

In 1999, Time magazine named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross as one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the past century. Kübler-Ross suffered a series of strokes in 1995 which left her partially paralyzed on her left side. She died on August 31, 2004.

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