Several years ago I came across an article called, “Regrets of the Dying” by a woman called Bronnie Ware. Bronnie had worked for many years as a nurse in palliative care, working with people who were in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. When faced with their own mortality and asked about any regrets they had, certain themes came to the surface again and again.
I found the article very moving and challenging at times. I was reminded of areas in my own life where I don’t risk speaking more fully, more authentically from my heart and my values. How often have I told the people I care about and cherish in my life that I love and value them? I can all too easily slip into a state of complacency where I lose sight of the preciousness and fragility of both my life and the lives of those around me.
What struck me most about the article was that all the regrets the dying people shared were of a relational nature. By this I mean they were about relationships between themselves and their family, partner or friends. Nobody in the last few weeks of their life shared a regret concerning material possessions, status or image. It was as if perspective of life being fragile, beautiful and impermanent was illustrated more deeply in those last few weeks and moments. What they really valued and felt was of meaning to them was revealed.
I feel we do not have to wait until we are at the end of our life to become clear about what is of value and meaning to us. Maybe reading people’s regrets could act as a reminder for ourselves to prioritise what is truly of value to us.
I know I would like to live a life that means when I am on my death bed, I am not full of regrets and as the poet Mary Oliver once said, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
Here are the most common regrets of the dying from Bronnie Ware’s article:
1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.
Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners.
3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years.
5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier”.
Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity answered:
“Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
(A variation of this blog piece first appeared in the September 2010 newsletter)