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The woman behind the stages of grief

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The Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross devised the five simple stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But she was “an incredibly complicated woman”, says Rachael Cusick in The Queen of Dying. At her Chicago hospital in the 1960s, Kübler-Ross wanted to study death, but her hospital colleagues called her and her team “vultures”. Yet terminally ill patients loved the attention – at the time they were barely told they were going to die, let alone asked about their feelings. When she published her book On Death and Dying in 1969, with its five stages of death, it became a huge bestseller and she was mobbed at her readings.

Then her story took a “dark” turn. She insisted that dead people – she called them “spooks” – were sending her messages. Her hospital sacked her and in 1977 she set up a centre in California called Shanti Nilaya (“final home of peace”). In workshops, visitors would hug naked “spirit guides” in darkened rooms. An employee was accused of sexual misconduct and when she tried to relocate Shanti Nilaya to Virginia, her house burnt down in 1994. Only after she had a series of strokes did the world start paying her attention again.

Her final years appeared at odds with the simplicity of her five stages: by then a chainsmoker, she lived in a cluttered house and, as she told Oprah Winfrey in 1997, was “angry, angry, angry”. But she also enjoyed racing about in her wheelchair and watching Johnny Depp films. (She had a crush on him.) Reflecting on her five stages before she died in 2004, aged 78, she said: “If you feel like screaming, you scream. If you feel like crying, you cry. Don’t try to follow a textbook.”

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