Regrets. We all have them — things said or done; things left unsaid or undone. Paths that weren’t followed; opportunities missed due to fear or insecurity. The list is long, but one of the biggest regrets in life reported by a large number of people is not being there for someone at the end of life.1 In other words, being too busy with “life” to tend to those near death.
Interestingly, while a regret can be phrased either as an action or as an inaction (“I wish I had not quit high school,” versus “I wish I had stayed in high school”), regrets framed as actions tend to be more emotionally intense than regrets about inactions, but inactions tend to be longer lasting.2
Emma Freud, a columnist for The Guardian, recently explored themes of regret on social media, covering everything from relationships, work-life balance and personal passions, to addiction, illness and death. If you’re so inclined, you can take a look at some of the thousands of responses she received.3 Chances are, you’ll recognize yourself in some of them.
Top Five Regrets of the Dying
According to Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse who ended up writing a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” based on her conversations with the dying, the biggest, most commonly cited regrets at the end of life are — beginning with the most common regret of all:4
- Not having the courage to live a life true to oneself but rather doing what was expected
- Working too much, thereby missing children’s youth and their partner’s companionship
- Not having the courage to express one’s feelings
- Not staying in touch with friends
- Taking life too seriously and allowing worries to diminish happiness
Ware goes a step further, however, in that she also delves into solutions for these regrets — ways for you to avoid falling into the same traps. The No. 1 regret is a valuable reminder to not give up too many of your dreams to please others (or conform to conventional standards). “It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way,” Ware says. “From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
Living Life on Your Own Terms Is Key to Dying Without (Too Many) Regrets
Virtually every man in Ware’s care listed No. 2: Missing out on family time because of excessive work. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence,” she writes, adding:
“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.”
No. 4 is a closely related topic. Oftentimes we get so busy we forget to keep in touch with old friends, and over time the relationship fizzles out. Then, in old age, loneliness creeps in. It can be difficult to build a friendship at any age, but it certainly does not get easier with advancing age, when poor health starts limiting your ability to get out and about to socialize. As noted by Ware, love and relationships are usually the only things of true, remaining importance when the end of life draws near.
As for No. 3, Ware notes that many “developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried” as a result of holding their feelings in and opting to keep quiet just to keep the peace. If you’re in this category, consider Ware’s commonsense advice:
“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.”
Last but not least, at the end of life, many finally realize that happiness is an inside job. It’s a choice, not a side effect of living any particular kind of life. “[D]eep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again,” Ware writes, wisely noting that once you’re on your deathbed, you will not be worrying about what others think of you, so why not choose happiness now, while you still have a lot of life left?