Facing Death: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

| December 1, 2004

Why is that people who deal in death are so interesting and so foreign to the rest of us? Even as we feel they are a little bit ghoulish and too fascinated with the unrevealed, we long to know what they do, and watch from the asylum of our naiveté.
Facing Death by Stefan Haupt is an interview with Elisabeth Kubler Ross while she is waiting for her own in the desert of Arizona. Her journey was remarkable. Born in Zurich in 1929 a two-pound triplet, Kubler-Ross had an early brush with death herself, followed by an illness as a child that left her in hospital for an extended period. Even as a very young child, Kubler-Ross had less a fascination with death than a frankness about it. Interviews with her fellow triplets Eva and Erika provide many anecdotes, and photos and home movie footage are abundant in this biography. As little Elisabeth matures her penchant for the road less traveled becomes more apparent. As a teenager in 1945 she joins the Voluntary Service for Peace, an organization that makes its work rebuilding and repairing the ravaged continent of Europe. She encounters a concentration camp, Maidanek, and her experience there is not one just of revulsion and horror, but an observation of the spirit and humanity of prisoners facing their deaths. She returned to Switzerland, eventually, to start medical school. Her father had opposed the idea, but Kubler Ross worked during the day and studied at the University of Zurich at night. Her passion for her studies was strong. She graduated, and also met and married her American husband, Emanuel “Manny” Robert Ross. The newlyweds moved back to the states, and Kubler Ross ended up working in psychiatry.
During her time in the hospitals she was struck and distracted by the treatment of death and the process of dying. Terminal patients were abandoned and hushed, the prevalent medical mood of the day being that if you ignored death, your own and those around you, you could somehow escape it, or at least keep it at bay. She sat with terminal patients and received their worries, fears, and acceptances, finding a consistent thread throughout their experiences. In Chicago, as a young mother and assistant professor, her activism began.
Kubler Ross found terminal pediatric patients to be most candid. She spoke openly with children about the disease that was taking them, how they perceived death, and how the feelings that surrounded the experience guided their behaviors. She started what was to become part of the hospice movement, promoting palliative care at home, and according to patient’s wishes. Her work started to become controversial, causing somewhat of a schism in the faculty, and her contract was not renewed. Undaunted Kubler Ross continued lecturing and advocating, and published her revolutionary work On Death and Dying. She became a primary authority on the process of death and the tools the social workers and physicians should employ to facilitate a better death.
Throughout the seventies Kubler Ross conducted workshops, continued to publish, and advocated for hospice and reform in the professional community’s disenfranchisement from death. In the 80s Kubler Ross purchased a tract of land in Virginia to build a center from which to operate, and eventually to build a hospice for babies who suffered from what KR saw as a real challenge to the hospice community, AIDS. The locals had issues with the foreign born woman who treated them curtly and would bring so much death into their community. While Kubler Ross was away on a speaking engagement her center, called Healing Waters, burned to the ground. In it were manuscripts and research from all over the world, a lifetime of work on death. Kubler Ross retired in 1996, and began to suffer a debilitating series of strokes, after which is when we meet her.
Facing Death was so interesting, and not just as a homage to the doctor. To place Elisabeth Kubler Ross in context gives some, but truly not all, of an explanation for her astounding empathy and frankness. Interviews with her sisters and coworkers are plentiful and candid. In particular the woman who ran the Virginia center for KR, Frances Luethy, talks simply about how much the work meant to her, and how Kubler Ross had tapped her to really develop her own abilities. Not everything about this extraordinary woman’s life was as simple as it seems. Any child that age in Europe must have experienced repercussions from the war, and KR’s experience is not mentioned until after the war ended. Her focus on death and dying was consuming, and her marriage ended when her husband challenged her to cut back on the lecture circuit to maintain the family. A fruitless search, at least to the medical community, to find quantitative evidence of life after death drove her to mystics and charlatans. Kubler-Ross believed in God and an afterlife, and had real confidence in a beautiful, accepting, forgiving place that would receive her, as it had her patients, after death. She waves off any assertions to the contrary, and dismisses the physiological explanations for the “bright light” and “feeling of acceptance” patients had reported after resuscitation. She was never able to gain as broad an acceptance for the afterlife as she had for the management of death and grief, and that disappointed her. Her own death was imminent but evaded her through a series of strokes that were incapacitating, and she suffered impatiently waiting to experience what she had spent her life studying closely, but never really knowing that last bit of mystery.
Facing Death is a film about a passion that should be a little threatening, but instead leaves one with a sense of profound relief. Relief that somebody did the work, relief that the research was timely, accepted, and applied, and relief that someone was willing to carry the flag of advocacy. The best reward Kubler Ross received was the facilitation of her words into action through the hospice movement.

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