The Wheel of Life


Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Review by Sue Reichard

"Water lilies, Green Reflection, Left Part" by Monet

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's autobiography was a book I had really looked forward to reading and I was not disappointed. I was familiar with her body of work on death and dying. I knew she had made monumental inroads into what had been considered a taboo subject. This subject of death was not only taboo to the common person at this time but also to the medical establishment as well.

Elisabeth poignantly recalls her dreams and desires as a young girl growing up as one of a set of all girl triplets in Switzerland.

Elisabeth never dreamed her life would take the path it did. She was to become a psychiatrist, lecturer and "the death and dying woman". Her early experiences in these fields taught her that "modern medicine is nonsense and only unconditional love heals people". She also states, "everyone goes through hardships. The more you endure, the more you grow." She came to this conclusion toward the end of her career in 1994 after someone burned down her home which was filled with her papers, diaries, journals and 20,000 case histories. Other conclusions she drew from this incident were that "death is glorious and the easiest thing a person will ever have to do". Her bitterness and hatred for these events in her life are not well masked, and not that they should be, but from one who preaches compassion and unconditional love for all, these statements are rather contradictory.

When Elisabeth was a young girl she recalls many unpleasant childhood experiences. These events gave Elisabeth the guts, determination and stamina for all her work and the challenges of life she would have to face.

Her first experience with death happened when she was a young girl in the hospital with pneumonia. Her roommate was a young girl around her age. This girl told Elisabeth that she would be leaving tonight and the angels were waiting for her. In the morning the girls bed was empty with fresh linens. No one would tell her where the little girl had gone, but Elisabeth knew what had happened. This incident left a deep impression on her and is where her obsession with death began.

One of the most horrible and cruel incidents Elisabeth recounts is when she was a young girl. Elisabeth raised pet rabbits. Her father began to "thin" the group by having Elisabeth take one bunny to the butcher. This went on until she finally had to select her favorite black bunny, which her family proceeded to eat for dinner that night.

Elisabeth loved the outdoors and in spite of his cruel nature her father would take her on long hikes through the beautiful Swiss mountains. She loved this activity. When Hitler declared war, refugees from other countries streamed in across the Swiss borders telling horror stories about what was being done to the Jews. The walks with her father stopped and life as everyone knew it changed forever.

When old enough to work Elisabeth found a job in a research lab. She journeyed to Poland to help the suffering people in the war. Elisabeth visited the concentration camps in Poland where 300,000 people were murdered. She noticed there were images of butterflies everywhere and wondered what special meaning they held.

Although her father was against her becoming a doctor, Elisabeth fought him every step of the way. She entered medical school where she met her future husband, Emanual Ross. Against her better judgement, after marriage, she left Switzerland and went with her husband to the United States to live and begin her practice. She began her residency at Manhatten State Hospital.

Elisabeth became Americanized very quickly. She had children and began to lecture on death and dying to young doctors. She was regarded as "sick and exploitive". She encountered resistance from all sides and gender only added to her critics ammunition against her. She broke boundaries as she continued to lecture and train new doctors to have compassion and understanding for dying patients. She was soon offered a writing contract by Clement Alexander, editor from MacMillan. While writing she discovered all who suffer go through similar stages. She wrote her famous feature on the stages of death for "Life" magazine and her book on the same subject became a bestseller. It was at this time also that Elisabeth reasoned that the butterflies of the concentration camps stood for the release of death that was awaiting the prisoners. The butterflies symbolized a death from one body into another.

Elisabeth began to work with terminally ill children. Dying children had "no layers of unfinished business" and they tell exactly what they need to be at peace. She found most children were not really afraid to die.

One day the mention of Easter bunnies brought on a floodgate of grief over her eaten pet rabbit Blackie. She had repressed this grief for many years. She had always nursed a constant need to prove herself worthy of being alive.

I enjoyed the book and was intriqued with how her childhood had contributed to her life long career. Towards the end of her career Elisabeth felt she had to prove that life after death really existed. She became estranged from her family as she delved into the supernatural life of seances and channeling. They believed Elisabeth was becoming mentally unbalanced. Her new mission became to tell the world that "death does not exist." Many people became afraid of her and lost respect for her professionally as she continued with the paranormal aspect of death. It was at this point, due to someones fear of Elisabeth and her work, that her home was destroyed by someone who set fire to it.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross states this is her last book and her last work. She is ready to die. I was understanding of her bitterness, but disappointed with the final chapters of the book. Her pioneer work however, is something that has touched all lives and we are the better for it.

She is married and the mother of 4 children, 1 son and 3 daughters. Her family lives in beautiful Bradford Country in NE Pa. They have a 10-acre homestead and an old farmhouse which they have painstakingly remodeled. She is a children's book reviewer and also an elementary school teacher. She loves reading and writing and she is a feature contributor to the local paper. She also review children's books for Children's Literature Newsletter and Young Adult Review.

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