Killing Us Softly – The Legacy of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
“We are at any given moment living the totality of everything….The vibrational oscillation of nature is quickening….Just remember that you are God, and act accordingly.” Shirley Maclaine
For there shall arise false Christ’s, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Matthew 24:24, KJV
During the same time period when Dame Cicely Saunders developed the basic tenets of Hospice philosophy, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published results from her groundbreaking studies of dying patients. Her books about the psychological stages of response to catastrophe and her lectures to health professionals helped to pave the way for the development and acceptance of hospice programs in the United States. In her book, “On Death and Dying” she identified five stages of grief – denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Time Magazine remarked of the book, “It has brought death out of darkness.” The topic and study of death (thanatology) had been avoided by many physicians, and the book quickly became a standard text for professionals who work with terminally ill patients.
Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born American psychiatrist, pioneered the concept of providing psychological counseling to the dying. Hospice care has subsequently been established as an alternative to hospital care for the terminally ill, and there has been more emphasis on counseling for families of dying patients. However, Hospice has not been the American panacea for dying patients which was envisioned in England by Dame Cicely Saunders.
Elisabeth Kubler was one of three triplet girls born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1926. Though she weighed only 2 pounds at birth, she credited her survival to her mother’s attention and love. She witnessed two deaths as a child that made a lasting impression upon her, and brought her to the realization that death was a part of life. Elisabeth’s experiences in Poland, during WWII, as well as her visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp, as a volunteer relief worker, changed her life forever. She decided to spend her life healing others.
In 1957, Kubler graduated from the University of Zurich School of Medicine. In 1958, she married Emanuel Robert Ross, an American doctor she met in medical school. They moved to New York for internships at Long Island’s Glen Cove Community Hospital. Kubler-Ross then completed a three-year residency in psychiatry at Manhattan State Hospital and trained for a year at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.
When their second child was born in 1965, they moved to Chicago, where she became an assistant professor of psychiatry at Billings Hospital, affiliated with the University of Chicago. There, she began to focus on the psychological treatment of terminally ill patients suffering from anxiety. She found that many health professionals preferred to avoid discussing death with them, leaving patients facing death alone. Most health professionals are trained to heal and treat disease, and are not trained in helping their patients face death. Elisabeth led numerous seminars on death and dying with care givers, doctors, nurses, ministers and others. In her 1969 book, Kubler-Ross calls the belief in life after death “a form of denial.” Later, her views shifted dramatically, not to orthodox Christianity, but to new age philosophy. Finally, at the age of forty-six, she quit that post to do research on what death is like and to conduct weeklong workshops on life, death, and the transition to afterlife.
Kubler-Ross’s research had convinced her that there certainly was an afterlife. She was enamored by stories of near-death experiences (NDE’s) and experienced her first apparition about this time. Elisabeth claims that a former patient of hers appeared to her when she was thinking of giving up her work. The woman, Mrs. Schwartz, got into an elevator with her and accompanied her to her office where she told her not to give up her work on death and dying. Kubler-Ross thought that she must be hallucinating because the woman, Mrs. Schwartz, had died ten months earlier. But when she asked her to write the date and sign a note the woman did so before disappearing.
As a result, Elisabeth concluded that death does not exist in its traditional definition; rather it occurs in four distinct phases: (1) floating out of one’s body like a butterfly leaving its cocoon, assuming an ethereal shape, experiencing a wholeness, and knowing what is going on around oneself; (2) taking on a state of spirit and energy, not being alone, and meeting a guardian angel or guide; (3) entering a tunnel or transitional gate and feeling a light radiating intense warmth, energy, spirit, and overwhelming love; and (4) being in the presence of the Highest Source and undergoing a life review.
Her transformation brought a following of New Age spiritual seekers but cost Kubler-Ross much of her credibility in mainstream medical and academic circles. Elisabeth came to believe in parapsychology and out-of-body (OBE) experiences. According to parapsychologists, there are different types of OBE’s. Reciprocal apparitions of the living are those in which experients (those experiencing the OBE) and agents see each other. “Bilocation” is a person’s ability to be in two places at the same time. The agent’s appearance is called a double. These events may be spontaneous, intentional and drug or electronically induced. NDEs, are those in which people, declared physically dead, leave the body, observe what’s happening, return to the body, and describe the experience. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was one of the major pioneers in this phenomenon. In previous centuries, when psychic phenomena were called the “occult,” OBEs were called astral projections.
