Stefan Haupt's documentary showing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her declining years and reviewing her life is informative yet uncritical. We see her in her final days in her home in the desert, living alone and feeling lonely in rural Arizona, surrounded by piles of books and old dishes. She died in August 2004, not long after this film was made. She talks in both English and German, switching between the two languages frequently, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. We learn about her life as a triplet, with interviews with her 2 sisters, Eva and her identical sister and her other triplet Erika, her marriage to her American husband Manny Ross, her miscarriages and two children, her blossoming career, her subsequent divorce, and some of the strange twists and turns of her enthusiasms.
Kübler-Ross is known in Death and Dying courses for her theory of the 5 stages of grief, and also as an initiator of the hospice movement. While the particular theory that people proceed through 5 stages of grief has received a great deal of criticism, the general idea that we can and should try to understand how people react to the death of their loved ones or to a terminal diagnosis was very important. Similarly, the idea that we should not always try to save people but rather help them prepare for their deaths has been a powerful counterbalance to the predominant medical attitude.
The other themes we see in her life have been less influential and seem less interesting. She talks about near-death experiences, and became associated with some people who even her friends and family regarded as charlatans. She got involved with very questionable new age movements in California and then Virginia. The documentary implies that she put her career above her family, and it gives a sense that she was not a conscientious mother. It seems that she made many problematic choices in her life and wasn't always a good judge of character, and although she did not care much about money, she had a good deal of ego. It may have been her stubbornness that empowered her to go against the medical establishment, but it also seemed mean that she refused to listen to reason when she started investigating unsupported religious claims about death and grieving process.
The documentary would have been better if it had provided some critical assessment of Kübler-Ross's achievement and less verbose praise from public ceremonies. Nevertheless, it provides insights and information that one would not get from most other sources about Kübler-Ross. It would be a useful resource for anyone interested in the scholarly study of death and dying, and would work well in an undergraduate course.
Link: First Run Features
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.