Death Does Not Exist
• By Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
• CoEvolution Quarterly
• Summer 1977
I was thinking for a long time what I’m going to talk with you about, this morning. I’m going to share with you how a two-pound “nothing” found her way, her path in life. How I learned what I’m going to share with you, and how you too can be convinced that this life here, this time that you’re in a physical body, is a very, very short span of your total existence. It’s a very important time of your existence because you’re here for a very special purpose, which is yours and yours alone. If you live well, you will never have to worry about dying. You can do that even if you have only one day to live. The question of time is not terribly important, it is a man-made, artificial concept anyway.
To live well means basically to learn to love. I was very touched yesterday when the speaker mentioned, “Faith, love and hope, but the biggest of the three is love.” In Switzerland you have confirmation when you’re 16, and you get a saying that is supposed to be a leading word throughout life. Since we were triplets, they had to find the one for three of us, and they picked love, faith, and hope, and I happened to be love.
I’m going to talk with you about love today. Which is life, and death; it is all the same thing. I mentioned briefly that I was born an “unwanted” child. Not that my parents didn’t want a child. They wanted a girl very badly, but a pretty, beautiful, ten-pound girl. They did not expect triplets, and when I came, I was only two pounds and very ugly, and no hair, and was a terrible, terrible big disappointment. Then 15 minutes later the second child came, and after 20 minutes a 6-1/2 pound baby came, and they were very happy. But they would have liked to give two of them back.
I think that nothing in life is a coincidence. Not even that, because I had the feeling that I had to prove all my life that even a two-pound nothing . . . that I had to work really hard, like some blind people think that they have to work ten times as hard to keep a job. I had to prove very hard that I was worth living.
When I was a teenager and the war was over, I needed and wanted to do something for this world which was in a terrible mess at the end of the war. I had promised to myself that if the war ever ended that I would go and walk all the way to Poland and Russia and start first aid stations and help stations. I kept my promise, and this is, I think, where this whole work on death and dying started.
I personally saw the concentration camps. I personally saw train loads of baby shoes, train loads of human hair from the victims of the concentration camps taken to Germany to make pillows. When you smell the concentration camps with your own nose, when you see the crematoriums, when you’re very young like I was, when you are really an adolescent in a way, you will never ever be the same any more, after that. Because what you see is the inhumanity of man and that each one of us in this room is capable of becoming a Nazi monster. That part of you you have to acknowledge. But each one of you in this room also has the ability of becoming a Mother Teresa, if you know who she is. She’s one of my saints — a woman in India who picks up dying children, starving, dying people, and believes very strongly that even if they’re dying in her arms, that if she has been able to love them for five minutes, that this is worthwhile, that they have lived. She is a very beautiful human being, if you ever have a chance of seeing her.
When I came to this country, after having been a country doctor in Switzerland, and a very happy one, I had prepared my life to go to India to be a physician in India like Schweitzer was in Africa. But two weeks before I was supposed to leave I was notified that the whole project in India had fallen through. And instead of the jungles of India I ended up in the jungles of New York, marrying an American, who took me to the one place in the world which was at the bottom of my list of where I ever wanted to live. And that too was not coincidence, because to go to a place that you love is easy, but to go to a place where you hate every bit of it, that is a test. That is given to you to see if you really mean it.
I ended up at Manhattan State Hospital, which is another dreadful place. Not knowing really any psychiatry, and being very lonely and miserable and unhappy, and not wanting to make my new husband unhappy, I opened up to the patients. I identified with their misery and their loneliness and their desperation and suddenly my patients started to talk. People who didn’t talk for twenty years. They started to verbalize, share their feelings, and I suddenly knew that I was not alone in my misery, thought it wasn’t half as miserable as living in a state hospital. For two years I did nothing else but live and work with these patients, sharing every Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover, and Easter with them, just to share their loneliness, not knowing much psychiatry, the theoretic psychiatry that one ought to know. I barely understood their English, but we loved each other. We really cared. After two years 94 percent of those patients were discharged, self-supporting, into New York City, many of them having their own jobs and able to function.
