September 30, 2004
Her Study of Death Gives Life Meaning
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who wrote the pioneering work, "On Death and Dying," in 1969, was not Jewish. But Jewish survival through the Holocaust provided the transformative idea that would establish the career of Kubler-Ross and would ultimately revolutionize medical care for the dying.
She died Aug. 24.
Kubler-Ross revolutionized care by identifying five stages in the dying experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But more importantly, she caused the medical community to lift the taboo on discussions and teaching about patients who are dying and thus infuse their treatment with dignity and affection.
I had a close relationship with Kubler-Ross during the 1970s. We first became acquainted when she was giving a talk about dying to a conference of clergy, and I introduced myself. We met on several occasions and carried on a correspondence.
She was not Jewish but was married to a Jewish physician for many years. She was born in Switzerland and at the end of World War II, hitchhiked through war-ravaged Europe and made her way to the Polish-Russian border and went to Majdenek, one of the worst concentration camps imaginable.
There she had a life-altering experience and decided to work with the dying. She told me: "Facing death means facing the ultimate question of the meaning of life. If we really want to live, we must have the courage to recognize that life is ultimately very short, and that everything we do counts. When it is the evening of our life, we will hopefully have a chance to look back and say: 'It was worthwhile, because I have really lived.'"
Once Kubler-Ross wrote me the following: "In order to be at peace, it is necessary to feel a sense of history -- that you are both part of what has come before and part of what is yet to come. Being thus surrounded, you are not alone; and the sense of urgency that pervades the present is put into perspective: Do not frivolously use the time that is yours to spend. Cherish it, that each day may bring new growth, insight and awareness. Use this growth not selfishly but rather in service of what may be, in the future tide of time."
"Never allow a day to pass that did not add to what was understood before," she continued. "Let each day be a stone in the path of growth. Do not rest until what was intended has been done. But remember -- go as slowly as is necessary in order to sustain a steady pace; do not expend energy in waste. Finally do not allow the illusory urgencies of the immediate to distract you from your vision of the eternal...."
In February 1979, Kubler-Ross sent me a copy of her latest book titled, "To Love Until We Say Good-Bye." On the inside cover of the book she wrote an inscription to me that has been one of the guiding beacons of my life: "Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms, you would never see the beauty of its carvings: Remember that! With much love and respect. Elisabeth"
The windstorms refer to the difficulties and problems and detours that befall each one of us as we make our way through the journey we call life. And the carvings are the gifts and strengths and talents we each have to guide us through the hard times. None of us is shielded from the windstorms of life. But, thank God, all of us have been given coping mechanisms to see our way through.
As I said earlier, Kubler-Ross was not Jewish, but, I feel, she truly thought like a Jew. As her health failed in the late 1990s, she acknowledged that she was in pain and ready for her life to end.
But she said: "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no death the way we understand it. The body dies but not the soul."
May her memory live for a blessing just as she was a blessing to so many during her life.
Lawrence Goldmark is the rabbi at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.