What do people who are dying wish they had done differently in life? Not a cheery topic, but an interesting one in terms of what those of us who are still alive can learn, and worth comparing to the so-called “bucket lists” that people make of the activities they intend to do before they die. While the latter vary from writer to writer, the ones I’ve seen often are filled with fantasies, or at least very big dreams, as in “swim with dolphins,” “run a marathon on every continent,”or “run with the bulls in Pamplona.” Based on the reports of the dying, we could conclude that even if a list maker had accomplished all these things, he might still look back with regrets.
Writer and blogger Bronnie Ware worked in the field of “palliative care,” which Wikipedia defines as “healthcare that focuses on relieving and preventing the suffering of patients.” She says, “My patients were those who had gone home to die. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.” During this last phase of their lives, she asked if they had any regrets about how they had lived, and from these conversations she identified five disappointments common to all. She incorporated these into a book, in which she says she took what she learned from her patients and applied it to her own life.
The five most common regrets were:
- wishing they had lived a life more true to themselves and not according to the expectations of others;
- regret for having spent too much time working, which they did because they thought they needed more money, only to realize later that they would have been fine living a simpler lifestyle (this came from all her male patients);
- regret for not having shared honest feelings and experienced healthier relationships as a result;
- sorrow that they didn’t stay connected with friends; and
- wishing they had let themselves be happier.
The last point is interesting, because it characterizes happiness as something we have control over, a fact that sometimes we forget. Ms. Ware says, “Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves [sic], that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
In her book, apparently Ms. Ware says that by becoming aware of these common end-of-life regrets she will be able to avoid them. On the other hand, it’s possible that the items on this list belong to a particular generation as it ages and later generations will make their own lists. Who knows? Maybe failure to run with the bulls at Pamplona will turn up in the number one spot among those now in their thirties or forties. Whatever generation or stage we’re in, adding silliness to our lives now is bound to help us ease into end-stages of life with fewer regrets.