Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004)

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a 20th century psychiatrist who pioneered the study of grief and developed a stage-based model that outlined the feelings dying people experience. 

Professional Life

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was born Elisabeth Kubler on July 8, 1926, in Switzerland. She was the first of three triplets born to a family that prided work over education. Against the wishes of her father, Kubler-Ross attended the University of Zurich Medical School after she spent time participating in aiding refugees from Nazi Germany. Her experiences traveling through war-torn countries once the war had ended helped narrow her focus to psychiatry.

Upon graduating from medical school in 1957, Kubler-Ross went to New York to continue her education. She married Emanuel Ross, a fellow medical student, in 1958. It was during her fellowship at Manhattan State Hospital that Kubler-Ross first came into contact with dying patients. The lack of concern, compassion, and humane treatment provided to critically ill patients appalled Kubler-Ross and led her to develop a workshop that focused on addressing the needs of these individuals. She taught medical students how to work with terminally ill individuals in a respectful way, while identifying and acknowledging the issues they were facing as they approached the end of life.

Kubler-Ross left New York to continue her psychiatric training as a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1962. A few years later, she accepted a position as assistant professor in psychiatry at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. During her tenure there, Kubler-Ross continued her work with terminally ill patients. She was alternately criticized and praised for her research and theories regarding the inadequacies of the psychiatric and medical professions when it came to dying patients.

She published her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, based on her years of research and work, in 1969. The book introduced the well-known five stages of grief that are widely used today to help people cope with death. Her support of the dying led her to rally behind the national hospice care organization. Kubler-Ross believed that individuals needed to experience every stage of their final days to resolve any issues before they died. She was firmly against euthanasia and eventually founded a center to help the dying accept their last moments in a peaceful and healing way. Kubler-Ross spent the latter part of her academic career exploring other aspects of death and dying, including out-of-body experiences and methods of communicating with the deceased.

Kubler-Ross had two children with her husband, and the couple divorced in 1979. She died in 2004, after having several strokes. 

Contribution to Psychology

In the book On Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross identified five specific stages of grief that individuals experience as they face death. The five stages are:

  1. Denial: A temporary defense mechanism, denial is often the earliest stage of grief and involves feelings that “this can't possibly be happening to me.” 
  2. Anger: A dying person questions why he or she is facing death. The person might look for a source of blame, or simply become angry with the world.
  3. Bargaining: During this stage, people try to find ways to buy themselves more time. They might, for example, start bargaining with God or attempt to institute a healthier lifestyle. 
  4. Depression: As a dying person begins to accept fate, overwhelming depression, sadness, or hopelessness may kick in. 
  5. Acceptance: At this stage, a dying person accepts the inevitability of death, finding some peace in this acceptance. Acceptance does not, however, mean that a person wants to die or is happy about dying, and grief may linger. 

Although her original intent was to offer these strategies as a coping map for those dealing with death, Kubler-Ross’s later work extended these stages to individuals suffering any major loss, including that of health, freedom, job, marriage, or the death of a loved one. In addition, she acknowledged that while most people go through at least two of the five stages of grief, not all people experience them in the same order. For example, a dying person might experience anger or bargaining before he or she enters denial.

She noted that many people will continue to struggle with one or more of the stages for many years; some may even wander in and out of stages throughout the remainder of their lives, depending on the severity of their loss. On Death and Dying has become one of the most widely accepted tools for helping individuals regain their lives in the aftermath of a traumatic loss.


  1. Laxson, Joan. (2003). Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. American Decades. Biography In Context. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  2. Noble, H. B. (2004, Aug 26). Elisabeth kubler-ross, 78, dies; psychiatrist revolutionized care of the terminally ill. New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/432826224?accountid=1229

Last Update: 07-06-2015

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