Death and dying with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist whose pioneering work in counseling terminally ill patients helped to revolutionize the care of the dying, enabling people all over the world to die more peacefully and with greater dignity, died at the age of 78 at her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Kubler-Ross in a 1987 photo released in 1997 by her son, Kenneth L. Ross.

The archive of the influential psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who developed the theory of the five stages of grief, has been given to Stanford Libraries, Stanford University officials said this week.

What does that have to do with Escondido? Plenty.

Of special note in the archive are complete runs of newsletters from the Shanti Nilaya Healing Center, which Kübler-Ross founded in Escondido, as well as manuscript drafts of her memoir, The Wheel of Life.

The earliest item in the archive is a family scrapbook from the 1930s depicting her childhood in Switzerland. The bulk of the archive includes material from the 1980s to 2000s, a period in which her ideas gained greater traction.

Born in Switzerland on July 8, 1926, she was the smallest of triplets and grew up in a strict Protestant home. She married a fellow medical school student, the American-born Emanuel Ross and moved to the United States. It was in US hospitals where she encountered what she felt were deplorable conditions for the dying who were often left to die alone and in pain.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross lecture/workshop – New Zealand/EKR Foundation

Kübler-Ross’ first book, “On Death and Dying,” was a runaway best seller in 1970. She annunciates for the first time the five stages of grief. She also revealed her secularist state-of-mind by asserting in the book that belief in life-after-death was a form of denial.

Kübler-Ross initially encouraged the hospice care movement, believing that euthanasia prevents people from completing their ‘unfinished business, although her feelings on the subject changed in later life.

But that all changed during the 1970’s when she became interested in near-death-experiences and began to get involved in spiritualism, mediumship and other ways to contact the dead. Scandal ensued after she became associated with a so-called psychic named Jay Barham who conducted séances that included sexual relations between participants and entities from the spirit world.

Yet the end of Kübler-Ross’s own life was a lonely one. Like many pioneers, she was driven by messianic convictions that sometimes distanced her from her friends and family. Named “Woman of the Decade” by Ladies’ Home Journal in the 1970s, she separated from her husband and left him with the children, bought a house on 40 acres in the Escondido hills, called it Shanti Nilaya (Home of Peace, from Sanskirt, Place to Die in Peace), and, in 1977, established it as a “growth and healing center” for the dying.

Shanti Nilaya in the news

An extension of Kübler-Ross’s earlier well-known “Life-Death and Transition” workshops, Shanti Nilaya offered short and long-term therapeutic sessions connected with the experience of death and the question of life after death.

The Shanti Nilaya Newsletter, giving news of the work of Kübler-Ross and Shanti Nilaya centers, was published there until the 1980s when she relocated to a 300-acre farm in Head Waters, Virginia, to serve as a healing and workshop center called Healing Waters.  The newsletter continued being published from the new Virginia center.

Kübler-Ross became a devoted exponent of reincarnation, arguing that death was a transition to a better stage, akin to breaking out of a cocoon. (As a volunteer in Europe after the war, she had been moved by the sight of butterflies carved into the walls of the children’s barracks at Majdanek, a concentration camp.

Kübler-Ross’ Escondido period was the most controversial of her life. She became embroiled with a cult led by Jay Barham, a middle-aged former sharecropper and aircraft worker who founded the Church of the Facet of Divinity in 1976. After meeting Barham that year, Kübler-Ross persuaded her husband to buy 40 acres near Barham’s small ranch in the wooded hills northeast of Escondido where she established a headquarters called Shanti Nilaya.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross meets with Mother Teresa in this undated photo/Hospiz.org

“Its purpose,” The Washington Post said in 1980, “is to investigate psychic healing and administer ‘life, death and transition’ workshops that involve psychodrama and such purging acts as beating a telephone book with a rubber hose. Barham and his wife, Martha, help conduct the five-day sessions (which are technically free, but a contribution of $285 is strongly suggested). Kübler-Ross says there is a waiting list of 1,500. She has also enthusiastically endorsed Barham’s supposed ability to heal the sick and conjure up materialized spirits, which he calls ‘entities.'”

