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Beautiful People: The Compassionate Life of Elisabeth Kubler Ross

 

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

This deep and meaningful passage is often quoted, and serves as the inspirational for many people who are moving through grief, loss or other hardships. But who was the writer behind these comforting words?

Read our mini biography of Elisabeth Kubler Ross, one of America’s eminent writers on grief.

Elisabeth was born in 1926, one of a set of triplets. Experiencing life-threatening pneumonia at age 5, she developed an early and profound understanding of death.

During WW2, she worked as a laboratory assistant. After the war, she travelled extensively through Europe doing relief work. Through this, she visited extermination camps and met and talked with survivors of the Holocaust. Speaking to them and hearing their experiences would shape the rest of her life. She realised that she wanted to be in the service of helping others. 

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In 1957, she attended the University of Zurich, where she studied medicine. A year later, she moved to New York and began a psychiatric residency at a  state hospital. The frequent mistreatment of the patients there, especially those with what were then considered “incurable” conditions, led her to develop new methods and therapies to improve the mental health and wellbeing of some of the hospital’s most severely ill patients. These methods were met with great success.

In 1963, she moved to Chicago and continued her training in psychiatry. She was skeptical of the traditional methods used. One of her controversial methods she used to educate her students was conducting live interviews of terminally ill patients, in which she would encourage her students to participate in. Her work brought her significant public acclaim, and she then decided that this was what she would focus her work on - terminally ill patients and their families. 

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In the 1970s, she championed hospice care, travelling around the world to see how other countries administered end-of-life care. She lectured widely on this subject, including a lecture at Harvard University and at the Senate Special Committee on Ageing. 

In later years, her research widened into near-death experiences, research into the afterlife and other subjects with a more spiritual or mystic bent. She also held workshops on death and grief, with a focus on the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. She died in hospice in 2004. 

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She is perhaps most famous for her “Five Stages of Grief”:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This still serves as model for both those experiencing the loss of a loved one through death and also someone who is undergoing a terminal illness. She published over 20 books on this subject, including her seminal work On Death and Dying (1969), bringing it into the public consciousness and revolutionising the way we provide care to those who are terminally ill. Her work is marked with enormous compassion for the individual, dignifying the sick and elderly and providing a framework to assist families undergoing the grief process. Indeed, it is because of her that we view grief as a process and not a fixed state of being or not being. This has helped so many to seek the help they need and made it acceptable to talk about the most taboo subject of all.

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