People grow a lot when faced with their own mortality. As a palliative caregiver for many years, I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for personal growth. After wrestling with a variety of intense emotions, every patient I saw found their peace before they departed.
When questioned about regrets or what they would have done differently, five themes emerged.
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 died 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.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. Every male patient that I nursed felt they had missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. They deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. Women also spoke of this regret, but because most were from an older generation, many had not been breadwinners.
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. As a result, many developed illnesses apparently related to the bitterness and resentment they carried.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Many were disappointed they had not truly realized 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 away. Many deeply regretted not giving important friendships the time and effort that they deserved.
I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not understand 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 themselves that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh with gusto and cultivate some silliness in their life.
Bronnie Ware is the author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, a memoir of how people she cared for changed the way she lives. She blogs at InspirationAndChai.com.