How One Woman Shattered Paradigms of Gender, Dying and Grieving

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Death was a distinct possibility for Elisabeth from her very first breath. Born in Switzerland in July of 1926, she was the oldest of three sisters. The triplets were born minutes apart from each other and each girl weighed only about two pounds each. The fact that each of the girls survived and grew up healthy is arguably unbelievable. Elisabeth was not only healthy, she was smart, driven and curious.

From a very young age, she developed an interest in becoming a doctor. Her father, however, had a different perspective – one quite common at the time – which was that Elisabeth could become a secretary in his business…or become a maid. Elisabeth would have nothing to do with those options.

Instead, she left home at the age of 16, working at a variety of jobs along the way. When World War II broke out, she volunteered at hospitals and by helping refugees. After the war, her volunteerism took her to several war-torn communities. It was as a result of this work that she came to experience the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was a place of death where Nazis killed thousands of Jews. Yet Elisabeth saw a different perspective when she entered a room where the images of hundreds of butterflies had been scratched and carved into the walls by those facing death. That image would significantly influence her throughout her life.

She went on to study medicine at the University of Zurich, met and married an American medical student named Robert and moved to Long Island in the United States in 1958. Four years later the couple moved to Denver to teach at the Colorado University of Medicine. Through her studies and practice in medicine, Elisabeth had become increasingly aware of how little was known, much less taught, about the people dying and how to care for them.

When a friend asked her to substitute teach one of her classes, Elisabeth did so in a most unusual way. She invited Linda, a 16-year-old girl with terminal leukemia, to attend the class. Students were encouraged to ask Linda about her feelings and expectations about dying. It didn’t take long for the girl to erupt in anger at how impersonal the questions were. She went on to explain what it was like not to dream about growing up, going to college, having a family or even going to the prom. That session had an effect on the students, but an even greater impact on Elisabeth.

Elisabeth became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s medical school, where she continued to focus on dying patients. As the result of countless interviews and research, she came to create the five stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This model was first delivered in the book On Death and Dying. LIFE magazine did a feature story which generated an immense amount of positive and grateful response from the public. The medical community and the faculty at the university had a differing perspective, which prompted Elisabeth to pursue private practice.

Over the next four decades, Elisabeth went on to author, or co-author, over twenty books, her last being Of Grief and Grieving. She earned twenty doctorate degrees, was named in 1999 by TIME magazine one of ‘The Century’s Greatest Minds’ and in 2007, she was inducted into the American Women’s Hall of Fame. Not to be overlooked is that Elisabeth is credited with beginning the modern-day hospice system. Each of these accomplishments alone is noteworthy, when combined, these results can only be attributed to the fact that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands pursue their purpose with unwavering passion and determination.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is arguably one of the most influential contributors to all of humanity in the twentieth century – and beyond. Her unwavering determination and passion have had a significant impact on how society as a whole, and the U.S. in particular, think about death and the dying. Her unrelenting pursuit of her dreams and her interests, in the face of serious obstacles, has helped to empower an entire gender. Her glass ceiling covered the basement – by shattering it, she opened countless floors for women worldwide.

The Kubler-Ross scale of dying, helped to quantify a subject mostly avoided before her efforts. The dying were ignored or patronized. Their care was provided from the thinking of the living – without understanding of the needs and wants of the dying. Elisabeth helped to change that thinking. She did so in spite of a father who had limited perspective on the role of women. She did so in spite of a medical community filled with skepticism – happy to continue on in ignorance. She did so in spite of critics who questioned the ‘science’ at the very core of her work.

Kubler-Ross did extend her learning to a study of the life after death and spirit channeling. Many used that pursuit to call in to question her work on the five stages of grief and dying. There will always be skeptics – Elisabeth carried on in her pursuit of knowledge in spite of them all.

One thing which cannot be disputed – Elisabeth is a fearless brand – offering a great deal for us all to learn about our own brands:

Follow your own path – At the core of fearless branding is authenticity. At the core of authenticity is being true to oneself. Kubler-Ross chose to follow her own path from a very early age. There was no chance that she would succumb to the life of a maid or secretary merely because it was her father’s direction. Later, she would refuse to back away from her study of death and the dying merely because it made many of her peers uncomfortable or skeptical. For all of us to become a fearless brand – to be authentic and content – we have to find the courage and determination to follow our own path regardless of obstacles.

Clarify as needed – Many took the Kubler-Ross scale as a literal sequence, one which they felt ‘tucked messy emotions into neat packages.’ As friend and co-author David Kessler puts it, “…the five stages help us to frame and identify what we might be feeling. There is no typical response as there is no typical loss.” If your message is misunderstood – or if it has evolved – clearly and quickly communicate its meaning. Clarity is power – it enlightens those we serve as well as ourselves.

Keep learning and evolving – From helping the sick and injured to studying the dying and death to an interest in the afterlife and the spirit world, Elisabeth never quit learning. She was a ‘seeker’ throughout her entire life. Her pursuit of knowledge and her openness to new concepts are what helped her to be such a powerful contributor to the world. That same pursuit will continually add value to you and your brand – thereby providing greater benefit to those you serve…and let’s face it, that’s what branding is all about.

You may not have known about ‘fearless brand’ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross but you likely have heard of the five stages of grieving. They apply to death, divorce, business setbacks, losses by sports teams and so much more. Her efforts, at least indirectly, opened countless doors for women. Will your brand have such far-reaching impact? It certainly can. There is no reason that it cannot – so long as you stay true to yourself, create and communicate great value and adapt as needed to new circumstances. 


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Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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