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Life Lessons: Summary and Notes

Book Reviews

Authenticity, love, relationships, loss, power, guilt, time, fear, anger, play, patience, surrender, forgiveness, and happiness.

According to two of the foremost experts on death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, these are the lessons that life has to teach us. If we don’t learn them during the experience of living, we will have to face them during the process of dying. With this book, they aim to share the wisdom they have learned from those who are struggling to come to terms with the end of their lives (including Elisabeth herself).

Life Lessons was between a three and a four star read for me. It wasn’t one of those books where I feel completely overwhelmed or blown away by the new ideas and applications I’m learning, but at the same time, there is a subtle elegance and efficiency to this book, in driving home, with touching examples, many of the lessons we all “know” — but so often fail to follow. For the gentle and effective (and oh-so-necessary) reminders, I want to give this book a four. Yet, there was an underlying sense that much of this information is already out there – we know it, we hear it… we just fail to apply it. Also, there was also a lot of “God” throwing (“give to God”, “God has a plan”, etc) for a non-religious book, which may be helpful for some, but meaningless for others.

Nonetheless, it was a good reminder that our time on earth is limited, that we don’t know when that time will be up, and that we really should do those things we know we should do, to appreciate the time we have.

As with The Obstacle is The Way and with The Power of Kindness, I’m going to summarize my key takeaways from each segment. I will refer to the authors mostly as “they”, as they co-wrote the majority of the book, but there are some segments where one or the other speaks directly.


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Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Life Lessons:
Two Experts on Death & Dying
Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life & Living


Kübler-Ross talks of how we all adopt roles that are not who we truly are. These roles may be forced upon us in childhood, or by social circumstances or other people, or they might be ones we intentionally adopt… attempting to be someone or something we are not. Even if we want to be a perpetually sweet and loving person, we may discover that it isn’t who we actually are, and our attempts to be supernice every moment of every single day are inauthentic (or, as Kübler-Ross would say, “being a phony-baloney”). Of course, this shouldn’t mean we don’t try to improve over time, or that we are intentionally cruel to others. But we need to be honest with ourselves about who we truly are at this moment, and allow ourselves to just be who we are.

When we take stock of who we are, underneath all the hats we try to wear, we may find that we selected those roles out of fear, to win approval, or to feel stronger/better than others. We may realize we were just deceiving and manipulating others into seeing a picture of what we wanted ourselves to be, rather than letting them get to know who we really are. And when we drop the pretense, and accept ourselves (in both our flaws and our glories), we can truly connect with others, too.

“We think sometimes we’re only drawn to the good, but we’re actually drawn to the authentic. We like people who are real more than those who hide their true selves under layers of artificial niceties. (P17, emphasis mine)


Love is:

  • accepting people for who they are, and not what we want them to be;
  • being with them through the tough times, even if we can’t “fix” things for them or “make” them happy;
  • and choosing to give love freely, without measuring the love we receive in return.

Love is something we do, not something we receive.

“If we measure love received, we will never feel loved. Instead, we will feel shortchanged. Not because we really were, but because the act of measuring is not an act of love. When you feel unloved, it is not because you are not receiving love; it is because you are withholding love.” (P22)


All relationships — whether lifelong or brief, romantic or otherwise — are areas where love can flow, and they all have lessons to teach us.

Just as we don’t automatically become eternally satisfied when we achieve a current goal, or become unendingly happy when we purchase an item we desire, so too will we not suddenly become whole and complete if we find a romantic partner. If we desire more, deeper, or different relationships in our lives, we should focus not on the wanting of them, but rather on improving ourselves.

“Instead of trying to find someone to love, let’s make ourselves more worthy of being loved. Instead of trying to get the partners we already have to love us more, let’s become worthier of being loved. And let’s ask ourselves if we are giving as much love as we wish to get, or if we expect people to love us dearly even if we’re not so lovable and giving.” (P45)


“There’s an old Jewish saying that if you dance at a lot of weddings, you’ll cry at a lot of funerals.” (P58)

As much as we’d like to avoid it, loss is an essential part of our lives. It can change us, harden us, bring out our inner strength, make us more compassionate, or turn us bitter. The reality is, though, it is our reaction to our losses that shapes us. No one on this earth escapes it without experiencing loss, but it does not affect each person equally. In the pain of loss, it is good to remind ourselves that we are hurting so greatly because we were so lucky to have what we lost.

