Monday, May 6, 2013

Top Five Regrets of the Dying

When my mother passed away in December, we were blessed to work with a knowledgeable and compassionate palliative care nurse named Kerry who helped to make my mother's transition easier. I was and continue to be in awe of the way that Kerry balanced the practical tasks of working with my mother's medical needs with the simple, loving way she could just be there with her and hold her hand and share stories and joke and laugh with her and honor her humanity.

Having now twice been through the experience of being present with another human being at the time of death, I consider the work that people like Kerry to do to be among the most important work that anyone could do. It is a vocation that, when practiced well, brings dignity and grace to one of life's most difficult and potentially frightening transitional moments.

When people like Kerry speak, I listen, because of the wisdom they have gained from their years of working with people in their final and most critical moments, when so many of the stark realities of life are stripped of pretenses and laid bare.

That is why I have so much respect for the observations of Bronnie Ware, who published a book in 2012 based on her years of experience as a palliative care nurse in Australia, called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. (The book is only $2.99 if you download on Kindle.)

Ware discovered through her many intimate conversations with people in the final stages of their lives that there were several common and recurring themes of regret. Below are the top five themes that she identified. If you were to find yourself, through some unforeseen circumstance, on your death bed in the near future, would any of these themes would ring a bell with you?

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 realise 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 honoured even a 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 realise, 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 realise 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 realise 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 their 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."

The great medieval Tibetan yogi and saint Milarepa said, "My religion is to live and die without regret." Death will come for all of us sooner or later; the problem is that we always think it will come later. If it were to come sooner than you think, would you feel any of these common regrets?

What are you doing today to make sure you don't feel that way when the time does come?