What I’m trying to say to you is that knowledge helps, but knowledge alone is not going to help anybody. If you do not use your head and your heart and your soul, you’re not going to help a single human being. This is what so-called hopeless, schizophrenic patients taught me. In all my work with patients, whether they were chronic schizophrenics, or severely retarded children, or dying patients, each one has a purpose. Each one can not only learn and be helped by you, but can actually become your teacher. That is true of 6-month old retarded babies who can’t speak. That is true of hopeless schizophrenic patients, who behave like animals when you see them for the first time. But the best teachers in the world are dying patients.
Dying patients, when you take the time out and sit with them, they teach you about the stages of dying. They teach you how they go through the denial and the anger, and the “Why me?”, and question God and reject Him for a while. They bargain with Him, and then go through horrible depressions, and if they have another human being who cares, they may be able to reach a stage of acceptance. But that is not just typical of dying, really has nothing to do with dying. We only call it the “stages of dying” for lack of a better word. If you lose a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or if you lose your job, or if you are moved from your home where you have lived for 50 years and have to go to a nursing home, some people if they lose a parakeet, some people if they only lose their contact lenses, go through the same stages of dying. This is, I think, the meaning of suffering. All the hardships that you face in life, all the tests and tribulations, all the nightmares and all the losses, most people still view this as a curse, as a punishment by God, as something negative. If you would only know that nothing that comes to you is negative. I mean nothing. All the trials and the tribulations, and the biggest losses that you ever experience, things that make you say, “If I had known about this I would never have been able to make it through,” are gifts to you. It’s like somebody has to — what do you call that when you make the hot iron into a tool? — you have to temper the iron. It is an opportunity that you are given to grow. That is the sole purpose of existence on this planet Earth. You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain and learn to accept it, not as a curse or a punishment, but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.
I will give you a clinical example of that. In one of my one-week workshops — they are one-week live-in retreats — was a young woman. She did not have to face the death of a child, but she faced several what we call “little deaths.” Not very little in her eyes. When she gave birth to a second baby girl which she was very much looking forward to, she was told in a not very human way that the child was severely
retarded, in fact that the child would never be able to even recognize her as her mother. When she became aware of this her husband walked out on her, and she was suddenly faced with two young, very needy, very dependent children, no money, no income, and, no help.
She went through a terrible denial. She couldn’t even use the word retardation. She then went through fantastic anger at God, cursed him out, first he didn’t exist at all, and then he was a mean old you know what. Then she went through tremendous bargaining – if the child at least would be educatable, or at least could recognize her as a mother. Then she found some genuine meaning in having this child, and I’ll simply share with you how she finally resolved it. It began to dawn on her that nothing in life is coincidence. She tried to look at this child and tried to figure out what purpose a little vegetable-like human being has in this Earth. She found the solution, and I’m sharing this with you in the form of a poem that she wrote. She’s not a poetess, but it’s a very moving poem. She identifies with her child and talks to her godmother. And she called the poem “To My Godmother.”
What is a godmother?
I know you’re very special,
You waited many months for my arrival.
You were there and saw me when
only minutes old,
and changed my diapers when I had been there
just a few days.
You had dreams of your first godchild.
She would be precocious like your sister,
You’d see her off to school, college,
How would I turn out? A credit to those
who have me?
God had other plans for me. I’m just me.
No one ever used the word precocious about me.
Something hasn ‘t hooked up right in my mind.
I’ll be a child of God for all time.
I’m happy. I love everyone, and they love me.
There aren ‘t many words I can say,
But I can communicate and understand affection,
warmth, softness and love.
There are special people in my life.
Sometimes I sit and smile and sometimes cry,
I wonder why?
I am happy and loved by special friends.
What more could I ask for?
Oh sure, I’ll never go to college, or marry.
But don’t be sad. God made me very special.
I cannot hurt. Only love.
