Within a week the peoples of the world bade farewell to two extraordinary women, Princess Diana of Britain, whose concern and practical support for the poor and needy endeared her to so many, and Mother Teresa, "Saint of the gutters" of Calcutta, an Albanian nun who since 1950 had ministered to the "poorest of the poor" that they might die with "dignity and with love."
Pondering the strange synchrony of their deaths, the subtitle of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' latest book, The Wheel of Life, caught my eye: "Memoir of Living and Dying." After a near half-century of service as physician and psychiatrist, she writes:
I have learned there is no joy without hardship. There is no pleasure without pain. . . . If not for death, would we appreciate life? If not for hate, would we know the ultimate goal is love?
Dr. Kubler-Ross openly shares with her readers the pith and marrow of her lifelong struggle to sensitize medical professionals to the unspoken needs of their patients, and to bring wider attention to how much can be learned from those close to the border. The dying often are eager to share with a sympathetic listener something of what they are experiencing as the veils of life thin and the entry into their new birth is sensed. She found this especially poignant with children, "who teach us more than the older ones." She asks us to transform our approach to death, to recognize it as the most sacred and beautiful experience of a life: the concluding chapter before our entrance into light.
Alas, the majority of physicians and nurses still shun all mention of the dreaded word death, in the sincere belief they are helping the dying by keeping up the pretense that they will soon recover. A radical change of attitude has been long overdue. They also need to realize that though the body may be unresponsive, the consciousness often is keenly aware. A friend of mine at 15 was seemingly in a coma, and doctors and nurses would discuss his case in his presence. "This chap's a goner, but keep him comfortable till the end" — ironically, for him this proved the medicine he needed. In that moment, he determined to live. He recovered, and only recently died in his mid-80s after a long and fruitful life, cherished by children and grandchildren.
How profoundly Kubler-Ross has affected the practice of medicine and nursing care by her broadly humanitarian approach cannot be quantified. Her revolutionary attitude of listening to the dying with love and respect, talking gently and openly with them about their feelings, their fears and regrets, is a gift beyond price. If only we are sensitive enough to heed their unspoken wish, many will tell of the awakening experiences which have come to them in the final stages of their lives.
Indeed, to recognize death as a friend and not an enemy gives young and old alike the precious opportunity of resolving hidden fears and coming to a quiet acceptance and preparation for the great change. Dr. Ross eloquently shares her conviction that we come to earth to learn, and then "we are allowed to graduate. We are allowed to shed our body, which imprisons our soul the way a cocoon encloses the future butterfly, and when the time is right we can let go of it. . . . free as a beautiful butterfly . . ."
Behind every life and death is a divine purpose, and whether our years be few or many is of less consequence than the tenor and quality of our deepest aspirations. Two more opposite figures than Princess Diana and Mother Teresa would be hard to find, yet friends of the heart and spirit they assuredly were, bonded by loving identity with the outcaste and helpless, the ill and the dying. Compassion knows no barriers.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1997. Copyright ©1997 by Theosophical University Press)