“Just as there is no good without bad, or light without dark, there is no growth without loss. And odd though it may sound, there also is no loss without growth.” (P60)

It is important to understand that grief is a very individual process. Just as the body heals itself over time from a physical wound (and does so without your telling the cells individually to regrow), so, too, does the process of healing occur in our minds and hearts over time. Whatever you currently feel about your loss is what you are supposed to feel, and it is never for us to tell someone else how they should be handling their loss or carrying out their healing. Sometimes, grief may even wait for years after a loss, until we are capable of addressing it, and suddenly arise with full force as if the loss had just happened.

“Whether loss is complicated or not, we will all heal in our own time and in our own way. No one can ever tell us we should have been healed by now, or that the process is going too rapidly. Grief is always individualized. As long as we are moving through life and have not become stuck, we are healing.” (P69)


No matter what circumstances affect our life, we can choose how we respond, and that is our power.

“We give our power away when we become concerned with other people’s opinions. To recapture this power, remember that this is your life. What matters is what you think. You don’t have the power to make them happy, but you do have the power to make yourself happy. You can’t control what they think; in fact, you can rarely influence it much at all. … Let it go. Take back your power. Form your own opinion of yourself. (P81, emphasis mine)


Guilt can be a healthy guide — one that keeps us within the boundaries of our personal ethics and prevents us from harming others. Unfortunately, it can also be an unhealthy strain on the way we relate to the world, and the way we see ourselves.

“Our guilt so often comes from our childhood because we were raised to be “prostitutes.” This sounds harsh, but it’s true. Obviously, in using the word prostitute I am talking about how, as children, we symbolically sell ourselves for the affection of others. We are usually taught to be good little boys and girls, tending to the wishes of others rather than forming strong identities for ourselves. We’re not really encouraged to be independent or interdependent. We’re trained to be codependent, making others’ needs and lives important and neglecting our own.” (P88)

We must be able to say “no” to others — even to those we love. It is important to realize that other people’s happiness doesn’t rest on our shoulders, and that we shouldn’t carry any guilt for “failing” to provide happiness for others. We must remind ourselves that they are capable human beings who must find their own happiness.

And, on the flip side of the coin, it is important not to use guilt to force others to try to make us happy.  Just as we cannot bear the burden of other people’s happiness, we cannot ask them to bear that burden for us.


“…this moment can be robbed by your past and future. You have no idea what a better experience you would have if you let go of the past, at this moment, to focus on this moment, to fully experience it and really live your life.” (P104)

Time has a strange effect on our perspective. When time has passed, we often see people, events, and ourselves as we see the stars — an old impression of what was, rather than what is, today. We hold on to outdated views of the people we’ve known for years, rather than seeing them as they are now. We apply judgment or bias to events, because they remind us of older, similar events that were either good or bad for us — in the past. And we see ourselves as a conglomeration of ideas and experiences that we have collected throughout a lifetime… a narrative we have spent years building… but we don’t stop and ask ourselves who we actually are — in this very moment — and whether or not that old narrative serves us anymore.

Being present — being authentically who we are right now (not who we want to be, or how we see ourselves), and seeing others as who they truly are right now (not how we wish they were, or as a character we’ve constructed from our history with them) — is all that we can do in the face of being allotted a random amount of time on this earth. We cannot decide when we leave this world, but we can ensure that we greet each moment with honesty, curiosity, openness, and gratitude — because each of these individual moments *is* our life.

“As hard as it may be to accept, the reality is that we don’t die before our time. When we die, it is our time. Our challenge is to fully experience this moment–and it’s a great challenge. To know that this instant contains all the possibilities for happiness and love and not lose those possibilities in expectations of what the future should look like. And putting aside our sense of anticipation we can live in the sacred space of what is happening now.” (P107)


Fear (like guilt) can be healthy in small doses. It can keep us from getting into trouble… but it can also hold us back from living our most fulfilling lives.

“Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible and, in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away. Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid. We became old and ill without ever trying or secret passions, finding our true work, or becoming the people we’d like to be. If we did the things we are longing to do, we would still be old and Ill one day–but we would not be filled with regrets. We would not be ending a life half-lived. Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of. To transcend fear, though, we must move somewhere else emotionally: we must move into love.” (P118)

On a personal note: while I don’t believe in the “quit your day job immediately, and only ever do what you love” motivational message (see So Good They Can’t Ignore You for an excellent discussion of the process of transitioning successfully into meaningful work), I think it is a shame that so many people spend their free hours watching tv or scrolling on their phones, when so much else exists in the world… activities, people, and experiences that could bring so much more fulfillment and meaning. Yes, it can be scary putting yourself out there… but scarier still coming to the end of your days with a life un-lived.  So you have to pay the bills with your day job, but you wish you could be a musical theater star? Why not pick up some weekend gigs singing at local bars? It may not pay the bills, but looking forward to your Friday night gig may put a smile on your face during that boring Thursday morning meeting.  ;P

The authors argue a point in this chapter that may end up being my most important takeaway from this book:

“Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment–we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear, anger, hate, anxiety, and guilt.” (P118)

“All of our invented fears involve either the past or the future; only love is in the present. Now is the only real moment we have, and love is the only real emotion because it’s the only one that occurs in the present moment. Fear is always based on something that happened in the past and causes us to be afraid or something we think may happen in the future. To live in the present, then, is to live in love, not fear.” (P119)

“Kindness always overcomes fear. That’s how you beat it; it is no match for love.” (P116)

It all boils down to this:  Life is just about love. Burning away our bitterness, anger, hate, resentment, and fear… and choosing to risk being hurt by others, or by failing in an activity we love, because loving is the only worthwhile thing in this life.


Many of us hold onto anger, because we feel we have no socially acceptable areas to vent that anger, and oftentimes, because of a guilt-based drive to be perfect for others’ benefit. But if we don’t deal with that anger, it can turn into rage (and then, the authors say, to screaming at other people… which ends poorly for everyone involved).

The dying aren’t afraid to be honest about concepts like being scared or mad. If we could bring some of that courage and frankness into our lives now, instead of waiting until we are faced more imminently with our mortality, we could live with greater authenticity. And by circumventing the build up of unacknowledged fears and disappointments, we take away their power to control us.


“The number one regret people have when they look back on their lives is “I wish I had not taken life so seriously.”” (P138)

A brush with death will often remind people how short-sighted it is to be caught up in a mentality of “productivity at all costs.” Sadly, we are encouraged by society as a whole to be successful and productive, but rarely (as adults) to be creative, silly, and playful. But when our life is at it’s end, are we going to be happier about that perfectly completed Excel spreadsheet… or that time we sat around with friends all night, singing karaoke, laughing, and sharing stories?

“Playing is our inner joy, outwardly expressed. It can be laughing, singing, dancing, swimming, hiking, cooking, running, playing a game, or anything else we have fun doing. Playing makes all aspects of life more meaningful and enjoyable. Work becomes more satisfying, our relationships improve. Play makes us feel younger, more positive. It’s one of the first things children learn how to do; it’s natural and instinctive. Isn’t it sad that most lives have so little pure playtime?” (P140)


We tend not to know how to accept and be with situations as they are… especially if a situation is unpleasant. The authors say, “We feel we have to change it, make it better, we don’t think things will be okay if they’re left alone.” (P155)

But, as much as we may wish for it, we are not omnipotent beings who can shape our environments and interactions to our will. There are many… infinitely many… things in life that we will not be able to change or fix, and we must learn to sit with them, as they are.

