By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
It’s been said not to take life too seriously because no one gets out of it alive. It might also be said that none of us get through it without at least a few regrets. Taking life seriously enough while we still have time to learn from the regrets of those facing the end of their days might also be wise advice.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. In talking with these patients, she identified several common themes that surfaced again and again. Ware thought the rest of us might learn from the clarity of vision that people appeared to have at the end of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog that garnered so much attention she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as described by Ware:
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 realize 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 honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked 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.”
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.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. “Often they would not truly realize 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.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize 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 them 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.”
Make the most of every day by filling it with “why nots!” instead of “not yets,” and minimize your regrets by living each day to the fullest. In the wise words of Mark Twain: “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and live like its heaven on earth.” See if you can keep “if only” from being among your last thoughts.