Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: On Death and Dying

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross discusses her early work caring for terminally ill patients, the evolution of her views on mental and emotional health as a result of that experience, and her inquiries into near-death and after death experiences.


| May/June 1983



Elisabeth Kubler Ross - head shot

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross during her interview.


Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is best known for her work with death and dying, and her fame is well earned. More than any other individual in the Western world, she has helped shatter the taboo that as recently as 20 years ago isolated the terminally ill in an atmosphere of nervous silence. Meanwhile, the Swiss-born physician devised her celebrated five-stage (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) model of the dying process, authored the classic book On Death and Dying (as well as a number of other volumes on the subject), sparked the hospice movement in the United States, and helped millions of people learn to see dying as "the final stage of growth" an integral part of life itself.

Most people would agree that the lessons that Kübler-Ross has learned while aiding thousands of terminally ill patients can have meaning for everyone because we all have to deal with others' deaths and — ultimately — with our own. But her teachings have a broader relevancy as well. From her work with the seriously ill, Elisabeth has gained a great deal of practical wisdom about how to live more fully and positively. Indeed, a good portion of her work now consists of running intensive, five-day "Life, Death, and Transition" workshops (given through her service organization, Shanti Nilaya), in which she attempts to help people express, and then get rid of, internal hostility, fears, and guilt.

Years ago, when several of her patients told her that they'd traveled in spiritual form during near-death experiences, Elisabeth's work took on a further dimension: The previously nonreligious physician-scientist set upon an investigation on of the nature of death itself and of the reality of an afterlife. Subsequently, in keeping with the openness that helped make her a successful healer and counselor, Kübler-Ross has publicly described many of her own perceived out-of-body experiences and spirit guide encounters. (She gained some notoriety for this aspect of her work when she supported, and was subsequently duped by, a pair of self-styled — and apparently unscrupulous — psychic healers. Kübler-Ross has since severed all connections with the couple.)

And while (as Elisabeth herself suggests in the following interview) the reader can make up his or her own mind about the validity of Kübler-Ross's personal religious beliefs, we hope that no one will dismiss her more "down to earth" wisdom because this short, hardworking ("If you had 50 parents of murdered children to contact, would you watch TV?") and plain-spoken woman has been, in many ways, a healer of the human heart.

Recently, staffer Pat Stone took one of Kübler-Ross's "Life, Death, and Transition" workshops, then followed her to Washington, D.C. and—later on—to her home in Escondido, California in order to get enough time alone with Elisabeth to complete this interview. He remarks: "The workshop I attended was a theater of catharsis, a moving lesson to me in the pain, and potential, of human existence. The majority of our 70-member group was motivated by Elisabeth's 'externalization of negativity' techniques to share and, in many cases, to positively resolve deep personal hurts and shames. And although Elisabeth feels there are some advantages to working through painful personal issues at one of her workshops, she has willingly related many of her methods here so that people who wish to do so can use them on their own.

"Kübler-Ross herself was clearly one of the most intuitive, empathic, and loving people I've ever met. However, she was definitely not a mild mannered 'softy.' This often very blunt woman demanded honesty from her workshop participants. On the other hand, she typically stayed up until the wee hours with needy individuals, and whenever I was with her she never failed to respond to the people who seemed to be constantly approaching her with appeals for help. Even during the last portion of our interview, when we were in the secluded privacy of her mountain home (where she somehow finds time to tend her garden and goats), she was often interrupted by the telephone. (After advising one such caller, a woman whose brother had just been killed, how to deal with her own grief, Elisabeth suggested that the woman attempt to contact the murderer as well. 'That poor man's whole life will now be ruined. Try to have compassion and see whether you can help him with his pain.)





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