HEAD WATERS, Va. — Her calling is death and the AIDS epidemic has given new urgency to her mission.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist, teaches the living how to help the dying, the dying how to prepare for death. She believes in reincarnation and her message is that death is only a transition, an end only to the body.
A cheerful woman with a weather-beaten face, she was found this day planting magnolias and azaleas and rhododendrons outside the 250-year-old log cabin she transplanted to her 300-acre farm she calls "Healing Waters."
Death Is Her Subject
Kubler-Ross, now 60, first attracted national attention in 1969 after she published "On Death and Dying," a book that outlined the five stages of death.
The first stage, as she outlines it, is the denial and isolation. For example, the patient who is sure that there must be a mix-up in the X-rays. Next comes comes anger, the "Why me?" syndrome. Thirdly, there is the bargaining: "If I can beat this, I will be a better. . . . " Then comes depression and, finally, the fifth stage, an acceptance of death.
The author of 10 books on death and dying, Kubler-Ross is away from this idyllic retreat about 90% of the time, giving lectures and five-day workshops for 99 people at a time in this country and places as diverse as Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.
She says about one-third of the participants in her workshops are members of the healing professions who want to learn how to deal with the terminally ill. Another third are people who are dying and another third are "just people."
Lesson to Be Learned
"I have trained thousands and thousands of ministers and doctors to deal with death and dying and still there are not enough for what we are about to go through," she says.
The subject of her latest book is the epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"AIDS is here to stay until we learn our lesson from it," she says. "I'm absolutely convinced of that."
The lesson, she says, has nothing to do with sin, promiscuity or homosexuality. The lesson is to learn unconditional love for our fellow man, to learn that all men are brothers.
"People complain about Nazi Germany, but what we're doing here is not one bit different when it comes to the treatment of AIDS patients," she says. "We have to learn some very basic stuff before it's too late. It will hit many more people. It will hit families and children and people will really have to do some soul-searching."
Plenty of Resistance
She is still bitter over the defeat she suffered when the local populace defeated her efforts to establish a hospice for abandoned children with AIDS in this rural mountainous area on the West Virginia-Virginia border, an area called "Little Switzerland."
The resistance she encountered in discussions at town meetings dissuaded her from pursuing the matter further.
"One man said he was a reborn Christian, but that if there were an ambulance call for one of these children, he would not respond," she recalls. "Another also said he was a reborn Christian, but if one of these children were to try and go to school, the doors would be locked. These are not Christians!"
She says she has spent the last three years trying to establish the center.
"It's been three years of frustration and impotent rage," she says. "We put every nickel we had into it, the royalties of the new book. I depleted all my own resources, but I suppose the people who are supposed to be involved are not yet ready."
She has succeeded in getting some of the abandoned AIDS babies placed in foster homes, but her frustration is evidenced by the hundreds of handmade dolls she has in her home, sent to her from all over the world for the AIDS victims.
Kubler-Ross describes herself as a skeptical scientist who is positive there is an afterlife. She believes that the soul will never die, that death is simply a transition in which we pass into a tremendous light of love and are greeted by someone who loved us in this life.
When asked if she belongs to any specific religion, she replied, "I'm spiritual, not religious. I'm a strong believer in the power we can get from God. What religions practice and what they preach are often two different things."
But she says she prayed for a way to scientifically research what she saw as she sat with dying patients.
It came through children, to whom she has a special affinity, and through the death of an American Indian woman.
She tells how the death of the Indian woman, the victim of a hit-and-run accident, helped lead her to investigate how loved ones, already dead, greet people as they died. She says a truck driver stopped to help the dying woman and the woman asked him to tell her mother that everything was all right, that her father was already "there."