I have always felt that if people could somehow be reminded of their death every day, they might live their lives quite differently. I don’t mean this in a morose way, but death is inevitable and yet something we often don’t think about.
I have always had a strange fear of having regret at the end of my life — regret from things I did as well as didn’t do. That is why I was fascinated to find this book by Bonnie Ware entitled the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. Bonnie Ware worked in palliative care as a hospice nurse — which generally entails working with patients who have gone home to die. She spends the last three to twelve weeks with people at this most vulnerable time.
When she questioned them about any regrets they might have had or anything they would do differently, she found common themes, which I found quite fascinating.
The most common of all was:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the one others expected of me. Most had not honored even half of their dreams. She found that they went to their death realizing that this was a choice they had made, and they deeply regretted having never really lived their dreams, or even part of them. As Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “most people go their graves with their music still in them.”
2. I wish that I hadn’t worked so hard. This came from many male patients she had nursed. They regretted missing their children growing up and the companionship of their spouse or partner. She primarily worked with elderly men because this generation didn’t have as many women who were breadwinners. All of the men deeply regretted spending so much time “on the treadmill” of work and giving in to the drive to get ahead. As I suspected, no one ever said on their death bed, “I only wish I had worked harder.”
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Many had repressed their own feelings to keep the peace, either with a spouse or family members. As a result, they settled for a mediocre life and didn’t realize their own potential. She said many had developed illnesses related to carrying the resentment and bitterness for so many years.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. They would realize, too late, the importance of close friendships and in the last stages of life didn’t have the time to track them down to tell them how sorry they were. They were caught up in their own lives and let important friendships slip and realized too late how deeply they regretted this. She observed that love and relationships was ultimately the only thing that mattered to all of her patients in the end.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier. She said this was surprisingly common and that many did not realize that happiness is a choice they could have made all along. Because of their fear of change, they pretended to themselves and others that they were content. Deep inside they longed to really belly laugh and be silly and not care what others thought. On their deathbed, what others thought was not important.
Wisdom is taking what others have learned from the trenches and integrating it into our own lives. I think the most powerful lesson I gleaned from this is that we have a choice. We may want to believe we are victims, but in the end we are only fooling ourselves. We can consciously choose happiness, to be a better friend, to spend more time with loved ones and to work less. Choosing these things is not easy. It might mean forgoing a raise or a promotion at work, but in the end, I don’t believe she reported anyone saying I just wish that I worked more and spent less time with loved ones.
We may not be able to choose the circumstances that lead to our physical death, but the choices we make during the course of our lives will inform the degree of psychological peace we experience at this final juncture.
Bonnie Ware has released a full-length book, which is a memoir of her own life and how she was transformed when she worked as a hospice nurse. The book is available from her website and major online bookstores and is called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.
Erica Sofrina is a motivational speaker, teacher and author and Life Coach. Find out more at www.ericasofrina.com