In the publication of On Death and Dying in 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the noted Swiss-born authority on the psychiatric aspects of terminal illness, spelled out five emotional stages dying patients experience—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. A former assistant professor at the University of Chicago, Dr. Kübler-Ross has spent the last five years counseling dying patients, lecturing and urging the medical profession to deal more openly and honestly with their patients’ fears of approaching death. Recently Dr. Kübler-Ross revealed her conviction that life continues after death. With Linda Witt of PEOPLE, Dr. Kübler-Ross discusses her new—and controversial—findings.
When did you begin to think there is life after death?
I have always felt something significant happens a few moments after death. A minute or so after “clinical” death, most of my patients often got the most fantastically peaceful expressions, even those who had struggled terribly with death.
Any other indications?
I wondered, “To whom do people talk on their deathbeds?” My own father talked to his father who had been dead 30 years, and then turned back and spoke rationally to me. We label this “hallucination,” as if once we superstitiously put a label on it, it is taken care of.
What would you describe as your first positive evidence?
About seven years ago, a patient who had been declared dead despite heroic last-minute resuscitation efforts spontaneously came alive three-and-a-half hours later. She shared with me how she felt: she had floated out of her physical body and watched herself being worked on. She described in minute detail the resuscitation team—who was there, who wanted to give up, who wanted to continue, who told a joke to relieve the tension. This gave me my first clue.
Have you found other similar cases?
Since then I have investigated similar cases from Australia to California, involving patients from age 2 to 96—I have 193 very clear-cut cases from all over the world, both religious and nonreligious people. One had been “dead” 12½ hours. All experienced the same thing.
How did these people describe the experience of dying?
They virtually shed their physical bodies, as a butterfly comes out of a cocoon. They describe a feeling of peace, beautiful, indescribable peace, no pain, no anxiety. And they were perfect—completely whole. A young man whose leg was cut off in an automobile accident floated above the crash scene and observed the rescue effort, and recalls his leg being intact. They were so content that they resented, sometimes bitterly, the attempts to bring them back to life because they were coming back to a dreadful existence—cancerous bodies, amputated limbs. Not one of them was afraid to die again. The experience seems to be the same no matter what their cultural background.
You have mentioned that on his deathbed your father apparently spoke to his own dead father. Is there any pattern in the people dying patients seem to talk to?
Whomever you most loved in life who preceded you in death is there to help you make the transition, and you talk to them. It is a transition, as dramatic as cutting the umbilical cord. But the important thing is that you don’t go through it alone. It is wonderful to be able to reassure parents of dying children: “Don’t worry. There will be someone waiting to take care of your child.”
If there is life after death, is there also heaven and hell?
After the transition, you achieve a higher understanding which includes a review of your own life. You see all the times you should have acted one way and acted another, all the times you regret. It is not God who has to convince you of your wrongs; it is you yourself, and it is hell.
Why and when did you decide to begin talking openly about life after death?
Initially I was afraid other scientists would say, “Oh, Ross has seen too many dying patients. She’s slipped.” But while I was answering questions after a speech last January, a woman whose small son had been declared dead and then revived, asked if there was something beyond death. I forgot the 1,000 others there and said, “I know for a fact there is life after death.”
Can you be more specific about the number of cases and how they were verified?
I will give hard numbers and hard data when I publish my findings in a year or so. Besides, the headlines really bother me—PSYCHIATRIST DISCOVERS LIFE AFTER DEATH! How can I discover something people have talked about for 2,000 years!
Are you working with other scientists?
The work involves friends from many fields of science—even some physicians. Whenever I find myself needing tools or information, I have many physicists, some super neurologists, people in electronics—all great scientists who are impressed with what we know and who are working on the project. This cross-verification is important for the skeptic mind.
What laboratory experiments are you doing?
I am working with scientists on out-of-body experiences, for example. I am also interested in age-regression hypnosis, where you take a person’s mind back before birth. I myself was age-regressed. I didn’t tell the researcher I was one of triplets, and the tape from that interview was phenomenal. When he regressed me to a utero [womb] stage, he asked me how I was feeling, and I said, “I’m not comfortable. I am squashed. I really have to get out.” I was the first out, too, ahead of my two sisters. It is amazing what a two-pound baby experiences and remembers.
Will you come up with a new definition of death?
Yes, but the final definition of death is not as important as the understanding of what life is all about. Originally we used the absence of blood pressure and heartbeat; now we use the flat EEG [electroencephalogram], even though that definition is not final. As our knowledge expands, we will find an added dimension.
Are you opposed to extraordinary medical efforts to sustain life, as in a case like Karen Quinlan’s?
You can’t call that poor person dead. She’s a very unfortunate victim of present technology. I think any person who is asked to pull the plug will feel forever that he killed her. I believe the future physician will be a healer who, when he cannot help a patient recover, will send the patient home to die—and not use extraordinary means.
Were you—and are you—religious?
I always joke that I am a wishy-washy Protestant, but I don’t like such labels. Perhaps a better word is “spiritual,” but it has nothing to do with life after death; it has to do with respect and appreciation for life. All the things people regard as tragedies—if you had multiple sclerosis or lost a best friend—these are gifts, virtual gifts, which help you understand the meaning of life. There are many kinds of loss besides death.
Has your conclusion that there is life after death changed you?
If I were to lose this house and everything in it, I virtually couldn’t care less. Now, because of my work with dying patients, I know that to see a sunset or watch a pheasant family on the lawn are infinitely more important things. If you listen to dying patients say, “If only I had gotten to know my children. If only…” you begin to reflect on your own life.
How have you taught your own children about death?
Raising my children in an affluent suburb is like raising them in a greenhouse; there is no poverty, no sickness, no old age, no dying. So my husband [Emanuel R. Ross, M.D., a professor of pathology and neurology] and I invited into our home an old dying patient who had no family. He had been given two months to live but lived two years. It was a good lesson for me because it was a year before I liked him, and you cannot help someone unless you like him. His death was one of the most beautiful experiences for my children, then 6 and 9. When he died, they asked to go with me to buy the casket saying, “It is the last time we can go shopping for Uncle Angelo.”
How do you contemplate your own death?
I’m a fighter and basically a rebel. I don’t know if I can die quietly and peacefully. I’ve learned, even though I can define five stages to death, that you can’t write a cookbook, a recipe that will fit everyone. But if you know these things—that the stages of dying are not really about dying, but the way we learn to come to grips with the crisis of loss, any loss—you cannot possibly be afraid.