The Transition of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If there’s one thing the Peak Oil community can agree on, it is the perfect utility of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s iconic meme, the “Five Stages of Death”. In a spasm of over-extended metaphor, it seems like we’ve got five stages of everything right now.
In a collapsing world, we see the grieving process everywhere.


Who was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross?                                                                          

One of a trio of daughters born to a middle class Swiss family in 1926, Elizabeth possessed a fierce intellect and excelled in math and languages. After volunteering in hospitals in post-war Europe, Ross returned to Switzerland, earning her medical degree in the late 50’s.
Marriage brought Kübler-Ross to America, and a position with Billings Hospital of the University of Chicago. In 1965, Ross was asked by four students from Chicago’s Theological Seminary to help conduct a research project on the dying.
Ross had easy access to a population of dying patients for interviews, but other physicians at the hospital were uncomfortable with her approach, and she soon found locating suitable interviewees difficult.

But the plucky Elizabeth prevailed, and by 1967, Kübler-Ross was interviewing dying patients behind one-way mirror, followed by a round table discussion with students and attending physicians after the patient had left.
Her seminal best-seller, On Death and Dying, first appeared in 1969. This book developed Kübler-Ross’s now iconic notion of the “Five Stages of Death and Dying”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

The “Five Stages of Death” are not merely Ross’s intellectual legacy; they are also, along with her material on “Near Death Experiences”, among the foundational pillars of contemporary New Age thought.

The “To-Do List to Die for”

For the massive post war generation, “The Five Stages of Death and Dying” was a consummate seduction.  Not content to merely define these stages, Elizabeth sought to refine them for us as well. The Five Stages of death and Dying filled a void of medical/psycho-social  neglect, giving birth to an Aesthetic of Transition from Life to Death.

For a deadly earnest baby –boom generation, the Five Stages of Death became a New Age “To Do List to Die For”.  The terror of death was now approachable. There were predictable stages.

The most compelling gift of this aesthetic was the dawning of the Hospice Movement, and a cultural shift of not merely comforting, but engaging emotionally with the terminally ill. The existential, as well as mundane diurnal question “what happens next?”…… had been asked and answered.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross secured her place in American cultural history by the singular accomplishment of changing the folk- ways of how Americans chose to die.

The Gregarious Dead

Ten years later, in the late 70’s,  the paradox of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was in full flower.
Despite her articulation of the “Five Stages of Death and Dying”, she now denied the very reality of Death.
The veil between Life and Death was penetrable.
There were new frontiers of certainty to explore…… encounters with “Afterlife Entities” who offered a vivifying vision of death as a transition to a state of conscious completeness, as well as the wellspring of personal re-birth.
Elizabeth always maintained that her discovery of the Five Stages were the product of rigorous scientific inquiry, but now seances with spirit mediums supplanted the spirit of scientific inquiry.

Life after Life

In 1976, Elisabeth befriended Jay Barham.  The charismatic Jay was a former Arkansas sharecropper, Medium Extraordinaire, and current Minister of the Church of the Facet of the Divinity (CTFD). Elizabeth was moving in a new social circle which enlivened her research into Transition.
Spiritual truths were now gleaned from four “materialized supernatural spirits.” Their names were Willie, Anka, Salem and…Mario.

Jay made the requisite introductions.

Oh, and by the way, thanks to Jay’s ministry, Elisabeth now recalled her former life as Isabel, A Jewish woman living in the time of Christ.

While Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was descending into a New Age marinade, and accumulating all manner of New Age Mojo, she was also at the pinnacle of academic respectability. She was receiving honorary degrees hand over fist, acquiring more than 80 in her lifetime.

Dancing in the Dark with Dear Departed Husbands

By the early 1980’s, Elisabeth was ensconced in her mountaintop compound “Shanti Nilaya” in Escondido California. She had prevailed upon her reluctant then- husband to acquire the property for the specific purpose of being closer to Jay Barham.

Unfortunately, she became embroiled in a sordid scandal after it was revealed that Medium Extraordinaire Jay Barham was having sex with bereaved widows who believed they were once again coupling with their DDH in the dark.

There are conflicting versions of what happened next.

What is known is that the widows became suspicious when they compared notes.  They discovered that each of their respective DDH’s now mispronounced certain words, just like ” Jay the Medium” ( such as “excape” for “escape”). The kicker was when they realized that they were not only sharing the uniquely rare experience of personal encounters with their ectoplasmic DDH Afterlife Entities,… but an STD as well.
One version is that at the next seance, one of the now suspicious widows arranged for the overhead light to be unexpectedly turned on, (at the precise moment that her allegedly ectoplasmic DDH was as well……………).

As Jay Burnham stood uncomfortably naked before her,…but for a turban…. she discovered that the Medium was the Message.

Another version is that Elisabeth had a close friend, Deanna Edwards, who was deeply concerned about her involvement with Jay Burnham.  She arranged the identical scenario, hoping to shock Kubler-Ross out of it. This version, however requires the physical presence of Kubler-Ross.  Elisabeth always maintained that she was never at any of Jay’s conjugal visit seances.

In both versions, Jay sputtered an explanation of how her DDH had cloned him to facilitate their conjugal encounters, but by this the point, for this particular widow at least, the frontiers of credulity had been crossed-over.

