Elisabeth Kübler-Ross | a life devoted to death and dying

Tireless and somewhat controversial, Kübler-Ross is best known for her work on death and dying

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was born one of triplets in Zurich in 1926. About her early life, she said in an interview, ‘In Switzerland, I was educated in line with the basic premise: work work work. You are only a valuable human being if you work. This is utterly wrong. Half working, half dancing – that is the right mixture. I myself have danced and played too little.’

She left home at 16 and served as a volunteer during World War II, helping in local hospitals. She graduated from the University of Zurich medical school in 1957

In 1958 she married a fellow medical student and moved to the United States. Originally hoping to work with children, getting pregnant in 1960 disqualified her from
a residency in paediatrics. Determined, Kübler-Ross changed her focus to psychiatry. After suffering two miscarriages, she had two children in the 1960s. Her husband requested a divorce in 1979.

While completing her psychiatric residency in New York, Kübler-Ross became appalled at the treatment of dying patients in the local hospital. Feeling that dying patients were being neglected, she began giving a series of lectures featuring terminally ill patients, forcing medical students to face people who were dying.

In 1969, she moved to Chicago and undertook three years of classical psychoanalysis training. She continued her work with terminally ill patients and developed a series of seminars using interviews with terminally ill people. Her work with dying people led, in 1969, to her book On Death and Dying in which she proposed the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Death, dying and the ‘Home of Peace’

Kübler-Ross encouraged the hospice movement that was taking shape in America, believing people should have the right to die at home. However, she did not believe in euthanasia, feeling that dying early prevented people from completing unfinished business.

In 1977, Kübler-Ross bought 40 acres of land in California and set up Shanti Nilaya, ‘Home of Peace’, intending it as a healing centre for those who were dying. In the late 1970’s, Kübler-Ross became interested in near-death experiences and mediumship.

In the 1980’s, Kübler-Ross got involved with the growing AIDS epidemic. Inspired by the work of British doctor Cicely Saunders, she hoped to set up a hospice for dying AIDS patients. In 1985 in the US state of Virginia, she attempted to do this but was met with hostility from local residents who feared HIV infection. In 1994, her home and most of her possessions were destroyed in an arson fire, suspected to have been set by opponents of her AIDS work.

Following a series of strokes in 1995,  Kübler-Ross was left partially paralysed and she closed the Shanti Nilaya Healing Center. In an interview in 2002, she stated that she was ready for death. She died in 2004.

‘The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.’ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 1975

More can be found on the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation website.

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