Elisabeth Kübler-Ross made it her life's work helping people deal with death.
In her pioneering 1969 book, "On Death and Dying," she defined and laid out the five stages of grief that terminal patients experience as they approach death – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
But Kübler-Ross' main goal was to provide a framework to deal with the emotions that come from loss and to free people to live a full life.
The Swiss-born psychiatrist lived and worked in war-torn Europe through World War II as a teenager and in the years afterward as a medical student, before moving to the United States. Her experiences not only gave her extraordinary insight into the realities of those facing death, but also shaped her thinking about the end of life and focused her career on helping the terminally ill and their families.
"Death taught her how to live. You can't live without facing the reality of death, because it's a part of living," said her son, Ken Ross, a photographer who travels the world capturing different cultures and ways of life. His 2002 book, "Real Taste of Life," featured his photography and thoughts on his mother's work.
"Back then, no one was talking about death. Everyone is going to experience it, but no one knew how to face it," he said. "When this woman started to have some answers, every ethnic group around the world wanted to hear from her. People wanted to know how to deal with death."
So, Ross traveled the globe with his mother as she helped people understand how to guide both the terminally ill and their loved ones through difficult times.
"My mother exposed me to things to allow me to find my own path. She didn't say, 'I want to tell you about religion.' She'd take me to a church, but it would be in Brazil. She'd take me to a (traditional) healer in Alaska. She would take me to a witch doctor in Zimbabwe," Ross said.
Through those experiences, he developed an interest in diverse cultures and started to capture them with his camera lens. He's shot photos in 92 countries, while continuing to work with the foundation named for his mother, the nonprofit, volunteer-based Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation.
In early June, the Kübler-Ross Library opened at the Andrew and Eula Carlos Hospice Atlanta Center, a 36-bed inpatient facility in Buckhead that is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016. Hospice Atlanta is a division of Visiting Nurse Health System, Georgia's largest nonprofit home health and hospice care provider.
The library opening was part of a daylong celebration that recognized the impact that Hospice Atlanta Center has made on thousands of families in the past two decades. The Kübler-Ross Library, which is now open to visitors, also features a display of Kübler-Ross' written works, books she loved to read and gifts she received over the years, her son said.
Leaving a legacy
More than a decade after Kübler-Ross' death at 78 years old, her message persists: Death is a normal part of life.
"It's about living until you die; it's not about dying," said Barbara Moore, manager of support services for the grief and bereavement team for Visiting Nurse’s Hospice Atlanta.
Different people cope better with different types of bereavement programs, so Visiting Nurse offers support by phone, in-person counseling, literature about grieving, support groups and presentations on the grieving process. Thousands of local residents have benefited from the grief and bereavement resources Visiting Nurse offers, which can be found on the organization's website and in person at Hospice Atlanta Center.
Camp STARS, which are donor-supported bereavement camps for families run by Visiting Nurse and held at Camp Twin Lakes, shows how important it is even for children to deal with a death. The twice-a-year-camps allow adults and children to work through grief, sharing their experiences with other families and processing their loss.
"The kids who struggle the most at Camp were not allowed to see their parent or sibling at the end," Moore said.
Heather Andrews has volunteered at Camp STARS as a bereavement counselor for 14 years, working with 5- to 7-year-olds.
"The main thing I have witnessed, as a child who has lost a parent, is that the kids may be the only child in their school, church or extended family with a death in their immediate family," said Andrews. "Camp gives them an opportunity to interact with a group of people who all share a loss. There is power in shared experiences – and in that connection, we see amazing things happen."
Chandelle Lawrence, bereavement coordinator for Visiting Nurse, advises clients to actively deal with their grief in order to have some control over the grieving process. "If you don't deal with a loss now, you will eventually," Lawrence said. "Another loss will expose the untreated emotional wound, leaving two losses to grieve at once."
Grief isn't a linear healing process, though. "It comes and goes; it ebbs and flows," she said. With that in mind, Lawrence offers five techniques for processing grief:
1. Create a Good Day/Bad Day calendar: Use a regular wall calendar to mark off the days in one of three colors representing a good, bad or intermediate day.
"In the beginning, people will find most of the days are in the 'bad day' color," Lawrence said. "Over time, a person notices more intermediate days sprinkled in. As even more time passes, the person will start to see a few good days.
"It's a good, tangible way to see that you are starting to heal, even if you don't feel that way most of the time," she said.
2. Schedule an appointment with grief: Keeping it together all day long may seem impossible, especially when there's no end in sight. But setting aside a time to cry, such as 7 to 8 p.m. each evening, helps you to stay focused until that time.
"It can be really intimidating to return to work and worry that you are going to lose it at your desk or in a meeting," Lawrence said.
By making an appointment every day to allow yourself to think about that person and to cry, it can be empowering because you don't have to worry that grief will show up whenever.
"Grief has an appointment time," she said.
You might also make sure that another person is nearby to help you if you struggle to end the grieving session.
3. Look for triggers: Identify the experiences or situations that make you suddenly emotional, and write them down.
"There are obvious triggers, like the holidays. But then there are going to be some triggers that take you completely by surprise. Understanding them will help you prepare for them," Lawrence said.
An unexpected meltdown, like tearing up in the grocery store, can be embarrassing and make a person feel helpless. Understanding the trigger gives the power back, however, and allows you to know what's coming. If you notice several unexpected bad days on the calendar, an unrecognized trigger might be throwing off your progress. Explore what's getting to you, so that you can understand it.
4. Plan for holidays: During those special times, recognize the person who is missing.
"We all know something is different, and ignoring it isn't going to change that," Lawrence said.
While some families may opt to radically change holiday traditions during a time of grief, she advises other clients to place an empty chair at the table and share memories of the departed. You may have an object – like a small Christmas tree – for family members to hang symbols of their memories as they speak them. This creates a tribute to the person who has died and provides a physical way to symbolize their impact on the family.
5. Make a change: Even something that is not a drastic gesture can be worthwhile. Lawrence suggests clients paint the bathroom a different color, because that's usually the smallest room in the house.
"Even a small change in your life can signal to you that something has changed, that you are moving on," she said. "The first time you experience an event, anniversary or activity without a loved one, it's going to be tough. But making a small change starts to get you accustomed to doing something different."
In his photography, Ross seeks to capture the images of life and the lessons of death in a single place as a tribute to this mother.
"My mother was the 'Death and Dying' lady and wanted to be the life and living lady. She taught people to live, and my photos capture life pretty thoroughly," he said. "I have an appreciation that death is inevitable, but I should live life fully and in that way you shouldn't fear death."
This article is presented in collaboration with Visiting Nurse Health System. Visit vnhs.org for more information about Georgia's largest nonprofit home health and hospice care provider.