Like birth, dying is a topic we prefer not to think about. No amount of helpful comment on the theme of ‘We’ve all got to go one day’ helps us prepare for our personal departure from our particular stage. I want to salute one of the women of the 20th century who single-handedly did so much to help our understanding of the processes around death and dying.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was born in Switzerland in 1926, one of triplets. At the end of the Second World War she volunteered at the International Voluntary Service for Peace, working with concentration camp victims in Poland and Germany. She studied medicine and qualified as a doctor in Switzerland, moving to the US in 1958 with her American husband.
She specialised in psychiatry, and she observed that in general, health professionals, who had been trained to heal and treat disease, avoided terminally ill patients and did not know how to help them prepare for death. She resolved to change attitudes and practice, and this became the focus of her life’s work. She started seminars for medical students to give them a greater understanding of their end-of-life patients, thus becoming a pioneer of the concept of providing psychological help to the dying.
She published her seminal work, On Death and Dying, in 1969, and it is here that she introduced the concept of there being five stages of grief as part of adjusting to the process of dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In general, people experience these different emotions when faced with impending death, although the order and sequence can vary with the individual person. The book quickly became a standard text for professionals working with the terminally ill. Today, these five stages are as much a part of the understanding of the process of dying amongst doctors and therapists as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is intrinsic to an understanding of human motivation. As Kubler-Ross developed her theories, it became clear that the five stages were equally relevant to people coping with the death of a loved one.
She taught courses on death and dying in colleges, medical schools, hospitals and social work institutions. Her work coincided with Dame Cicely Saunders’s development of the hospice movement in the UK, and helped pave the way for hospices to be established in the US.
In later life Kubler-Ross became convinced of the existence of an afterlife, and she studied people’s descriptions of their apparent near-death experiences. She became increasingly attracted to New Age spirituality, and established a healing centre in California, where she continued to develop her ideas based on the afterlife.
She was the recipient of twenty honorary degrees and in 2007 was an inductee in the Women’s Hall of Fame. There are many remarkable quotes attributed to her, and for me the following is particularly resonant, and a useful reminder of what, in a way, life is all about:
‘Dying is something we human beings do continuously, not just at the end of our physical lives on this earth.’
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross – a most worthy candidate for damehood.