Ok all you fellow Psyc majors, I know you’ve heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, and her book, On Death and Dying. As any good Psychology major knows, Kubler-Ross is famous for identifying the five stages of grief (death): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Truth be told, Kubler-Ross didn’t set out to find these “stages,” and in fact, resisted the idea that these were even formal “stages.” Not everyone transits through every stage, nor do all people go through the stages in the same order or for the same length of time. What Kubler-Ross was attempting to do was describe and categorize the volumes of information she had gathered conversing with her patients – her terminally ill patients.
As an 18-year-old undergrad Psyc major, I naturally assumed that Kubler-Ross was just another boring researcher I was forced to learn about during my Intro to Psyc class – I mean, after all, she was in a textbook for goodness sake! Here it is, 30 years later, and I finally realized just how wrong I was! Not only was she a fascinating woman, her book was never intended to be a research study. On the contrary, it was a book of observations and reflections, designed to dispel the mystery and fear surrounding death and help medical professionals meet the needs of their own patients as they neared the end of life.
Reading one of her later books, On Life After Death, a collection of 4 essays based on her extensive research into near-death experiences (20,000 of them!), I came to know Kubler-Ross in a whole new light. In this blog, I want to share what I’ve learned about her, as well as some of her research-based conclusions – profound insights regarding the death process and what that tells us about how to LIVE.
Kubler-Ross came to the US from Switzerland and found herself employed in a NY state psychiatric hospital, working with the severely mentally ill, many of whom where hopeless, chronic schizophrenics, a job she called “dreadful.” To combat her misery, she opened up to her patients, who in turn, opened up to her. They bonded, and within this relationship, her patients found healing. Lesson one: knowledge alone won’t get you anywhere. If you want to help others, you must use your head, your heart, and your soul. She found that ALL human beings have a purpose – the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the dying. And, when you open your heart, not only can you help them, you will find that THEY are YOUR greatest teachers.
What else did Kubler-Ross learn while working with the marginalized? Lesson two: The goal of life on earth is to learn how to love, and be loved, unconditionally. To live well means that we have learned to love, and if we can do that, we never have to worry about dying. Lesson three: Nothing that comes into our life is negative. We are not cursed or being punished. All of the hardships we face, all of the trials and tribulations, are gifts designed to help us grow. Of course, it is difficult to process this idea in the midst of our suffering, and yes, we often need to grieve or vent our anger; however, if we can keep an open heart, our suffering will not have been in vain.
Prior to her work with the dying, Kubler-Ross was not particularly interested in the topic of life after death, and she considered herself a skeptical, semi-believer – typical of a classically trained MD. But, after observing and recording the unexplained phenomena that occurred at the time of death, as well as researching her patients’ stories of near-death experiences, she came to some startling conclusions. Well, startling to those who don’t believe in life after death or that the dead can communicate with the living.
Kubler-Ross found that, near the end, 1) her patients began to communicate with loved ones that she, herself, could not see or hear, 2) even the angriest of her patients deeply relaxed and developed a sense of serenity, and 3) they became pain-free. What her patients taught her was Lesson four: At the moment of transition (death), you are never alone. (Incidentally, she says, you are never alone NOW…you just may not realize it). Loved ones who have passed before you, as well as your guides and guardian angels, will be there waiting to assist you. When you die, the people waiting to greet you are those who loved you the most.
If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to read On Life After Death, or any of her other books. Kubler-Ross’s feisty personality comes through, as she recounts the many fascinating stories of her patients and experiences, stories that are both heart-breaking and life-affirming. On the final page, she explains that death is simply the transition from the earth plane, into another existence, where pain and sorrow no longer exist – where the only thing that remains is LOVE. She encourages us, therefore, to “love each other NOW, for we never know how much longer we will be blessed with the presence of those [we love].”