Releasing the butterfly

kubler-ross“Many people say: Of course, Doctor Ross has seen too many dying patients. Now she starts getting a bit funny.”

These were the opening lines of On Life After Death, a little book containing transcripts of three lectures given by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross between 1977 and 1982.

Dr. Ross received international recognition and acclaim for her first book, On Death and Dying (1969) and it remained on the US non-fiction bestseller list for over a decade. It is still regarded world-wide as the classic work in its field of thanatology.

In one of her lectures, Dr. Ross explained that when she sat at the bedside of a dying child, she would explain to the child that the human body is like a cocoon, and that it is only a house to live in for a while.

“As soon as the house is in an irreparable condition,” she would say, “it will release the butterfly.”

To Dr. Ross, this was no fairy tale. Throughout the 1960’s, she had interviewed over five hundred terminally ill patients, sat beside countless numbers who were going through the dying process, and listened intently to the stories of many who had died and been resuscitated.

One case was particularly intriguing. A twelve-year-old girl confessed to her father that she had an experience she’d never told to anyone. A few years earlier, when she had been deathly ill, she had left her body and had not wanted to return. As she explained to her father: “I don’t want to tell my mummy that there is a nicer home than ours.”

The girl told her father that she had traveled to the “other side” where she had been lovingly held by her brother. But this caused her confusion, because she didn’t have a brother. Her father was shocked. Her brother had died only a few months before she was born, and neither of her parents had ever mentioned him to her.

In the 1960’s Dr. Ross instigated a course at the University of Chicago and began weekly seminars on the treatment of terminally ill patients. During one of these seminars, she did something so controversial, it almost destroyed her reputation!

She brought a woman to the stage who had been declared dead but had been resuscitated.

Mrs. Schwartz related how she had floated out of her body and watched as the nurse rushed out of the room to summon help.

Now, keep in mind that this occurred about a decade before the publication of Dr. Moody’s ground-breaking book, Life After Life, brought the concept of near-death experiences to the attention of the world!

Mrs Schwartz explained that she had observed the doctors frantically working on her from her vantage point above the bed, and she was later able to report which members of the team had wanted to give up. She was even able to repeat a joke one attendant had told in an effort to relieve the tension.

While this was nothing new to Dr. Ross, the reaction of students at the seminar surprised her. She later wrote: “They all leaped on me because I refused to label the woman’s story as hallucination. They all wanted me to give this woman’s experience a convenient psychiatric label so they could forget it.” (There Is Life After Death by Kenneth L. Woodward, article in McCall’s August 1976, page 134)

The cynical reaction by the medical students prompted Dr. Ross to begin an in-depth study of experiences reported by patients who had been resuscitated after having been declared dead.

Together with hospital co-worker Reverend Gaines, she began collecting accounts of near-death experiences from around the world. To be certain the results contained no religious or cultural bias, they collected data from a variety of cultures including Eskimos, Hawaiians and Australian Aboriginals, and from people with various belief systems such as Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, agnostics and atheists.

Both Ross and Gaines were astounded by the results. The similarities to those they had heard from their own patients could not be ignored.

In a 1977 lecture, she shared the results of her world-wide study:

  • “They are all fully aware of shedding their physical body, and death, as we understand it in scientific language, does not really exist.”
  • “There is no time or distance. If we are separated from a loved one [as we are dying] we have only to think of them and we will be wherever they are in an instant.
  • We may try to communicate with those we leave behind, but soon realize they can neither see nor hear us.”
  • “We become aware that departed loved ones are awaiting us on the other side.”
  • “We may travel through a tunnel, pass through a gate, cross a bridge, or travel through something else familiar to us.
  • At the end of this journey, we will be embraced by an indescribably loving light.”
  • “If we are meant to return, we are permitted to see this light only briefly. If this is the end of our earthly journey, however, we will experience understanding without judgement as we stand in the light, and will come to understand that life on earth was nothing more than a school.”
  • “We will be shown our life from the first to last day and will re-experience every thought we had, every deed we did, and every word we spoke. In the light of unconditional love and non-judgement, we will come to understand the consequences resulting from those thoughts, words and deeds, and recognize how many opportunities we missed to grow.
  • “…many of our patients …are not always grateful when their butterfly is squashed back into the cocoon.”
  • “Not one of the patients who has had an out-of-body experience was ever again afraid to die.”

Dr. Ross was honored with twenty doctorates for her work with the dying. By 1982 more than 100,000 students had attended her classes on death and dying in colleges, seminaries, medical schools, hospitals, and social-work institutions.

In 1999 she was named by Time Magazine as one of the hundred greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Not bad for someone who was believed by some to be “getting a bit funny”!

Kubler Ross departed this world in 2004. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007.




  1. Susie Chadwell

    I love Dr. Ross’ wriings. She has expressed many of my experiences even though we never met.


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