Dr. Kübler-Ross was born as one of triplet sisters in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 8, 1926. Always spirited, she decided upon a medical career early in her childhood against the wishes of her father. The focus of her work in death and dying crystallized in 1945. She was a member of the International Voluntary Service for Peace who helped in ravaged communities after World War II. In the concentration camp, Maidanek, carved into the walls where prisoners spent their final hours, she discovered the symbolic butterflies which would become her symbol of the beautiful transformation that she believed occurred at the time of death.
After graduating from medical school at the University of Zurich, where she met future husband and fellow medical student Emanuel “Manny” Robert Ross, she came to the United States in 1958. She worked in major hospitals in New York, Colorado, and Chicago, and she was appalled by the standard treatment of dying patients.” They were shunned and abused; nobody was honest with them,” she said. Unlike her colleagues, she made it a point to sit with terminal patients, listening as they poured out their hearts to her. While simultaneously raising two small children, she began giving lectures featuring dying patients who talked about their most intimate dying experiences. “My goal was to break through the layer of professional denial that prohibited patients from airing their inner-most concerns,” she wrote.
Her bestselling first book, On Death and Dying, 1969, made her an internationally-renowned author. Even today, her trail-blazing book is required reading in most major medical, nursing, and psychology programs. A 1969 Life Magazine article outlining her work gave further mainstream credibility and awareness to this new way of dealing with dying patients, although her conclusions were quite revolutionary at the time. “People today find it hard to believe that her now commonly-accepted conclusions were quite revolutionary at the time,” said her sister, Eva Bacher. “She was always very proud that her work helped to bring the hospice movement into the mainstream in the United States.” Throughout the 1970’s, Dr. Kübler-Ross led hundreds of workshops and spoke to standing-room-only crowds throughout the world. The “five psychological stages of dying” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance) outlined in her book became accepted as common knowledge throughout the world. She continued to both learn and teach in many important medical facilities and hospitals as her influence grew.
She assumed the Presidency of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Center and the Shanti Nilaya Growth and Healing Center in the late 1970’s, a base from which she gave “Life, Death and Transition” workshops worldwide. She also continued her personal interest in mysticism, the afterlife, and other less commonly accepted forms of therapy. In the 1980’s, she purchased a 300-acre farm in Head Waters, Virginia, to serve as a healing and workshop center, and called it Healing Waters. “Always controversial, she turned her focus at the time into helping babies born with AIDS when nobody else wanted anything to do with them,” said Frances Leuthy, who was her assistant and ran the Virginia center. She officially retired to Arizona in 1995, after a series of serious strokes debilitated her body, and a fire, which destroyed her house and all of her belongings. She left her farm behind for a fresh start near to son, Kenneth.
Even in retirement, she continued to receive hundreds of visitors from around the world, including celebrities such as Mohammed Ali, Oprah, Susan Sarandon, and Shirley MacLaine. The March 29, 1999 issue of Time Magazine named her one of “The Century’s Greatest Minds” in a summary of the 100 greatest scientists and thinkers of the century. Throughout the span of her life, she continued to encourage students with similar interests, and regularly contributed forwards, chapters, and sections to numerous other authors’ books regarding death, dying, and grief. She was the recipient of 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. She participated in a number of advisory boards, committees and societies, and was one of the founders of the American Holistic Medical Association.
Always outspoken, her work in challenging the medical profession to change its view of dying patients brought about great change and advanced many important concepts such as living wills, home health care, and helping patients to die with dignity and respect. “She always was, and will continue to be, a strong voice for the rights of terminally ill patients,” noted Dr. Gregg Furth, New York Jungian psychologist, a close family friend and supporter.
In the final years of her life, she looked forward to her own quick “transition” and tried to deal with the frustration of helping thousands of people to accept their own death, and yet being unable to direct her own. Never fearing death, she wanted only to follow what she believed, “Life doesn’t end when you die. It starts.” She is survived by son Kenneth Lawrence, a photographer in Scottsdale, Arizona; daughter Barbara Lee Rothweiler, a clinical psychologist in Wausau, Wisconsin, (husband Jeffrey); granddaughters Sylvia and Emma. She was preceded in death by former husband Manny; brother, Ernst; and sister, Erika. Her sister Eva, died in December 2019 at the age of 93.
Once saying of her impending death, “I am like a plane that has left the gate and not taken off. I would rather go back to the gate or fly away.”