Jewish World Review August 30, 2004 / 13 Elul, 5764
Russell Friedman & John W. James
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Has died we are saddened but not in denial
The woman who transformed our perception of death and dying has died.
Her name was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and though not everyone will recognize her name, millions of Americans can cite and even recite the five stages she coined in her innovative book, On Death and Dying. Those stages are often referred to by the acronym, DABDA, representing the first letters of the stages she identified that a dying person might experience: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
In the 1970's, just as her book was gaining acceptance and popularity, the first hospices evolved. The fledgling hospice movement formed a symbiotic partnership with Elisabeth's book, which helped break the bondage of isolation that removed dying people from the loving support of family, friends and community.
On Death and Dying did much more than explain the emotions of the dying process. It also helped the family and friends of the dying person stay in contact with their loved one as death approached. In part, that fact helped the surviving family members feel much more complete as they dealt with the inevitable emotions of grief that followed the death.
The topic of death, that had been so off limits for so long, began to emerge from the shadows. People became less fearful to talk about death and dying; more willing to consider the gentler environment of hospice to replace the cold harshness of hospitals at the end of life. In a scant 30 years, our society has changed so quickly that hospice is an accepted part of our culture.
At the same time, a parallel emotional area was still mired in the dark. Grief. Not the grief of the dying person, but the grief that follows the death of a loved one, remained off-limits for polite conversation. Even though grief is universal, it was not acceptable to talk about, and certainly not safe to share the sad emotions that it produces.
As the direct result of Elisabeth's passionate and relentless efforts to alter the way we deal with death, tiny inroads appeared to make it safe to talk about grief people's reaction to the death of a loved one and other losses. Even so, there was and still is a great deal of confusion as people tried to define the stages that a dying person might go through as the same that a person would feel after the death of a loved one.
Confusion about stages aside, in many ways Elisabeth was ground zero for the field of Grief Recovery. The words "humane" and "dignity" are most often cited in describing the reference points Elisabeth established for the treatment of dying people. It is equally important to apply those concepts to the grief that follows for those who survive.
The evolution of safety in talking about grief brought with it the need to find better ways to help people deal with the emotional upheaval that often follows the death of a loved one. The field of Grief Recovery helps people deal with the aftermath. It emerged and evolved from Elisabeth's pioneering work, which brought the topics of death and dying out of the dark ages and into the light.
On behalf of all of the good people who toil in the trenches with dying and grieving people, we salute Elisabeth for her courage and willingness to attack the misconceptions that kept us all from giving or receiving the humane and dignified treatment we deserve.
Somehow it doesn't seem right or fair that the woman who brought understanding, compassion and dignity to the process of dying should ever have to die. But as the old cowboys say, "Ride loose in the saddle of life, 'cause nobody gets out alive." That includes even those who have done more than most to be of service to humanity.
Our world is a whole lot better because of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Among many things, her death reminds us to communicate how we feel directly to our loved ones in real time. Don't wait until it's too late.
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Russell Friedman is a founder of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA [www.grief.net ], and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2003, Russell P. Friedman