“From where I sit today in the flower-filled living room of my home in Scottsdale, Arizona, the past seventy years of my life look extraordinary. As a little girl raised in Switzerland, I could never, not in my wildest dreams—and they were pretty wild—have predicted one day winding up the world-famous author of On Death and Dying, a book whose exploration of life’s final passage threw me into the center of a medical and theological controversy. Nor could I have imagined that afterward I would spend the rest of my life explaining that death does not exist.1
“According to my parents, I was supposed to have been a nice, church-going Swiss housewife. Instead I ended up an opinionated psychiatrist, author and lecturer in the American Southwest, who communicates with spirits from a world that I believe is far more loving and glorious than our own. I think modern medicine has become like a prophet offering a life free of pain. It is nonsense. The only thing I know that truly heals people is unconditional love.”2
While reading, The Wheel of Life…A Memoir of Living and Dying, I created a list of “positive qualities” and “patterns of imbalance” as a way to begin observing Elisabeth’s character type. My list consisted of words or phrases Elisabeth used to describe her Self as well as my own choice of words expressing the impressions I received through reading her memoir. Opinionated, unconventional, independent, stubborn, unusual enthusiasm, workaholic, obsessed, energetic, and defiant are some of the words Elisabeth used to describe herself, while my list included idealistic, committed, persevering, willful, rebellious, compassionate, determined, unwavering, service-oriented, forceful, profoundly focused, and soulful.
Once I’d finished reading the book, I sat quietly on several occasions, reflecting upon the lists I’d made. Each time, I felt the essence of Vervain forcing itself in front of Oak, in front of Elm, in front of Sunflower, wanting to be certain that I recognized, without any doubt, that no other essence would more perfectly reflect Elisabeth’s personality and life journey.
In a moment of further exploration of the possibility of Sunflower, Oak, or Elm as Elisabeth’s archetypal essence, Vervain’s essence was palpable within my body, insisting I was wasting my time considering these other three essences, insisting I follow its lead, insisting that I would be better off for it, and that in so doing, I’d have the best possible understanding of Elisabeth AND of Vervain, leaving me with an ideal outcome, no doubt about it. Vervain was right!
In the Flower Essence Repertory by Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz, it states that Vervain persons have “very little connection to the physical body or to the physical world because they live so fervently in the world of ideas and ideals.”7 Being the first born of triplets and weighing a fragile two pounds, Elisabeth’s earliest days reflected the challenge of her relationship with her physical body, a challenge that would follow her throughout her entire life. Frequently favoring her high ideals, she often sacrificed the needs of her body for a cause she considered greater…for those who were suffering. This relationship between her ideals and her body is powerfully reflected in the following statement she made about treating those traumatized during the Normandy invasion, “I completely lost myself in the necessary work and gave little thought to my own well-being when others were so much worse. Meals became afterthoughts. Sleep? Who had time? I crawled home after midnight and started again the next day at dawn.”8
The profound intensity and intolerant behavior often present in Vervain personalities were no strangers to Elisabeth, but rather, were a deeply rooted companion of hers at an early age. This intensity is vividly expressed in the following story from her memoirs in which she forcefully confronted the pastor of her mandatory weekly religious studies in grade school for behavior she was utterly unwilling to tolerate from him. (Note: It was common knowledge to her and her classmates that the pastor abused his own children each morning before they attended school.)
“He fell out of my favor, as did religion in general, the day my sister Eva was asked to recite a Psalm. We had memorized the Psalm the previous week. My sister knew it perfectly. But before she finished, the girl next to her coughed. Pastor R. mistakenly thought that she had whispered the Psalm into my sister’s ear. Without asking any questions, he grabbed each of their braids and bashed their head together. The crack of their bones produced a sound that made the entire class shudder.9
After telling her story in front of the school board, while staring directly at Pastor R., she was officially excused from his classes. Additionally, she requested that her sister be excused as well, and her request was granted.