In 1875, occultist, Madame Helena Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society to study Eastern religions and science. She based her teachings on what she learned from sojourns in Asia. According to Theosophists, human aren’t entities of their physical bodies, but are theorized to be complex creatures of many ones. There’s an astral body that’s thought to be a replica of the physical one. The concept of an astral body was related to OBEs when paranormal phenomena were called the occult. It was postulated that the astral body, attached to the physical one by a silver cord that traveled. It was believed that, if cords broke, experiments would die.
At about this time, Kubler-Ross became convinced of the reality of her own “spiritual guides” and she eventually moved to California in early 1976 to pursue these beliefs. There, she founded a healing center near Escondido (eventually called Shanti Nilaya, a Sanskrit phrase that she understood to mean “the final home of peace.”) It was envisioned by her as the first of a worldwide network of retreats affirming “survival of the spirit after death in the form a living entity.” Shanti Nilaya was where she could have a base for her workshops, explore out-of-body experiences, and develop a new lecture entitled “Death and Life after Death.”
In 1976, Elisabeth began an unfortunate experience with a charlatan, Jay Barham, and his wife, Marti. Barham ran a San Diego based church called the “Facet of Divinity, ” where he encouraged members to engage in sexual relations with the “spirits.” Link Elisabeth participated with the Barhams at gatherings where they, as mediums, or channelers, claimed to materialize spirit guides into human form. (When researching all of this, my mind kept jumping to Shirley Maclaine and her firm belief in these same new age teachings.) Kubler-Ross’s reputation was severely tarnished when, in l979, Jay Barham had sexually seduced a number of females, including, allegedly, an underage girl. (Spirit Channeling. The idea behind this is to allow the spirits to overtake one’s body and speak through them. This teaching is prevalent in the new age movement. This is where the occult really begins to enter New Age practice, eventually leading to other routines such as trances and clairvoyance.) I urge you to read this short article, “Sex, Visitors from the Grave, Psychic Healing: Kubler-Ross is a Public Storm Center Again,” to understand Elisabeth’s endorsement of the New Age and Barham’s supposed ability to heal the sick and conjure up materialized spirits, which he calls “entities.”
Then there’s this, from Robert Yahnke (The Gerontologist, 2005, v. 45, 426-428), reviewing a film on Kubler-Ross:
“The film is admirably honest about the strange relationship Kubler-Ross developed with a spiritualist charlatan that led to the closing of Shanti Nilaya, the center she founded in California. It is common knowledge in the “death and dying” community that in a dark room the charlatan embodied the spirits of dead husbands and suggested he have sex with their widows. Kubler-Ross’s sister tells how she tried to dissuade Kubler-Ross. She calls channeling spirits “hocus pocus” and “hogwash.” Chaplain Imara says that what happened in those séances was transparently fake.”
There’s also this observation of interest from Yahnke:
“Her five-stage theory of dying has been largely discarded by scholars and practitioners. The theory could neither be empirically validated nor did it prove useful in making care plans for hospice patients. Her later writings were largely restatements of her first book or were claims about spiritual realities, especially life after death, that rested on faith, not science.”
In 1990, Elisabeth moved to Virginia and bought a 300 acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley. She founded the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Center on the property. She planned to adopt AIDs infected babies and bring them to her Center. However, this was met with great hostility. She suffered a series of break-ins at the Center, and her home and all her possessions were burned in a suspicious fire. Her son convinced her to move to Arizona and this is where her Foundation is today. Shortly after her move, she suffered a debilitating and paralyzing stroke. She continued to believe in the afterlife and spirit guides, and said her belief in reincarnation initially inspired her opposition to euthanasia. (Reincarnation. The meaning behind this word is “again in flash.” New Agers believe that they will continue to be reincarnated until they have the right “karma” or have lived correctly. It is only at this point that they find their perfect peace.)
In her autobiography, The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying (1997), Kubler-Ross said she was enduring a “miserable” life resulting from pain and the limitations of her paralysis. Although she was “anxious to graduate” she remained opposed to efforts to foreshorten life (p. 280). Instead, she asserted that “our only purpose in life is growth” and that her task in these circumstances was to learn patience even as she was totally dependent on others for care (p. 281).
In a 1997 interview, she stated, “My only regret is that for 40 years I spoke of a good God who helps people, who knows what you need and how all you have to do is ask for it. Well, that’s baloney. I want to tell the world that it’s a bunch of bull. Don’t believe a word of it.”
Although she opposed physician assisted suicide, and detested the likes of Jack Kevorkian, she apparently changed her mind on suicide as a legitimate option. She died August 24, 2004.
Sadly, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s path in life never attained the peace and understanding of the Christian doctor and original Hospice founder, Dame Cicely Saunders.
The next article in this series will focus on agnostic and pro-euthanasia American Hospice founder, Florence Wald, RN, MN, former Dean of Nursing at Yale University.