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Contemplating Death, Dying, and All the Living in Between July 8, 2020

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“If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers. We need to teach the next generation of children from Day One that they are responsible for their lives. Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.”

– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D.

“I cannot leave out the problem of life and death. Many young people and others have come out to serve others and to labor for peace, through their love for all who are suffering. They are always mindful of the fact that the most important question is the question of life and death, but often not realizing that life and death are but two faces of one reality. Once we realize that we will have the courage to encounter both of them….

Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live—because death is a part of life.”

 

– quoted from The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Today’s post and class will be tricky for some. Today’s theme is always tricky for some. Although, I would assert that it shouldn’t be. After all, death is part of life. That can come off glib and easy to say – specifically because it is a little glib, or shallow, because it denies belies the fact that loss is hard and that most of us haven’t/don’t really face the concept of death until someone we (or someone we love) is dying. The statement “death is part of life” is also shallow because it belies the fact that even if we meditate on and prepare for death, loss is still hard. Yes, death and dying are something that we all have to deal with, but to just leave it at that is what makes the subject tricky. We have to, as Thích Nhất Hạnh instructs in The Miracle of Mindfulness, go deeper.

“The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one[s] we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”

– quoted from On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler

 

Born in Zürich, Switzerland today in 1926, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the oldest triplet in a family of Protestant Christians. Despite her father’s wishes, she would grow up to be a psychiatrist known for her work on death and dying, life and death, and the five stages of grief. Her ultimate work was in part inspired by her work in refugees in Zürich during World War II. After the war, she participated in relief efforts in Poland and, at some point, visited the Maidanek concentration camp in Poland. As a young woman, standing in a place of destruction, she was struck by the compassion and human resilience that would inspire someone to carve hundreds of butterflies into the walls of the death camp.

Dr. Kübler-Ross originally planned on being a pediatrician; however, she married a fellow medical student (in New York in 1958) and became pregnant. The pregnancy resulted in the loss of her pediatrics residency so she switched to psychiatry. Unfortunately, she would also suffer two miscarriages before giving birth to two children. The miscarriages were not her first (or last) experiences with loss. Her marriage would end in divorce and, when she attempted to build a Virginia hospice for infants and children with HIV/AIDS, someone set fire to her home (in 1994). The house and all of the belongings inside were lost to arson.

One of the things that stuck Dr. Kübler-Ross when she started her psychiatry residency was the hospitals treatment of patients who were dying in the United States. She began to host lectures where medical students were forced to meet and listen to dying people outside of a clinical setting. Her intention was to get medical students to “[react] like human beings instead of scientists…and be able to treat [terminal patients] with compassion the same compassion that you would want for yourself.” As she moved through her career, she continued hosting the series of seminars which used interviews with terminally ill patients. Her work was met with both praise and criticism – most of the latter because she was so obviously questioning the traditional practices of psychiatry. In 1969, she released her seminal book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families, which provided a grief model for people who were dying as well as for those they were leaving behind.

“Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.”

– quoted from On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Dr. Kübler-Ross explained from the beginning that her outline was not intended to be linear and yet, people wanted to be able to step through the stages with grace and ease. The problem with that mindset is…life is messy and so is grieving. A perfect example of the messiness of life and death can be found in Dr. Kübler-Ross’s own life… and death. In 1995, after a series of strokes which left her partially paralyzed on her left side, she found herself confronted with the reality of her own death. Added to her grief was the closing of Shanti Nilaya (“Final Home of Peace”), a healing and growth center which she had established in the later 1970’s (shortly before her divorce) after convincing her husband to buy 40-acres of land in Escondido, California. Despite a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, where she stated that she was ready to die, Dr, Kübler-Ross struggled with the fact that she could not choose her own time of death. He son Ken, Founder and President of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, served as her caregiver for the last decade of her life. In a 2019 interview with the hosts of ABC Radio’s Life Matters, Ken said, “A few weeks before she passed she said to me, ‘Kenneth, I don’t want to die’”

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

– quoted from Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

Ken Ross admits he was taken aback by his mother’s statement that she did not want to die. It turned out, Dr. Kübler-Ross was not only physically paralyzed; she was also stuck in the anger stage of her own grief model. She caught flak in the media – as if she were somehow above being human simply because she had studied, taught, and spoken so openly and so frequently on the subject of death and dying. She did not stay there (in the anger stage), however, as her family and friends encouraged her to keep living and to keep processing the experience of dying. Her son even admits that he literally pushed her out of her comfort zone by assisting her in wheelchair marathons and in visiting her sisters in Europe.

“[She] let herself be loved and taken care of, then that was her final lesson — and then she was allowed to graduate. For years I thought about this and what I realized was that’s exactly what she teaches. [When] you learn your lessons you’re allowed to graduate.”

– Ken Ross in a 2019 “Life Matters” interview on ABC Radio National

 

“In Switzerland I was educated in line with the basic premise: work, work, work. You are only a valuable human being if you work. This is utterly wrong. Half working, half dancing – that is the right mixture. I myself have danced and played too little.”

– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. in an interview

Please join me today (Wednesday, July 8th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom, where there will be work, dance, and play. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

 

 

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

“Strange though it may seem to you, one of the most productive avenues for growth is found through the study and experience of death. Perhaps death reminds us that our time is limited and that we’d better accomplish our purpose here on earth before our time runs out. Whatever the reason….Those who have been immersed in the tragedy of massive death during wartime, and who have faced it squarely, never allowing their senses and feelings to become numbed and indifferent, have emerged from their experiences with growth and humanness greater than that achieved through almost any other means.”

– quoted from Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

### “People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” EKR ###

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