By the sixth grade, Elisabeth had a dream of becoming a doctor. When her father suggested at that time that she would grow up to work in his office as a secretary, she did not hesitate to let her stance be known, “No, thank you!”11 she snapped, and she meant it. By 20 years old, she was certain her destiny was to help others somewhere in “the desert of human suffering.”12 Her unconventional viewpoints and convictions became the solid foundation and motivation for her innovative approach and unwavering commitment to comforting those in pain throughout her life.
As unorthodox as her allegiance to treating the sick and terminally ill with genuine care and love was, it was also popular, particularly amongst medical students, nurses, priests, rabbis and social workers. Vervain’s offerings of grounded idealism and leadership ability were recognized in 1969 by the Lutheran Seminary of Chicago when they invited Elisabeth to join their faculty because they believed she could “show us what real ministry means in practical terms.”13 Her unique approach to dealing with the dying process left her in high demand.
“The greatest gift God has granted us is free will. It places responsibility for making the highest possible choices on our shoulders.”14
The Flower Essence Repertory says of Vervain, “When the fiery light of Vervain radiates through the medium of the body and the physical world, it becomes more luminous and contained. Such soul ardor is able to inspire, lead, and heal others.”15 Elisabeth is warmly remembered for all three of these Vervain qualities; for the thousands of hearts she set free and brought healing to by assisting them in externalizing their feelings as they faced the end of their life, and for being a leader and an inspiration in the field of hospice care specifically through her introduction of, and work with, the now famous five stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
From the Flower Essence Repertory on Vervain: “However, they can become so convinced of the rightness and urgency of their beliefs that their natural charismatic capacities degenerate into those of the zealot or fanatic. Their true leadership ability is afflicted, for the Vervain type’s incredible intensity can overwhelm and prevent others from making their own energetic connection to the project or cause which is being promoted.”16 Later in her life, Elisabeth became interested in life after death, mediumism, out-of-body experiences, spiritualism and contacting the dead. Many, including her husband, considered her interest in these topics fanatical, reflecting once again, the imbalance of Vervain. The strong reactions of her colleagues and her loved ones did not stop her from further exploration, and her faith in these topics grew ever stronger, resulting in her husband filing for a divorce, and later, to a scandal in which she was betrayed by a medium she had trusted deeply.
In the final years of her life, Elisabeth had accomplished what she had considered the greatest teachings consistently bestowed upon her by the dying:
“At seventy-one years old, I can say that I have truly lived. After starting out as a ‘two-pound nothing’ who was not expected to survive, I spent most of my life battling the Goliath-sized forces of ignorance and fear.”18
After a series of strokes that left her completely dependent upon others, it was still possible to hear her solidly grounded idealism and her assuredness that she had lived the best life possible.
“The only benefit to making such a slow approach to life’s final passage has been the time it offers for contemplation. I suppose it is appropriate that after counseling so many dying patients I should have time to reflect on death now that the one I face is my own. There is a poetry to it, a slight tension, like a pause in a courtroom drama where the defendant is given the chance to confess. Fortunately, I have nothing new to admit. My death will come to me like a warm embrace. As I have long said, life in a physical body is a very short span of one’s total existence.”19
“EVERYTHING IS BEARABLE WHEN THERE IS LOVE.”20
“MY WISH IS THAT YOU TRY TO GIVE MORE PEOPLE MORE LOVE.”21
“THE ONLY THING THAT LIVES FOREVER IS LOVE.”22
I must conclude this character study on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross by pausing in this precious Life moment to thank her for enriching my life with her transparency and conviction; for encouraging me by living her own Truth at all costs; for her example of breaking through walls of fear with her commitment to Love. Though I did not have the experience of meeting her while she was here on Earth, our spirits have met through this character study, and through the unmistakable essence of Vervain, and I am forever changed.
1 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, The Wheel of Life, p.15
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, The Wheel of Life…A Memoir of Living and Dying, Touchstone Press, New York, NY, 1997.
Images of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in order from top to bottom courtesy of:
Image of Vervain: by Julian Barnard & Flower Essence Society, Affirm-A-Flower Cards of Dr. Bach’s Flowers.
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