Top Regrets of the Dying: Learning from What Others Wish They Had Changed
Various people have said something similar, but Mark Twain may have originated the thought with the following quote:
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade wind in your sales. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I think we’ve all heard this quote so much we assume it must be true. But has anyone really studied this phenomenon of regret at the end of life?
The Regrets People Voice on Their Deathbed
I don’t know of any official scientific studies on the topic, but I did find a very interesting article about a nurse named “Bronnie Ware” who worked in palliative care for years, soothing dying patients while they were in their own homes. Through her experience, she found that most human beings, regardless of gender or age, had regrets, so she started taking them down. Over time, she discovered that five particular regrets came up over and over again.
Ms. Ware later wrote a book on the topic (The Top Five Regrets of the Dying—A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing), which details her own life and how it was transformed by what she discovered. I share with you below those five regrets and my thoughts on each, in the hopes that maybe we can all learn from Ms. Ware’s research, and go to our deaths with as few regrets as possible!
- I wish I’d lived a life true to myself. In other words, people wish they had thought less of the opinions of others, and done what they wanted to do, down deep in their souls. People regretted not having the courage to follow their dreams, no matter what others thought. One thing people may not realize during the prime of their lives is that health and energy are fleeting, and won’t always be there. “It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way,” Bronnie says. “From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late.”
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. Though spoken most often by men, who felt they’d missed valuable time with their families, women also felt this regret. (And more women may find themselves experiencing this one as a new generation gets older.) Ask yourself: do you really need and want everything your work is bringing you, or is there something you’re missing? If so, can you cut back? Do with less?
- I wish I’d expressed my feelings. Studies show that when we repress our feelings, our health suffers. (I talk about this in chapter 4 of my book, When Cancer Hits.) It’s like putting a lid on who we are, and forcing us to live less than a full existence. The lesson is to speak your truth—in a kind way, of course—and then let the relationship go where it may. It will either become stronger, or it will disintegrate, releasing you from it’s toxic effects.
- I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. When people are dying and looking back over their lives, they realize sometimes for the first time how very important their friends were to them, and how grateful they were for their presence in their lives. Unfortunately, by that time, it can be difficult or near impossible to track these people down. The tools we have at our disposal today make staying in touch even easier, so no excuses! Keep your friends close!
- I wish I’d let myself be happier. I found this one interesting when I first read it. “Let” myself? How can we not “let” ourselves be happy? Well, according to Bronnie, “Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.” They chose not to make the changes in their lives that would have lead to happiness. Often they were afraid to make those changes, so they convinced themselves they were happy with what they had, even if they weren’t.
As I mull over these five regrets in my mind, I think what it all comes down to is two things: honesty, and courage. Every day we have to start again, face our fears, take new assessments of our lives, be honest about what we really want, and have the courage to go after it.
One more thought from a personal angle: When I get caught up in what others think, or in others’ dramas, and I get away from what I really need to focus on, I find a lot of relief from a quote by Mother Theresa:
“You see in the final analysis it is between you and your God. it was never between you and them anyways.”
This reminds me that at the end of the day, it’s my journey, and I must make the choices that are going to make me happy, today.
How do you plan to go about living your life without regrets?
Photo courtesy archerwl via Flickr.com.