Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Pioneering Death as a Part of Medical Practice



Kübler-Ross was one of the central figures in the hospice care movement.


Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate


Introduction

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (July 8, 1926 – August 24, 2004) was a Swiss-American psychiatrist, a pioneer in near-death studies, and author of the internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying (1969), where she first discussed her theory of the five stages of grief, also known as the “Kübler-Ross model”.

Kübler-Ross was a 2007 inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she was named by Time (magazine) as one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the 20th Century and she was the recipient of nineteen honorary degrees. By July 1982, Kübler-Ross taught 125,000 students in death and dying courses in colleges, seminaries, medical schools, hospitals, and social-work institutions. In 1970, she delivered an Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard University on the theme On Death and Dying.

Birth and Education

Elisabeth Kübler was born on July 8, 1926, in Zürich, Switzerland, into a Protestant Christian Family. She was one of a set of triplets, two of which were identical. Her survival was jeopardized due to complications after birth. Her father wanted her to run his small business. She went to the University of Zurich to study medicine and graduated in 1957.

During World War II she worked with refugees, in Zürich, and following the war, did relief work in: France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. She would later visit Maidanek death camp which sparked her interest in the power of compassion and resilience of the human spirit. The horror stories of the survivors left permanent impressions on Elisabeth.

She was profoundly affected by a visit to the Maidanek extermination camp in Poland and the images of hundreds of butterflies carved into some of the walls there. To Kübler-Ross, the butterflies—these final works of art by those facing death—stayed with her for years and influenced her thinking about the end of life.

Personal Life

In 1958, she married a fellow medical student from America, Emanuel (“Manny”) Ross, and moved to the United States. Becoming pregnant disqualified her from a residency in pediatrics, so she took one in psychiatry. After suffering several miscarriages, she had a son, Kenneth, and a daughter, Barbara, in the early 1960s. Her husband requested a divorce in 1979.

Academic Career

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross / Wikimedia Commons

Kübler-Ross moved to New York in 1958 to work and continued her studies.

She began her psychiatric residency in the Manhattan State Hospital in the early 1960s, she began her career working to create treatment for those who were schizophrenic along with those faced with the title “hopeless patient”. These treatment programs would work to restore the patient’s sense of dignity and self-respect. Elisabeth also intended to reduce the medications that kept these patients overly sedated, and found ways to help them relate to the outside world During her time at the hospital, she realized how appalling the treatments of the imminently dying patients were. This realization made her strive to make a difference in the lives of these individuals.

In 1962, she accepted a position at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. There, Elisabeth was a junior faculty member and gave her first interview of a young terminally ill woman in front of a roomful of medical students. Her intentions were not to be an example of pathology, but Kübler-Ross wanted to depict a human being who desired to be understood as she was coping with her illness and how it has impacted her life. She states to her students,

“Now you are reacting like human beings instead of scientists. Maybe now you’ll not only know how a dying patient feels but you will also be able to treat them with compassion the same compassion that you would want for yourself”

Kübler-Ross completed her training in psychiatry in 1963, and then moved to Chicago in 1965. She sometimes questioned the practices of traditional psychiatry that she observed. She also undertook 39 months of classical psychoanalysis training in Chicago. She became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine where she began to conduct a regular weekly educational seminar that consisted of live interviews with terminally ill patients. She had her students participate in these despite a large amount of resistance from the medical staff.

A Life magazine ran an article on Kübler-Ross in November 1969, bringing public awareness to her work outside of the medical community. The response was enormous and influenced Kübler-Ross’s decision to focus on her career on working with the terminally ill and their families. The intense scrutiny her work received also had an impact on her career path. Kübler-Ross stopped teaching at the university to work privately on what she called the “greatest mystery in science”—death.

Healing Center

Shanti Nilaya Healing Center / Wikimedia Commons

Kübler-Ross was one of the central figures in the hospice care movement, believing that euthanasia prevents people from completing their ‘unfinished business.

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. She was also a co-founder of the American Holistic Medical Association.

In the late 1970s, she became interested in out-of-body experiences, mediumship, spiritualism, and other ways of attempting to contact the dead. This led to a scandal connected to the Shanti Nilaya Healing Center, in which she was duped by Jay Barham, founder of the Church of the Facet of the Divinity. Claiming he could channel the spirits of the departed and summon ethereal “entities”, he encouraged church members to engage in sexual relations with the “spirits”. He may have hired several women to play the parts of female spirits for this purpose. Kubler-Ross’ friend Deanna Edwards attended a service to ascertain whether allegations against Barham were true. He was found to be naked and wearing only a turban when Edwards unexpectedly pulled masking tape off the light switch and flipped on the light. Kübler-Ross announced the ending of her association with both Marty and Jay Barham in her “Shanti Nilaya Newsletter” (issue 7) on June 7, 1981.

Investigations on Near-Death Experiences

Kübler-Ross also dealt with the phenomenon of near-death experiences. Her reputation began to decline when she began researching the controversial subject of near-death experiences. Elisabeth was also an advocate for spiritual guides and afterlife, serving on the Advisory Board of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) Elisabeth reported her interviews with the dying for the first time in her book, On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families (1969) Elisabeth went on to write more about near death experiences (NDEs) in her books, “On Life After Death” 1991, and “The Tunnel and The Light” 1999.

AIDS Work

One of her greatest wishes was her plan to build a hospice for abandoned infants and children infected with HIV to give them a lasting home where they could live until their death. Elisabeth attempted to do this in 1985 in Virginia, but local residents feared the possibility of infection and blocked the necessary re-zoning. In 1994, she lost her house and possessions to an arson fire that is suspected to have been set by opponents of her AIDS work.

She conducted many workshops on life, death, grief, and AIDS in different parts of the world. In 1990, she moved the Healing Center to her own farm in Head Waters, Virginia, to reduce her extensive traveling.

Death

Kübler-Ross suffered a series of strokes in 1995 which left her partially paralyzed on her left side; in the meantime “The Healing Waters Farm” and the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Center closed. She found herself living in a wheelchair, slowly waiting for death to come, and wished to be able to determine her time of death.. In 1997 Oprah flew to Arizona to interview her and discuss with Elisabeth if she herself was going through the Five Stages of Grief. Further, in a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, she stated that she was ready for death and even welcomed it, calling God a “damned procrastinator.” Elisabeth died in 2004 at a nursing home in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the presence of her son, daughter, and two family friends. She was buried at the Paradise Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2005 her son, Ken Ross founded the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Contributions

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first individual to transfigure the way that the world looks at the terminally ill, she pioneered hospice-care and near-death research, and was the first to bring terminally ill individuals’ lives to the public eye. Elisabeth was the driving force behind the movement for doctors and nurses alike to “treat the dying with dignity”. Her extensive work with the dying led to the internationally best-selling book On Death and Dying in 1969, 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 of Grief have since been adopted by bereavement as applying to the survivors of a loved one’s death as well alike.

After 2000 an increasing number of companies began using the Five Stages to explain reactions to change and loss. This is now known as the Kübler-Ross Change Curve™ and is used by a large variety of Fortune 500 Companies in the US and internationally. In 2018 Stanford University acquired the Kübler-Ross archives from her family and intends to build a digital library of her papers, interviews and other archival material. The American Journal of Bioethics devoted it’s entire December 2019 issue to the 50th anniversary of, “On Death and Dying.” The Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation continues her work through a series of international chapters around the world.

Elisabeth wrote over 20 books on death and dying. At the end of her life she was mentally active, co-authoring two books with David Kessler including “On Grief and Grieving”.


Originally published by Wikipedia, 06.10.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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