And maybe God needs some children who
Do you remember when I was baptized,
You held me, hoping I wouldn ‘t cry and –
you wouldn’t drop me?
Neither happened and it was a very happy day.
Is that why you are my godmother?
I know you are soft and warm, give me loves,
but there is something very special in your eyes.
I see that look and feel that love from others.
I must be special to have so many mothers.
– No, I will never be a success in the eyes of
But I promise you something very few people can.
Since all I know is love, goodness and innocence.
Eternity will be ours to share, my godmother.
This is the same mother who, a few months before, was willing to let this toddler crawl out near the swimming pool and pretend to go to the kitchen so the child would fall into the swimming pool and drown. I hope that you appreciate the change that has taken place in this mother.
This is what takes place in all of you if you are willing to always look at anything that happens in your life from both sides of the coin. There is never just one side to it. You may be terminally ill, you may have a lot of pain, you may not find somebody to talk to about them. You may feel that it’s unfair to take you away in the middle of your life, that you haven’t really started to live yet. Look at the other side of the coin.
You’re suddenly one of the few fortunate people who can throw overboard all the “baloney” that you’ve carried with you. You can go to somebody and say, “I love you,” when they can still hear it, and then they can skip the schmaltzy eulogies afterwards. Because you know that you are here for a very short
time, you can finally do the things that you really want to do. How many of you in this room, how many of you do not truly do the kind of work that you really want to do from the bottom of your heart?
You should go home and change your work. Do you know what I’m saying to you? Nobody should do something because somebody tells them they ought to do that. This is like forcing a child to learn a profession that is not its own. If you listen to your own inner voice, to your own inner wisdom, which is far greater than anybody else’s as far as you’re concerned, you will not go wrong and you will know what to do with your life. And then time is no longer relevant. After working with dying patients for many years and learning from them what life is all about, what regrets people have at the end of their life when it seems to be too late, I began to wonder what death is all about. Nobody ever defines death except in physical language — first it was no heart beat, no blood pressure, no vital signs; then it became more sophisticated and added EEG and became a several page description. But that too is not sufficient, because it only deals with the physical body.
One of my patients helped me to find out how to begin research into finding out what death really is, and with it, naturally, the question of life after death. Mrs. S had been in and out of the intensive care unit 15 times, never was expected to live, but always made a comeback. In one of her hospitalizations she could not get to Chicago, and she was hospitalized in a local hospital. She remembers being put in a private room, very close to death, and could not make up her mind whether she should call the nurse because she suddenly sensed that she was moments away from death. One part of her wanted very much to lean back in the pillows and finally be at peace. But the other part of her needed to make it through one more time because her youngest son was not yet of age. Before she made the decision to call the nurse and go through this whole rigamarole once more, a nurse apparently walked into her room, took one look at her, and dashed out.
At that moment, she saw herself floating out of her physical body, floating a few feet above her body. She was very surprised at seeing her corpse in that bed. She made some very funny remarks about how pale she looked, and then to her utter amazement, described how the resuscitation team dashed into her room. She described in minute details how they worked on her, who, was in the room first, who was in last, what they wore, what they said — she even repeated a joke of one of the residents who apparently was very apprehensive and started to joke. In the meantime while everybody worked very desperately to bring her back to physical life, she floated a few feet above her body and had only one need, one wish — to tell them down there, “Cool it, relax, take it easy, it’s OK.” Those are her own words! The more she tried, the more she realized that she could perceive absolutely everything that was going on, but they could not perceive her. And then she gave up on them. She was declared dead, and three and a half hours later she made a comeback and lived for another year and a half.
In my classroom this was our first account of a patient who had this experience. This then lead to a collection of cases from all over the world. We have hundreds of cases, from Australia to California. They all share the same common denominator. They are all fully aware of shedding their physical body. And death, as we understood it in scientific language, does not really exist. Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly coming out of a cocoon. It is a transition into a higher state of consciousness, where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, to be able to grow, and the only thing that you lose is something that you don’t need anymore, and that is your physical body. It’s like putting away your winter coat when spring comes and you know that the Coat is too shabby and you don’t want to wear it any more. That’s virtually what death is all about.
