Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, is shown here on March 19, 1970. Kubler-Ross, an internationally known author and expert on death and dying, died Tuesday night.
updated 8/25/2004 6:47:36 PM ET 2004-08-25T22:47:36

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who famously theorized in 1969 that terminally ill patients go through five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — has died at age 78 after her own prolonged bout with illness.

She was best known for her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” bringing the forbidden topic of terminal illness into the public discourse. She pioneered hospice care after working with dying hospital patients whose plight she considered intolerable.

As for her own death, she was in the acceptance stage for years, said her son, Kenneth Ross.

“For her, death wasn’t something to fear. It was like a graduation,” he said Wednesday.

'A transition to a higher state of consciousness'
Kubler-Ross moved to Arizona nine years ago after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed on her left side. In a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, she said she was ready to die: “I told God last night he’s a damned procrastinator.”

She felt that way until the end. But she made sure to enjoy her last moments by smoking cigarettes from Sarah Ferguson, Britain’s Duchess of York, and by eating Swiss chocolates and shopping, said Ross.

“Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow,” she once said.

Kubler-Ross wrote 12 books after “On Death and Dying,” that focused on such topics as the AIDS epidemic and coping with the death of a child.

She brought death and dying into the public consciousness, said Stephen Connor, vice president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

“In addition to helping people get in touch with their own mortality, she was able to help people with their own growth,” said Connor.

In 1979, she received the Ladies’ Home Journal Woman of the Decade Award. In 1999, Time magazine named Kubler-Ross one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the past century.

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'She is a real phenomenon'
Her former research assistant, Dennis Klass, said the petite, fiery doctor was the voice that encouraged people to listen to the dying.

“That soft-spoken, iron-willed, sometimes crazy, interpersonal, little woman went around the world and changed the way people thought about themselves and their families and how they thought about life and death,” said Klass. “She is a real phenomenon.”

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Kubler-Ross graduated from medical school at the University of Zurich in 1957. She came to New York the following year and was appalled by hospital treatment of dying patients.

“Whoever has seen the horrifying appearance of the postwar European concentration camps would be similarly preoccupied,” she said.

She began her work with the terminally ill at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver and was a clinical professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Kubler-Ross began giving lectures featuring terminally ill patients, who talked about what they were going through. That led to her 1969 book.

“Dying becomes lonely and impersonal because the patient is often taken out of his familiar environment and rushed to an emergency room,” she wrote.

Besides her 44-year-old son, Kubler-Ross is survived by a daughter, Barbara Rothweiler, 40, and two granddaughters.

Her son said that his mother, in her final months, was reaping the benefits of the movement she helped start, finding comfort from friends and family who visited from around the world.

Awaiting death was not such a challenge for her, her son said.

“Her only problem with facing death was patience,” he said. “She was looking forward to dancing with the stars.”

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