Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware works in pallitative care — with patients near the end of their life. In this post, she writes powerfully about the the top regrets that have surfaced again and again from her patients on their death beds. I've pasted the list of five below.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

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. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

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. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

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. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.  They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

(hat tip @bfeld)

25 Responses to Regrets of the Dying

  1. Chase Night says:

    Thanks for sharing this! Very powerful stuff to think about.

  2. carlin says:

    wow, sounds like some of the stuff I have been thinking lately! I’m not near the end though. I moved a couple of years ago and I work too much and lost touch with my friends. Fortunately, I don’t live the life others expect, thankfully, and I do express myself well – so well it can upset the apple cart! Tim McGraw has song called “Live like you were Dying” which hits the nail on the head. If you don’t like country music, you won’t like it much… anyway, thanks for sharing! I need to reach out and touch someone before it’s too late :)

  3. Wow how powerful was this message. Something everyone should read and think about don’t wait till it’s too late start today and start living your dreams

  4. Tim Sullivan says:

    So (1) what kind of mechanisms can you build if, like me, you have little self-discipline, to act on these insights before they become regrets? (2) What kind of lives did the “satisfied” dying live? And (3) are there people who met others’ expectations, worked their butts off, bottled up their feelings, avoided friends, and repressed their feelings who were perfectly happy when they had heart attacks at their desks late at night on the kid’s birthday (which they missed because of that messy divorce years before)?

  5. Greg Linster says:

    American’s work way too much. Deciding to work less sounds great in theory, but isn’t practical. Most of us don’t get to fully control our schedules and thus, must follow the cultural norms.

    From my experience, there is a certain sense of machismo and status that comes from working brutally long hours in most offices. People brag about it as if it were a good thing. I think this should be frowned upon. If you can’t get your job done in 40 hours a week then you clearly aren’t being effective with your time.

    Until the cultural norms change I’m not sure how to address this problem on an individual level, but I would love to hear others thoughts.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Right, Tim. To amplify your comment:

    1) The "regrets" are not totally original. A lot of people have said,
    "Work less, spend more time with loved ones." Behavior hasn't changed. How
    would one go about actually living out the advice?

    2) Is it even possible to be "satisfied" on your death bed?

    3) Aren't there multiple ways to be happy? The post assumes one model –
    the classic model — but surely there are other ways, which would change
    the relevant advice.

  7. John J. Walters says:

    Great post… it served as the inspiration for tomorrow’s blog entry for Wasabi Ventures.

    Will be live tomorrow (11/19/10) around lunchtime, EST:

    http://blog.wasabiventures.com/don’t-get-too-comfortable/

  8. Kim-Anh says:

    just wonderful!
    Should be recommended to everyone on earth.

  9. Marty Nemko says:

    Thank you, Ben. You are my favorite blogger…except myself ;-)

  10. Alex says:

    What a great post! Thanks so much, Ben!

  11. Erik says:

    This is great to hear, and I often struggle with knowing that I could die tomorrow, but also knowing that I most likely have 80 more years on this planet. In my cost-benefit analysis of whether I should study economics, to simplify, I have three options that represent how I live my life

    1) Sell out. Live my life based on other people’s expectations (I’d have more credibility, better chances at higher paying jobs–even if I probably wouldn’t want them
    2) Compromise– Go for your dreams, but have a back up plan.
    3) Live on your whims–Want to be a novelist this year? a musician the next? Take Jobs’ question literal: If today was your last day on Earth, would you want to do what you’re about to do?

    It seems like we make variations of these decisions all the time. I will probably go with number two. Which number do you usually fall into?

  12. Ben Casnocha says:

    Always good to have a back-up plan, regardless.

  13. Wow, very profound.

    Those are very inspiring regrets… so much we give in our lives just to wish we hadn’t.

    Thank you for this insight.

  14. Brenda says:

    So true, so very true. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Kelly says:

    I love this list! It’s great to think about these while we still have time to fix them.

  16. mrG says:

    Althought I do wonder just how scientific these top-5 observations were, I do notice none of them said, “wished they’d spent more time watching TV” — not even REALITY TV! — mind you, none of this is really news to anyone: if one had to sum up all 5 reported findings, I think you’d end up with that song from the old musical Hello Dolly, “Before the Parade Passes By

  17. michael says:

    I believe it’s palliative care not pallitative care.

  18. donovan says:

    You left out, “I wish I never would have believed what all the experts told me was the truth”.

  19. Britt says:

    We are all creatures of habit, and even if we see the need to change how we behave for the better in light of someone elses experience, we always seem to go back to the usual way we behave, even knowing it might be wrong. For some of us we have had the chance to have some life changing event such as an injury or illness that alters our behavior and allows us to see we really need to change and easily make that change. For the rest of us it is hard to force ourselves to make that initial change, but I can tell you if you consciously keep making that choice when you see the results it becomes easier and more enjoyable. We have all been told that doing the right thing is hard, but once it becomes habit you can’t imagine going back to the other mode of living and you really start to see and internalize what is important outside of what our society tells you is important. This would be a good list to carry around with you on a card as we do tend to forget once we go back to the daily grind.

  20. thanks for sharing this very inspiring message!

  21. soulbearca@hotmail.com says:

    My husband just past away from lung cancer and he also spoke of his regrets. His was, that he regretted missing out on family celebrations because we were non-smokers. He was a smoker and had decided not to go to our nephew’s wedding because they did not smoke and he found it a hassle to have to go out to smoke. He would leave family gatherings at Christmas so he could be home to smoke in peace. He was so sorry he missed out on these things.

  22. Sean Murphy says:

    For some candid interviews with the terminally ill see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/gallery/2008/mar/31/lifebeforedeath

    Very poignant, example quote.

    “Death is a test of one’s maturity. Everyone has got to get through it on their own. I want very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process, I cannot influence its course. All I can do is wait. I was given my life, I had to live it, and now I am giving it back”

  23. It is very powerful to look through lens of only having a few moments left in life. It definitely gives on a much better sense of what is important. Thanks for the great post!

  24. Andy Rodie says:

    Great insights on regrets Ben. Thanks for sharing that. A great blog you have that brings much value to your readers.

  25. Deane says:

    Hi Ben, I’ve had many people close to me die including my husband, parents, and best friend. While I agree with these sentiments in theory, my experience is that as people approach death they are too tired, in too much pain, or too heavily medicated to care about regrets. That’s the stuff for the movies. My husband’s parting words to me was not that he loved me or that he had any regrets but that he thought he heard water dripping and wanted me to check the pipes. It’s been a long time so now I can find the ridiculousness, and humor, in that.

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