She blinded me with Seance!

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross did what any reasonable Thanatologist would do. She investigated.
The truth was obvious… after all,according to Jay, spirits do use the molecules of mediums to clone humans on a regular basis.

She backed Jay to the Hilt.

“Many attempts have been made to discredit us. To respond to them would be like casting pearls to swine.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

After all, wasn’t Jay Barham the “Greatest Healer the World had ever seen?”

For the next year, criss-crossing the United States,  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was on tour with a Medium- cum- Sexual Predator, rolling out franchise opportunities for Death and Dying Seminars, and for the spiritually adventurous….(and sexually frustrated)…Human-Entity Encounter Experiences!

Kubler- Ross Returns to the Scientific Method

In all fairness to Elisabeth, she eventually snapped out of it.
It seems that all along she was conducting her own secret investigation, reaching an intellectually torturous conclusion.

Since it has already be established beyond all possible doubt that Jay Barham was the World’s Greatest Medium, there had to be some rational explanation for the decline of his powers. No problem. A good scientist always has a grab bag of down-and dirty methodologies for the measurement of variables.
Kubler-Ross arranged for a doctor (a specialist, I’m certain) to” accurately measure” the level of Healing Power still left in old Jay.

Skipping over some of the details, she confidently informed a reporter that the test disclosed that Jay’s powers had indeed fadedJay had lost his Mojo!

This hypothesis also accounts for Jay’s unfortunate behavior with the widows…..chalk it off to Performance Anxiety. If Jay could no longer channel the Horny Dead with vigor….well…somebody had to step up to the plate.

“There are those who might say this has damaged my credibility” she offered.

Kinda …. Liz…….kinda……….

Kubler-Ross……. New Age Doomer?

When interviewed in 1995, for a  magazine, she unexpectedly rolled out this ”Future Map of the United States,” dated from 1998 to 2001.  I imagine her gazing at the contours of the ravaged landscape with a trance-like gaze.
The map displayed large land areas, now submerged by a catastrophic future apocalypse. The puzzled journalist expressed horror at the massive loss of life. The reporter wrote:

”Why should it be horrifying?” she answered serenely. ”Death isn’t the end. They’ll just be somewhere else.”

The Meme That Would Not Die!

I am not suggesting that we summarily abandon the Kubler-Ross model, nor am I holding Elisabeth in scorn for her New Age adventures……..well…. I am …sort of…….

The intellectual implosion of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross seems to bring out the sadism of journalists.  Maybe it’s the tension between her academic stature and her New Age sensibilities. They relentlessly ask and answer the same question: was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross bringing us a New Age Religion of Death?

The ardent longing to commune with the dead is a poignant human trait.
And who among us can say that it is definitively impossible? It is even rumored that the final project of Thomas Edison was to build a device capable of communicating with the dead. The desire to cross over to the “Other Side” has captivated many otherwise powerful minds.

My curiosity is of a different sort. I am fascinated by the vitality, and cultural ubiquity of the“Five Stages” model, and the Aesthetic of Transition in the Peak Oil Community.

And how did Elisabeth slide under the spell of a Sharecropper-Medium-Sexual Predator so utterly, that it shattered her scientific reputation, as well as her marriage of 21 years?

Was it ferocious curiosity that propelled Elisabeth beyond the fringe of the Forer Effect, or emotional dependence on Jay the Medium?

Contradicting the cultural norm she single-handedly inspired…Elisabeth Kubler-Ross died alone.

Is there a faint echo of the Forer Effect in her immortal meme?

Why does it resonate with us so deeply?
What emotional needs does this model satisfy?

The scientific foundation of Elizabeth’s model was several large sample surveys, supposedly conducted with scientific rigor.

What does modern psychological research tell us about the human grieving process?
How accurate is the Kubler-Ross model?
Were they able to replicate her findings?

I’ll explore these questions in an upcoming post.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. Linking here from a peak oil site, I read on, trying to figure out what this discredited, pseudo-scientific claptrap has to do with peak oil. Nothing, apparently.

    “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”

  2. I went through the five steps with peak oil, though I still vacillate between depression and acceptance.

    Very bizarre story about Kubler-Ross.

  3. Gonzo the Great says:

    Kubler-Ross’ dalliance with New Age nonsense was significant- the failure to mention this in the many courses (in medicine and nursing) which reference Kubler-Ross is at best a strange oversight.
    However, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater; EKR’s work at least facilitated reflection on the specific needs of the terminally ill.
    As for
    “Elisabeth Kubler-Ross secured her place in American cultural history by the singular accomplishment of changing the folk- ways of how Americans chose to die”,
    I rather suspect that most Americans don’t choose to die, but if that reality is inevitable then they’d rather that distressing symptoms were minimized and they wouldn’t have to face their final days worried about the financial burden that their care imposes on their loved ones. There’s nothing folksy, ‘American’, patriotic, Christian or admirable about dying in agony, incoherent and incontinent because you couldn’t afford the inflated prices of healthcare insurance in the USA. But there is something noble, dignified and profoundly decent about providing optimized care for the dying, as the hospice movement attempts to do in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (and elsewhere). The hospice movement is not a hotbed of New Age claptrap or Marxism- but, sadly for Americans, nor will it pay for a physician’s new Ferrari or club membership.

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