Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the book on grief and dying, then found herself stuck in one of her five stages

It’s 50 years since Swiss-born pioneer in death studies Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her classic text, On Death and Dying.

The book introduced readers to the “five stages of grief” model she had developed to explain how people cope with death.

The five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Then in 1995, following a series of strokes, Kübler-Ross was confronted with the prospect of her own death.

Her son, Ken Ross, says though his mother dedicated her life to articulating grief to others, when faced with her own grief, she still had a big lesson to learn.

‘Kenneth, I don’t want to die’

Mr Ross cared for his mother for nearly a decade leading up to her death in 2004.

“A few weeks before she passed she said to me, ‘Kenneth, I don’t want to die’,” he recalls.

It surprised him, as it seemed to contradict the stages of grieving she’d spent her life teaching others about.

He observed that, though his mother was an expert on dying, she wasn’t immune to its challenges.

Only recently has Mr Ross come to fully understand what he observed in his mother in her final years.

“The fact is she was paralysed for nine years and she was in [the] anger stage,” he says.

Mr Ross says his mother “got a lot of flak” in the media in the years before her death, because her lack of ease with death made her appear she wasn’t practising what she taught.

“People felt that she shouldn’t go through [the stages of grief] for some reason,” he says.

Kübler-Ross’s anger did dissipate before her death — after she processed it with those closest to her.

Mr Ross admits he “pushed” his mother out of her comfort zone in her final years, assisting her through marathons in her wheelchair and travelling with her to Europe to visit her sisters.

He says Kübler-Ross “gave up on the anger” after these demonstrations of love.

“[She] let herself be loved and taken care of, then that was her final lesson — and then she was allowed to graduate,” he says.

“For years I thought about this and what I realised was, that’s exactly what she teaches.”

When “you learn your lessons you’re allowed to graduate”, Mr Ross says; that is, you’re allowed to die.

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”

Pioneer and rebel

Kübler-Ross spent her life speaking openly about death and dying, and fighting for the rights of the dying.

“She would always do whatever she felt was right to help dying people and anyone who was downtrodden,” Mr Ross says.

She did this even when, in the earlier parts of her career in particular, speaking openly about death was frowned upon, he says.

“She was a pioneer and such a rebel.”

Kübler-Ross’s controversial work, especially in the 1960s and 70s, wasn’t always met with a positive reception.

“You can’t imagine how shocking it was at that time for someone to be talking to dying patients and telling them the truth,” he says.

According to Mr Ross, throughout his mother’s life she received death threats, was spat on by doctors and the family home was even burnt down — twice. Continue reading

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