Not one of the patients who’s had this experience, was ever again afraid to die. Not one of them, in all our cases. Many of our patients also said that besides the feeling of peace and equanimity which all of them have, and the knowledge that they can perceive but not be perceived, they also have a sense of wholeness. That means that somebody who was hit by a car and had a leg amputated sees his amputated leg on the highway and then he gets out of his physical body and has both legs. One of our female patients was blinded in a laboratory explosion, and the moment she was out of her physical body she was able to see, was able to describe the whole accident and describe people who dashed into the laboratory. When she was brought back to life she was totally blind again. Do you understand why many, many of them resent our attempts to artificially bring them back when they are in a far more gorgeous, more beautiful and more perfect place?
The most impressive part, perhaps, for me, has to do with my recent work with dying children. Almost all my patients are children now. I take them home to die. I prepare the families and siblings in order to have my children die at home. The biggest fear of children is to be alone, to be lonely, not to be with someone. At that moment of this transition, you’re never, ever alone. You’re never alone now, but you don’t know it. But at the time of transition, your guides, your guardian angels, people whom you have loved and who have passed on before you, will be there to help you in this transition. We have verified this beyond any shadow of a doubt, and I say this as a scientist. There will always be someone who helps you in this transition. It is most of the time a mother or father, a grandparent, or a child if you have lost a child. It is sometimes people that you didn’t even know were “on the other side” already.
I had the most moving experience — the gift of an Indian woman who was in her nineties, who came all the way to one of my lectures in Arizona and traveled an enormous distance from her reservation to share with me this incident. I have very few incidents of Indians. They do not talk about these things, and they are my most favorite people. This woman introduced me to her daughter ~ the woman was about 90, the daughter about 70. They came together to my workshop. The 70-year old daughter told me that her sister was killed on the highway, hundreds of miles away from the reservation, by a hit and run driver. Another car stopped and the driver tried to help her. The dying woman told the stranger that he should make very very sure to tell her mother that she was all right because she was with her father, and she died after having shared that. The patient’s father had died within one hour on the reservation, hundreds of miles away from the accident scene and certainly unbeknownst to his traveling daughter.
Do you understand what I’m trying to say?
We’ve had one case of a child, a 12 year old, who did not want to share with her mother that it was such a beautiful experience when she died, because no mommy likes to hear that their children found a place that’s nicer than home, and that’s very understandable. But she had such a unique experience that she needed desperately to share it with somebody, and so one day she confided in her father. She told her father that it was such a beautiful experience when she died that she did not want to come back. What made it very special, besides the whole atmosphere and the fantastic love and light that most of them convey, was that her brother was there with her, and held her with great tenderness, love and compassion. After sharing this she said to her father, “The only problem is that I don’t have a brother,” Then the father started to cry, and confessed that she indeed did have a brother who died, I think three months before she was born and they never told her.
Do you understand why I am bringing up examples like this? Because many people say, well, you know, they were not dead, and at the moment of their dying they naturally think of their loved ones, and so they naturally visualize them. Nobody could visualize that.
I ask all my terminally ill children whom they would love to see the most, whom they would love to have by their side always, (meaning here and now, because many of them are non-believing people, and I could not talk about life after death. I do not impose that onto my patients). So I always ask my children whom would you like to have with you always, if you could choose one person? Ninety-nine percent of the children, except for Black children, say mommy and daddy. (With Black children, it is very often Aunties or Grandmas, because Aunty or Grandma are the ones who love them perhaps the most, or have the most time with them. But those are only cultural differences.) Most of the children say mommy and daddy, but not one of these children who nearly died has ever seen mommy and daddy, unless their
parents had preceded them in death.
