Nobody likes to talk about death.
It makes people squirm, avoid eye contact, and change the subject quickly. However, there’s a great deal to be learned about how to live from those at the end of their lives.
A palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, spent eight years taking care of terminally ill people during their last weeks on Earth. In her work, she routinely engaged in deep, emotional conversations with her patients, mostly elderly. Ware noticed that the same regrets surfaced over and over again with almost everyone. She recorded her observations in the book, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying.
There was hardly any mention of sky-diving, vacationing in exotic places, or having amassed a more impressive estate. Almost every single regret had to do with feelings and relationships.
Have Lessons Not Regrets
Let’s talk about this thing called regret before we get to the list.
It’s important to remember that at any stage of life, regret is a misuse of your mental energy and brings you nothing but suffering. Holding onto regret creates stress within your brain and body. Stress actually shrinks your brain, decreases serotonin levels, and plays a part in almost every disease.
In Forgiveness: The Gift That Keeps On Giving, I explain:
From a brain’s perspective, forgiveness requires making a deliberate decision to move beyond feeling hurt or wronged. It takes consciously shifting your perspective and attention, thought reframing, and pairing sad or disappointing memories with more positive, better feeling thoughts. This practice, done repeatedly, over time actually rewires your brain and builds new neuronal pathways through a process called neuroplasticity. (See blog: Pulling Weeds And Planting Flowers)
It’s a much better use of your time and energy to extend compassion and forgiveness to yourself and determine what the lesson is behind the regret.
Rather than criticizing yourself for making a mistake or drowning in pity, try to adopt a kind, but realistic view of your experience. Instead of asking yourself, “What was I thinking?”, ask, “What was I learning?”
Research show that self-compassion has many benefits, ranging from fewer depressive and more optimistic thoughts, overall greater happiness and life satisfaction to greater social and emotional skills and improvements in physical health.
You can get tips on increasing your self-compassion here.
Use the regrets of your past to make changes going forward. Think of them as GPS directions telling you how to steer life decisions to yield a happier future with fewer things to regret.
List of Regrets
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
The number one regret people had was they hadn’t pursued their dreams and aspirations. Many had lived life fulfilling the expectations others had for them regardless of their own desires or happiness. Life gets easier when you manage expectations — yours and others.
While you still have time, make your own wishes a priority or at the very least, a consideration in little daily choices and most certainly, in big life decisions. Start taking steps to begin working towards your goals now. Even a little bit of progress is progress.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
Ware found this sentiment expressed by almost every single male. They all wished that they had not made their careers and money so important and had spent more time with their families and partners.
Determine what’s important to you and invest your time accordingly. Make your time the most valuable commodity, not money. Accomplishing this may mean cutting expenses and living a simpler life. Do away with unnecessary costs and constraints on your time.
I’m willing to bet that, when approaching death, nobody wished they had eaten out more or drove a nicer car.
I wish I had had the courage to speak my mind and express my feelings.
To keep the peace, many people didn’t express their true feelings and opinions, which often led to compromised lives filled with suppressed anger and bitterness. Honesty and confrontation are necessary parts of healthy relationships. Even words someone doesn’t want to hear can be delivered with respect and kindness.
People often wished that they had said “I love you” more to family, spouses, and friends. This regret also encompasses revealing true feelings for a “special someone.” Oftentimes, fear of rejection keeps us from ever disclosing how we feel. Isn’t it better to face your fears than to never know the answer to a big “What if?”
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying,” writes Ware. When health and youth were gone, people realized that all their income and achievements didn’t amount to much.
What mattered most, at the end, was the people in their lives.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and forget to catch up with friends. Before you know it, you’ve lost contact. Make an effort to stay in touch. Call or text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while and better yet, set up an actual face-to-face.
I wish I had let myself be happier.
Many of Ware’s patients didn’t realize until the end of their lives that happiness was a deliberate choice. They finally acknowledged too late that happiness wasn’t something that could be chased and obtained through a career, wealth, status, power, or things.
Often, people let circumstances and fear prevent them from venturing out of their comfort zones, exploring life, and moving beyond mediocrity.
What regrets do you have and what are the lessons they hold for you?