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Learning from Regrets of the Dying

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonJanuary 19, 2016

We acknowledge our mortality in life, but it’s not always something that’s easy to accept. People with terminal illnesses, however, must accept that life is fragile and face that reality. They often gain the ability to cut through the inauthentic, meaningless and superficial to see what really matters in life during this time.

We can learn from their insight. Read for their tips on living with purpose.

Inspiration to Live Without Regrets

Hospice nurse Bonnie Ware spent much of her career compassionately caring for  people in the end stages of their lives. Her work involves providing comfort care and medicine to dying patients, but arguably the most important part of the job involves listening and spending time with patients, letting the person she’s caring for find peace before they pass away. She says:


“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality.”

This newfound outlook of terminally ill patients allows them to make the best of their remaining days. They let go of old grudges, tell their friends and family how much they are loved, and they take pleasure in the small things, recognizing that all any of us have is the present moment.

Naturally, the epiphanies that come with facing mortality can prompt regrets about the past — missed opportunities, mistakes and so on. Fortunately, Ware says most dying patients are able to let go of these regrets before they pass. She thinks that we can learn from studying the regrets that people express in their final days, and she has identified five common regrets of hospice patients in her book: “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.”

5 Regrets of the Dying

A common theme in the lessons learned from the regrets of the dying is that we only live once, and we must make the most of the life we have. Learning from this wisdom may help us age without these disappointments. Here are five main regrets based on Ware’s writings:

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

Our culture, families and society create models for the way we are expected to behave and live. It’s liberating to be yourself rather than pretend to be something you’re not in order to conform to the conception of what culture, family or friends expect from you. There is no shame in being different.

The great American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote famously, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

According to UN data, in Germany, the largest European economy, the average worker works 1,397 hours per year. In the U.S., the average worker works 1,790 hours per year.

Americans, therefore, have 28% less leisure time than Germans, despite the fact the German economy is just as robust America’s. U.S. workers may simply be pushing themselves too hard at the expense of their family life, or it could be argued that they are being pushed too hard.

Whatever the case, this regret should be another reminder to put family first. Work hard, but don’t wear yourself out, and don’t work to the extent that you are neglecting your family.

3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

Many people have regrets about affection they felt but did not share. We may have feelings for someone, but are too afraid to share them. Those who are dying would tell us, “You’ve got nothing to lose. Say how you really feel.” It’s a good reminder to tell friends and family that we love them.

For instance, many who have lost a parent regret not telling their parent “I love you” one more time before they passed away.

4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Never take friends for granted. Close friendships that we make as younger adults may have a way of fading away as we change jobs, have kids, move out of state and so on. Make an effort to keep these friendships going, even if it is just with an occasional email or phone call.

There often comes a time in our life when we could benefit from reuniting with our friends of years past, so don’t burn your bridges with close friends or neglect to stay in touch with them.

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

People who are terminally ill often recognize the habits and ways of thinking that prevented them from being as happy as they could have been during their life. They may have been living their lives always hoping for the next big opportunity without living in the present moment.

This regret is a reminder to find happiness in the here and now. Don’t count on good times this weekend, next month, or next year. Savor the moment and find your happiness in it, because it’s all we really have.

Also, don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams and goals. In an interview with the Atlantic Magazine, 101 year-old Marian Cannon Schlesinger talked about the importance of seeking your bliss. She says:

“Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be but I wanted to be a lot of other things too. I wanted to write. I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to have a lot of beaus. I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.”

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