Many people say, well this is a projection of wishful thinking. Somebody who dies is desperate, lonely, frightened, so they imagine somebody with them whom they love. If this were true, 99 percent of all my dying children, my 5, 6, 7-year olds, would see their mommies and their daddies. But not one of these children, in all these years that we’ve collected cases, when they died saw their mommies and daddies, because their mommies and daddies were still alive. The common denominator of who you are going to see is that they must have passed on before you even if it’s only one minute, and that you have genuinely loved them. That means many of my children see Jesus. A Jewish boy would not see Jesus, because a Jewish boy normally doesn’t love Jesus. These are only religious differences. The common denominator
is simply genuine love.
I have not finished telling you the story of Mrs. S and I’m going to run out of time, I’m sure. I want to add that she died two weeks after her son was of age. She was buried, and she was one of many patients of mine, and I’m sure I would have forgotten her if she had not visited me again.
Approximately ten months after she was dead and buried, I was in troubles. I’m always in troubles, but at that time I was in bigger troubles. My seminar on Death and Dying had started to deteriorate. The minister with whom I had worked and whom I loved very dearly had left. The new minister was very conscious of publicity, and it became an accredited course. Every week we had to talk about the same stuff, and it was like the famous date show. It wasn’t worth it. It was like prolonging life when it’s no longer worth living. It was something that was not me, and I decided that the only way that I could stop it was to physically leave the University of Chicago. Naturally my heart broke, because I really loved this work, but not that way. So I made the heroic decision that “I’m going to leave the University of Chicago, and today immediately after my Death and Dying seminar I’m going to give notice.” The minister and I had a ritual. After the seminar we would go to the elevator, I would wait for his elevator to come, we would finish business talk, he would leave, and I would go back to my office, which was on the same floor at the end of a long hallway.
The minister’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t hear; that was just another of my grievances. And so, between the classroom and the elevator, I tried three times to tell him that it’s all his, that I’m leaving. He didn’t hear me. He kept talking about something else. I got very desperate, and when I’m desperate I become very active. Before the elevator arrived — he was a huge guy — I finally grabbed his collar, and I said, “You are gonna stay right here. I have made a horribly important decision, and I want you to know what it is.” I really felt like a hero to be able to do that. He didn’t say anything. At this moment a woman appeared in front of the elevator.
I stared at this woman. I cannot tell you how this woman looked, but you can imagine what it’s like when you see somebody that you know terribly well, but you suddenly block out who it is. I said to him, “God, who is this? I know this woman, and she’s staring at me; she’s just waiting until you go into the elevator, and then she’ll come.” I was so preoccupied with who she was I forgot that I tried to grab him. She stopped that. She was very transparent, but not transparent enough that you could see very much behind her. Tasked him once more, and he didn’t tell me who it was, and I gave up on him. The last thing I said to him was kind of, “To heck, I’m going over and tell her I just cannot remember her name.” That was my last thought before he left.
The moment he entered the elevator, this woman walked straight towards me and said, “Dr. Ross, I had to come back. Do you mind if I walk you to your office? It will only take two minutes.” Something like this. And because she knew where my office was, and she knew my name, 1 was kind of safe, I didn’t have to admit that I didn’t know who she was. This was my longest path I ever had in my whole life. I am a psychiatrist. I work with schizophrenic patients all the time, and I love them. When they had visual hallucinations I told them a thousand times, “I know you see that Madonna on the wall, but I don’t see it.” I said to myself, “Elisabeth, I know you see this woman, but that can’t be.”
