The top 5 regrets to avoid
Dave R writes...it’s said that regrets are pointless because they were once exactly what you wanted but at the end, when you look back at your life, very few can say, ‘no regrets!’ A new book looks at the five most common deathbed wishes
You know life’s full of regrets and what-ifs; we wouldn’t all be here reading articles on this site if it weren’t and no, this article is not another doom and gloom, slit your wrists type of downer. On the contrary, it’s a bit of a wake-up call, or at least it was for me.
I was slumped on the couch, looking and feeling like death warmed up, matchsticks propping open the eyes, watching the breakfast news, with a mug of ginger, lemon and jasmine tea in hand. It wasn’t the morning after the night before (I wish!); it’s my daily routine until the pills kick in and the neuropathy pain subsides. Then a cheerful woman called Bronnie Ware appeared, whose blog has gone viral and whose book, ‘Top 5 Regrets of the Dying – A life Transformed by the Dearly Departing’ has just been published. I know, the title doesn’t exactly suggest a barrel of laughs but bear with me.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian singer-songwriter and writer who worked for many years giving palliative care to terminal patients in their own homes. During that time she was witness to many people’s regrets in the last weeks of their lives and to cut a long story short, used these experiences to write a full-length book about her own story and how it was influenced by the people she cared for.
She was at people’s sides from a few weeks, to up to three months after they had gone home to die and far from finding the experience depressing, learned so much about the human spirit and ability to change, that she felt compelled to write this book. It’s a book of comfort for those who fear death and a gentle warning for those for whom that’s still a distant prospect.
“Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.”
The theme of the book is based on people’s regrets at that point and their wishes to have done things differently. I’m not going to reproduce Bronnie’s conclusions on each point; you can read the book for that but I can give my own reactions and then maybe you’ll have your own opinions too. The Top 5 in the book are as follows:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was apparently the most common regret Bronnie heard, something I can really understand. If I’m honest, far too many of the things I’ve done in my life have been attempts to live up to others’ expectations. It’s only recently that I’ve learned to truly think for myself and do what I want to do. I’d like to do far more but your health is often outside your own control and can judder you to an unexpected halt. Perhaps I should work on finding that less frustrating!
It all started with my grandmother, mother (warning, gay cliché!) and my stepfather. In the early fifties, children were meant to be seen and not heard but my mother used her only son (at that time) as a listening post and bombarded me with things I should do and achieve and ways I should behave. She often used my step-father as an example of how not to live. Poor guy; it was only later that I realised that he wasn’t such a bad example after all and he had the patience of a saint. My grandmother was severely ‘old-school’ and provided me with stories of poverty and deprivation that made me the socialist-light I am today. In short, everything I did both in my formative years and later was aimed at receiving approval from the matriarchs in my family. Whenever I failed (and I frequently did), the guilt was painful and sometimes damaging and it was little wonder that I cut loose when I finally flew the nest. Getting engaged to an unsuspecting girl was a major mistake arising from the perceived need to please the family and staying in the closet as long as I did came a close second. However, that need to please others and live up to expectations, whilst often being a stimulus to do better, also became a millstone throughout my working life. In the end I had a few successes and fell short in many regards but I’m finally okay with all that. I just hope that younger people can see that living a life ‘true to themselves’ is perhaps the best evidence of reaching maturity and consequent happiness and achievement. By all means look at what others do and admire them but evaluate everything you see and only follow that path if it’s truly what you want.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
Being a teacher for thirty years meant long hours, way beyond the school timetables but this is not one of my own regrets. I loved the job and although it brought me to the point of total exhaustion sometimes, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Bronnie Ware found this to be an almost exclusively male regret (although I wonder if present generations in the uni-sex work-place will have such a gender divide). I can understand that for the heterosexual community the realization that you neglected your family due to work commitments must be quite common and maybe as the nuclear LGBT family becomes more evident, this will happen there too. It’s difficult; on the one hand, employers are demanding ever more dedication to the job and work is hard to find, so the family will inevitably come second and on the other, if both partners are working, they may lose contact with each other. This has to be a factor in the breakdown of relationships that permeates our society but we need to find a balance. The question is; do we work to live, or live to work?
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
I have a horrible feeling my friends would wish that I perhaps didn’t express my feelings quite so much! I’m a ‘heart-on-my-sleeve’ type of person (thanks again ma!) though not an emotional wreck but I have learned to temper it a little and control my emotional reactions when appropriate, especially as it’s not appreciated in the Netherlands (ask my ex-partner). Ninety percent of the Dutch will probably end up with this particular regret on their deathbeds. It’s always been a Calvinist society and openly showing emotions is still something they have difficulty with but bottling frustrations up is to my mind, never healthy. I have a feeling however, that many older people all over the world, especially men, will recognize this regret because of the way they were brought up. Look at society’s reactions to men crying. Luckily, the butchest sports heroes and politicians and other pillars of society who ‘done bad’, are leading the way in weeping for our gender and even the stiffest upper lips may soon be quivering when the mood takes them.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Actually, in my case, no I don’t. If my friends aren’t still my friends today then that’s for a reason. I’ve no regrets about people lost along the way. If the regret was; ‘I wish I had made more friends’, then maybe. I’ve never been the most comfortable social animal, mainly due to chronic shyness but I do wish I’d made more effort over the years. I’m not one who believes that if you fall off, you should get back on the horse and every knock-back tends to make me even warier in the future. Definitely a character flaw and maybe a deathbed regret for the future.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Oh definitely! If I count up all the miserable times I’ve had in my life, I’m almost certain that half the anguish could have been avoided by accepting that shit happens and that wallowing in self-pity just prolongs the problem. Be Zen about things, move on, leave things behind, don’t worry, be happy, are a set of well-worn clichés but so true. It takes a character adjustment to really live the philosophy but the earlier you do it, the happier your life will be.
In conclusion, it’s taken me 62 years to realize a lot of things about myself and maybe that’s true of most people. Learning through your experiences can be a lifetime’s work. However, even young people can be advised that life’s full of unnecessary flotsam and jetsam, which can be tossed overboard or ignored, without it affecting your well-being. There’s just such a lot of crap to slow you down, both physically and emotionally. People these days, are subjected to more information and social pressures than ever before; it must be very confusing at times. All the more reason then, to work out what’s important in your lives and stick to things you truly believe. Being your own true self, however horribly new-age and trite that sounds, is maybe the most important lesson we can pass on to younger generations: an addition to the school curriculum maybe?
You may wonder what relevance Bronnie Ware’s sympathetic book has to people living with HIV but I believe that if we look at these regrets of people for whom it’s now too late to change, we can take them as a gentle warning for those with many years of life ahead. If you’re not dying, you can change almost anything that you’ve regretted over the years; it’s not too late. Re-evaluating the, ‘who am I and why am I here?’ question can be done in the quiet moments, away from the stresses of health, work and relationships but identifying and eliminating the regrets and ballast that hold us back may pay off big time in terms of improving our quality of life.
The Top Five Regrets of the Dying - A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware. A memoir of her own life and how it was transformed through the regrets of the dying people she cared for. This book is available internationally through Hay House.