Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Releasing the Butterfly

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Releasing the Butterfly

The following post is from Sandy Coghlan’s blog “Heaven Knows…” and is reposted with permission. The original can be viewed HERE.

Butterfly on Flower
Photo: Aaron Burden

“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 Kübler-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.

Butterfly on Flower
Photo: Ray Hennessy

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!

Butterfly on Flower
Photo: Katarzyna Urbanek

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.

Photo: Aaron Burden

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.”
Butterflies on Flowers
Photo: Karina Vorozheeva

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”!

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

Sandy Coghlan

Sandy Coghlan worked in advertising and television in Australia and London prior to becoming an on-air director at a Melbourne TV station in 1979. Her first book, Travel Guide to Tasmania (Penguin) was commissioned by ‘Life. Be In It’ in 1984, while her articles on health and metaphysical subjects have been published nationally. From 1990 until retirement, Sandy qualified in a variety of alternative therapies, and in 1991, wrote and conducted a nutrition correspondence course for pharmacy assistants around Australia. She also taught creative writing and healing techniques at adult education centers. Sandy now lives with her partner Barry and their 2 cats in a bayside area of Victoria, Australia and is working on the second book in the Heaven Knows series.


  1. Barbara Ancelet

    I’ve been aware of Dr. Ross’s work since it was first published and have followed her since the beginning. She and Raymond Moody have provided so much comfort to me throughout my life and especially when my oldest child was killed. I’ll be forever grateful for Dr. Ross. She was a pioneer in this field and very brace to continue on in spite of much negativity. I was attending Northwestern when she taught at University of Wisconsin, where my cousin, a social worker, took her class on Death and Dying.

  2. Pranab Basu

    I have been privileged to be associated with EKRF .I completed the education series,” The Essence of Caring for the Dying and the Grieving. I am attending the education series, “Compassionate Bereavement Approaches”. Dr Ross’s book On Death and Dying”and On Grief and Grieving are in my home library. I am interested in death and dying, I counsel the bereaved family after losing the loved one. I have lost my beloved wife with cancer and was the sole caregiver , learnt a lot as I believe that patient is a good teacher and how to cope with the grief which is everlasting, only to divert oneself being involved in activities dedicated to the service of Palliative care to the human being in need. I am excited to know life after death and after life.

  3. I held both my parents hand to their last breath and witnessed the transition from one world to another. As a young child, I experiencing many strange paranormal events, so I am well aware there is a life after physical death. I have followed Dr Moody, DR Ross and yourself and commend all of you for your excellent work in this field.

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