According to an article in New West magazine, her partner Jay Barham presided over seances in which entities materialized and led participants off to private rooms where they made love. In the wake of the publicity, Kubler-Ross said her workshops lost hundreds of clients. Her marriage of 20 years broke up.

Barham, she said, was uneducated and untrained, “but is the most wonderful, gifted healer I have ever seen.”  Moreover, she said that her research on the afterlife is totally removed from the therapy at Shanti Nilaya.

Claiming he could channel the spirits of the departed and summon ethereal “entities”, Barham encouraged church members to engage in sexual relations with the “spirits”. He may have hired several women to play the parts of female spirits for this purpose. Kubler-Ross’ friend Deanna Edwards attended a service to ascertain whether allegations against Barham were true. He was found to be naked and wearing only a turban when Edwards unexpectedly pulled masking tape off the light switch and flipped on the light.

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. Kubler-Ross’s reputation was severely tarnished when, in l979, Jay Barham had sexually seduced a number of females, including, allegedly, an underage girl

Kübler-Ross made her way to Virginia after separating from the Barhams. In 1995, Kübler-Ross suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. By 1997, living a severely circumscribed life in Arizona, she had grown depressed. “For 15 hours a day, I sit in this same chair, totally dependent on someone else coming in here to make me a cup of tea,” she told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Kübler-Ross became known as “the death-and-dying lady who can’t seem to manage her own death.” Her isolation was chronicled in the documentary “Facing Death” (2003). It showed a solitary Kübler-Ross in her cluttered home. “I always leave the television on,” she said. “That way something is always moving.” An English muffin hardens next to her on a plate. She says that she got in the habit of saving food in case she is hungry later in the day. Her son Kenneth lives nearby and stops in “from time to time.” Yet she seems as hauntingly alone as the patients she interviewed some thirty years earlier.

It has become a truism of the hospice movement that people resist death if they have something left they need to say. After the documentary, Kübler-Ross emerged from her anomie to revisit what she had written about grief. Realizing that the stage theory had grown into a restrictive prescription for grief, she collaborated with David Kessler, a hospice expert, to write “On Grief and Grieving.”

Near the end of a chapter about her own grief—which arrived late in life, following the death of her ex-husband—she noted, “I now know that the purpose of my life is more than these stages. I have been married, had kids, then grandkids, written books, and traveled. I have loved and lost, and I am so much more than five stages. And so are you.”

Kübler-Ross died at her home in Arizona in 2004.

Meanwhile, back to Stanford

EKR Foundation photo

Stanford Medicine made the announcement this week: “The archive of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, the late hospice and palliative care pioneer and author of some two-dozen books, including the 1969 On Death & Dying, has been acquired by Stanford LibrariesDepartment of Special Collections.”

The Swiss-American psychiatrist is best known for having developed the theory of the five stages of grief.

“The Kübler-Ross Archive is a wonderful addition to our Special Collections and offers tremendous opportunity for interdisciplinary investigation and exploration across law, medicine and sociology, to name only a few,” said Matt Marostica, PhD, JD, associate university librarian for public service and collection development.

David Magnus, PhD, the Thomas A. Raffin Professor in Medicine and Biomedical Ethics and director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, identified unpublished lectures and essays by Kübler-Ross from the late 1970s and early 1980s. He proposes to edit them for publication. Among the many documents in the archive, he highlighted a trove of thousands of letters from dozens of countries reflecting her widespread influence around the world.

Maren Monsen, director of the Program in Bioethics and Film at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, plans to make use of video components of the Kübler-Ross archive in documentary films. After the video content is transferred to a high-quality digital format, she intends to create educational videos for distribution to multidisciplinary trainees in the health professions.

The children of Kübler-Ross — Ken Ross, president of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, and Barbara Rothweiler, PhD — chose to give the archive to Stanford Libraries after meetings in Phoenix with faculty and with Benjamin Stone, curator for American and British history at the libraries.

Like most modern archives, the collection runs the gamut from manuscript and printed materials to correspondence, photographs, video and audio recordings. Most important, it contains archived, not-yet-made-public work by the pioneering thinker and practitioner in the palliative care movement.

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