“If something is not changeable, try to see it as not broken. Try to find a little faith in the process and the unfolding of things. Despite our belief that things need our assistance, most of the amazing things that happen in the world occur without our help, interference, or assistance. We don’t have to tell the cells in our bodies to divide, we don’t have to tell a cut to heal. There is a power in the world. Trust that all things are moving toward the good, even when we don’t recognize or see it.” (P159)


“Refusing to accept situations we cannot change exhausts us, strips us of our power and peace of mind. We take back our power and regain peace of mind when we let things be as they are. We are, in effect, saying, “I am going to be happy right now. I’m not going to put it off.”” (P171)

Of course, surrender is not meant for things that are within your power to improve. Certainly, you don’t have to surrender yourself to the concept that your fitness will decline as you age, or that you’ll always be a poor communicator… surrender is for those situations that are bigger than us, where our personal power and effort could never sway the outcome, no matter how hard we tried. In those moments, it is choosing to acknowledge our limitations, and find happiness in the ways and places we can.

This has been a difficult lesson for me, personally. Friends would tell me to “just let it go” or be happy within the parameters of certain circumstances, and I could not. I would ask them HOW I was supposed to let it go, and they couldn’t provide an answer other than “just do it.” But I simply did not have the ability to find peace in discomfort. While this is not covered in the book, my personal experience with surrender has been helped greatly by taking yoga classes. I believe strongly in the connection of mind and body… where the body goes, so too goes the mind (and vice versa). When I learned to find stillness and calm in the middle of very uncomfortable yoga poses, willingly staying in the discomfort and focusing on how I could calm and slow my breathing, rather than electing to back out of the pose and let myself off the hook, then I learned, too, how to better sit in stillness with many of the unfixable discomforts of life, and to begin to find my peace with them.


“Forgiveness offers us much, including that sense of wholeness we are sure was permanently taken from us by the offender. It offers us a freedom to again be who we are.” (P178)

We all know that forgiveness is important for our own health and peace of mind, yet it can be so hard to do. The authors advise us to take a step back from the narrative we are creating in our minds (me = victim; them = villain), and see the whole picture:

“When children do wrong, we see their fear, their confusion, their lack of knowledge. We see them as human. But as adults we tend to see those who hurt us as what they did to us. They become one-dimensional characters defined only by the pain they have caused. The first step in forgiving is to see them as human beings again. (P180, emphasis mine)

Oftentimes, we are just as cruel (or crueler) in our judgments of ourselves.  We should keep in mind:

“A key to forgiving ourselves is realizing that we would have done things differently if we had seen a better way. No one decides, “Oh, this would be a good mistake to make” or “I’ll do this because it will make me feel really bad about hurting someone.” We thought we were doing the right thing, which is why we must forgive ourselves for not knowing everything. And even if we did hurt someone intentionally, it was probably because we were in pain. If we could have made better choices, we probably would have. (P185, emphasis mine)


“In reality, happy people are the least self-absorbed and self-centered among us. They often volunteer their time and provide service to others, they are often kinder, more loving, forgiving, and caring then their unhappy counterparts. Being unhappy leads to selfish behavior, while happiness expands our capacity to give. True happiness is not the result of an event, it does not depend on circumstance. You, not what’s going on around you, determine your happiness.” (P189)

Happiness is not a reaction to an event. It is a state of mind that we cultivate, despite our circumstances.  I personally have found Mr Money Mustache’s views on happiness quite helpful in this process.

Happiness achieved by some conquest (title, status, financial or material gain, etc) is always short lived, and hedonic adaptation will always (in time) reset us to our default happiness level. While that sounds daunting in some ways (even achieving my dream job/vacation/partner/house won’t make me happy?), it is actually quite liberating, because it means that we can find, cultivate, and maintain happiness right now, in this moment, as we are… and do so (as many of the terminally ill patients in the book did) even amidst the direst of circumstances.


While I summarized some of my takeaways here, each person will get something unique out of this lovely book.  For all the lessons in detail, and the examples that make this book so powerful, check out: Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living.


Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

Moving right along with #nonficbingo2018!  Four books down so far, and 32 yet to go…

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 - Life Lessons


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