Do you understand what I’m doing? All the way from the elevator to my office I did reality testing on me. I said, “I’m tired, I need a vacation. I think I’ve seen too many schizophrenic patients. I’m beginning to see things. I have to touch her, if she’s real.” I even touched her skin to see if it was cold or warm, or if the skin would disappear when I touched it. It was the most incredible walk I have ever taken, but not knowing all the way why I am doing what I am doing. I was both an observing psychiatrist and a patient. I was everything at one time. I didn’t know why I did what I did, or who I thought she was. I even repressed the thought that this could actually be: Mrs. S who had died and was buried months ago, When we reached my door, she opened the door like I’m a guest in my own house. She opened the door with this incredible kindness and tenderness and love and she said, “Dr. Ross, I had to come back for two reasons. One is to thank you and Reverend Gaines . . .’ (he was that beautiful Black minister with whom I had this super ideal symbiosis.) “To thank you and him for what you did for me. But the real reason why I had to come back is that you cannot stop this work on death and dying, not yet.” I looked at her, and I don’t know if I thought by then, “It could be Mrs. S.” I mean, this woman was buried for ten months and I didn’t believe in all that stuff. I finally got to my desk. I touched everything that was real. I touched my pen, my desk, and my chair, and it’s real, you know, hoping that she would disappear. But she didn’t disappear, she just stood there and stubbornly but lovingly said, “Dr. Ross, do you hear me? Your work is not finished. We will help you, and you will know when the time is right, but do not stop now, promise.” I thought, “My God, nobody would ever believe me if I told about this, even to my dearest friend.” Little did I know I would say this to several hundred people. Then the scientist in me won, and I said to her something very shrewd, and a real big fat lie, I said to her, “You know Reverend Gaines is in Urbana now.” (This was true; he had taken over a church there.) I said, “He would just love to have a note from you. Would you mind?” And I gave her a piece of paper and a pencil. You understand, I had no intention of sending this note to my friend, but I needed scientific proof. I mean, somebody who’s buried can’t write little love letters. And this woman, with the most human, no, not human, most loving smile, knowing every thought I had — and I knew, it was thought transference if I’ve ever experienced it — took this paper and wrote this note, which we naturally have framed in glass and treasure dearly. Then she said, but without words, she said, “Are you satisfied now?” I looked at her and thought, I will never be able to share this with anybody, but I am going to really hold onto this. Then she got up, ready to leave, repeating: “Dr. Ross, you promise,” implying not to give up this work yet. 1 said, “I promise.” And the moment I said, “I promise,” she disappeared.
We still have her note.
My time is running out. I wanted to share with you many other things. I was told a year and a half ago that my work with dying patients is finished — there are many people that can carry on now — that this was not my real job, why I’m on the Earth. The whole whole work with death and dying was simply a testing ground for me, to see if I can take hardship, abuse, and resistance and whatnot. And I passed that. The second test was to see if I can take fame. And that didn’t affect me, so I passed that too. But the real job is, and that’s why I need your help, to tell people that death does not exist. It is very important that mankind knows that, because we are at the beginning of a very difficult time. Not only for this country, for the whole planet Earth. Because of our own destructiveness. Because of the nuclear weapons. Because of our greediness and materialism. Because we are piggish in terms of ecology, because we have destroyed so many, many natural resources, and because we have lost all genuine spirituality. I’m exaggerating, but not too much. The only thing that will bring about the change into a new age is that the Earth is shaken, that we are shaken, and we’re going to be shaken. We have already seen the beginning
You have to know not to be afraid of that. Only if you keep a very, very open channel, an open mind, and no fear, will great insight and revelations come to you. They can happen to all of you in this room. You do not have to take a guru, you do not have to go to India, you don’t even have to take a TM course. You don’t have to do anything except learn to get in touch in silence within yourself, which doesn’t cost one penny. Get in touch with your own inner self, and learn not to be afraid. And one way to not be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose. Get rid of all your negativity and begin to view life as a challenge, a testing ground of your own inner resources and strength.
There is no coincidence. God is not a punitive nasty God. After you make the transition, then you come to what was described as hell and heaven. That is not a right interpretation of the judgment, however. What we hear from our friends who passed over, from people who came back to share with us, is that every human being, after this transition (which is peace and equanimity and wholeness and a loving someone who helps you in the transition), each one of you is going to have to face something that looks very much like a television screen, where you are given an opportunity — not to be judged by a judgmental God — but to judge yourself. By having to review every single action, every word and every thought of your life. You make your own hell, or your own heaven, by the way you live.