From Our Readers

Australia, October 27, 2004

I recently read in the New York Times of the passing in August this year of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, world-famous specialist in death and dying studies and a major founder of the hospice movement. Her many books brought the whole subject of dying to the attention of a reluctant general public and medical profession in Western countries. The titles of her books speak for themselves of her deep commitment to lifting the burden of human suffering and opening our eyes to vistas beyond the veil of death: On Death and Dying (1969), Death: The Final Stage of Growth (1975), To Live until We Say Goodbye (1978), Living with Death and Dying (1981), and On Children and Death (1983). Instead of shunning discussion of death and treating the dying process as medical failure, she encouraged us to see death as a vital part of life. As she once wrote: "Dying is nothing to fear. It can be the most wonderful experience of your life. It all depends on how you have lived."

Based on her personal experiences helping refugees from concentration camps in Europe after World War II, she decided to become a doctor, studying medicine in her native Switzerland in the late 1950s. Moving to the United States in the early 1960s, Dr. Kubler-Ross was appalled by the medical profession's treatment of dying people and set about establishing seminars and eventually university courses for medical students and health professionals in death and dying studies. Such courses are now a vital part of the education of doctors worldwide. To help people understand the process, she formulated five stages of grief: deep denial of the life-threatening situation; anger at "God" and the world; bargaining with "God" to postpone fate; falling into depression as the situation worsens; and, given time and proper support, acceptance as the final stage before death. Although criticized by some modern researchers as overgeneralizations, these common features of many people's approach to their own mortality are now widely accepted in the medical profession and have become part of everyday wisdom for the educated public. The general discussion of these ideas led to the establishment of hospices and palliative care centers around the world to allow terminally ill people to die with dignity.

Her work with dying patients led Dr Kubler-Ross to explore the idea that life may continue after death and to try to verify this concept scientifically. As with her more famous stages of dying, she theorized that people experience four stages of actual death: floating out of the body, being converted to a form of spirit and energy, being guided by a guardian angel through a transitional phase, and finally meeting with the Highest Source or "God." This theoretical work led to the establishment of Shanti-Nilaya ("home of peace") Hospice in Southern California in the early 1980s and the Kubler-Ross Center in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, in the early 1990s, the latter for dying AIDS patients and infected babies. Her research into possible after-death states and the establishment of these hospices resulted in personal and public controversies, with strong criticism from scientific circles and even suspected attempts to burn down the two hospices from disaffected members of the public! Although affected by serious illness herself, she continued working undaunted to help dying people and awaken people to the possibility that life continues on after death.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a fearless and original thinker, a true champion of humanity who fought all her life to alleviate suffering and open our eyes to the worlds that await beyond the portals of death. -- Andrew Rooke

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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The Self is everywhere, without a body, without a shape, whole, pure, wise, all knowing, far shining, self-depending, all transcending; in the eternal procession assigning to every period its proper duty. -- Isa Upanishad