5 Common Regrets of the Dying

Last Sunday, I was rostered to be the first reader at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Epping. The last time I did the 6 pm service was back in July on a cold, rainy evening. This time the sun was still on the horizon on this chilly rear-end of spring walking to church from home and back was a leisure stroll.

While at the ambo, I struggled to read the lines of the Book of Wisdom, even though I had already rehearsed it at home. This is the latest sign I’ll probably have to wear glasses for the first time in my life. But while my vision was a blur, Father Peter Dowd’s homily about the gospel of the parable of the ten bridesmaids was crystal-clear. It was also a reality check for me. The gospel was about being prepared at all times. The homily was partly about retrospectively reflecting on what we could have missed in this life through the testimonies of those on their deathbeds.

Fr Peter cited a book by Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Ware is an Australian palliative care nurse who has spent between the last three to 12 weeks with a patient before he or she passes away. During her encounters with her patients, Bronnie asked if they had any regret or anything they would have done differently. From their responses, Bronnie summarized them into the five most common regrets. As Fr Peter projected the portraits of the elderly with each of the regrets they carry on their deathbeds, I can’t help but feel that these regrets can also be felt by middle-aged people or those facing a quarter-life crisis.

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

We all have dreams when we were young. Some of us wanted to own a luxury car, others want to travel the world, and there are those who want to become airline pilots, like me. Circumstances of varying degrees divert our dreams from a priority to a backup plan. I knew people who pursued college degrees differently from their dreams out of obedience to their parents. There are those who could not make a leap in life — change jobs or move overseas — because peers said it was too risky or too foolish of a plan.

Life passes by too quickly. And before we realize it, the plans we’ve carefully scribbled on a note on a New Year’s Eve were left unfulfilled not because they chose to make a U-turn, but because we listened and followed other people’s opinions. Not that they should be ignored, but sometimes we assume our instincts are wrong just because others have a different view of things. Most of them are minor decisions we make every day, but there are also instances that they involve life-changing moments that we allow to slip away.

Image by Helena Sushitskaya from Pixabay

While taking the light rail to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Sydney with friends on a rainy Sunday night, I thought we should alight at Chinatown but someone said it should be at Haymarket, a station further. We ended up stopping further away and the one who made an incorrect suggestion slipped on a puddle of water and hurt her hip.

This type of regret is the most common, so when you feel like you are living a life based on someone else’s blueprint, think again.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Working hard certainly has its rewards: career promotion at work, recognition as a young business achiever, or accumulating a lifetime’s worth of wealth. While working hard is certainly encouraged, we might have varying definitions of what it is. Bronnie noted that this type of regret came from every male patient she nursed — females from an older generation were often homemakers than breadwinners. These patients expressed deep regrets about spending so much of their lives surrounding their livelihood, perhaps leaving late from the workplace or spending weekends in the office.

Many of us may take advantage of extra hours of overtime pay, take a second job to finance a side project, buy that luxury car, or build that dream house. Such aspirations motivate us that hard work pays off eventually. But as we summon every ounce of our strength and toil at every opportunity for financial reward or career advancement, we might take for granted other aspects of our life. Since the cycle repeats, we might not realize what we missed until it’s too late — when we’re at our sickbeds repentant over what turned out to be a bad move, a wrong decision.

This is not to encourage procrastination or develop a lifestyle of treating the job as a less serious endeavor. Not by a long shot. But instead, such regrets will teach us a lesson that besides our work, there are also other important aspects of life that we should also place a good deal of importance on.

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

Ideally, we’d like to be at peace with everyone. Whether it’s a long-time friend or acquaintance we met at a party, we hope to stick to their good side. Maybe that’s one reason we sometimes suppress our feelings. We chose to turn a blind eye to one’s mistakes instead of confronting him or her to make a correction so we don’t run into the risk. We fear rejection so we decide to keep that feeling of affection to ourselves.

As a result, we settle in a life of “mediocre existence” as Bronnie puts it, never allowing relationships to blossom into their full potential. We understand revealing our feelings comes as a risk. We don’t want to risk losing friendships, being labeled as losers, or simply don’t want to leave our comfort zones in such a quest for more meaningful relationships.

Perhaps we are unprepared to deal with the reality of unrequited love and anticipate unfavorable reactions. But if we do, even if had disastrous results, we won’t regret doing it as it was just a genuine sign that we are true to ourselves.

It’s better to love and failed, than to never love at all… because it wasn’t expressed in the first place.

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

One common regret that Bronnie observed among her patients is that they failed to keep track and get in touch with old friends through the years. At our current stage in life, we could also be slipping away from the friendships we built since childhood. We’ve been so caught up in our own lives, charting our own destinations and chasing those dreams. We achieve success, we accumulate wealth, and expand our sphere of influence.

But as old age and illnesses set in, we will soon realize that it’s not the level of success we attained nor status in society that will offer comfort in the midst of our afflictions. Beggars can’t be choosers but I believe we’d like to ask more for empathy and consolation than advice at that point in our life.

A study published by Harvard Medical School involving over 309,000 people found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an impact comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than obesity. This meant that maintaining a healthy relationship with friends helps in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. A Swedish study among people 75 years and over has concluded that those with satisfying contact with friends and relatives have the lowest risk of dementia.

From the moment we stepped into primary school, we formed friendships, shared the same hilarious experiences, and learned valuable lessons in life. Like our siblings, our friends stay with us longer in our lifetime. Not only because we share a lot in common, but our friends usually belong to our generation; they are there long before our kids were born, and will likely be there when our parents have passed away.

So if you feel you are drifting away from friends, it’s never too late to reconnect. Check who among your Facebook friends is celebrating a birthday and a greeting becomes a good conversation starter — unless you don’t remember this person you are connected with. Our circle of friends may expand as we move to a new town, enter university or start a new job, but that shouldn’t prevent us from being in touch with the ones close to our hearts.

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

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

Happiness is a choice but it can surprisingly be hard to achieve if we project ourselves not according to our standards but by what others expect of us.

Listening to music or audiobooks, going for a walk, adopting a pet, and being more grateful are habits we can easily develop. But long-term solutions to happiness can also involve being more forgiving, letting go of past mistakes, and having time for self-reflection.

Being alone most of the time, I find myself watching repeats of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Frasier, or Monk (lately The Office and Schitt’s Creek added to my binge-watch pipeline) and still laugh at classic episodes (Seinfeld’s The Opposite is a personal episode). I believe, and studies support, that laughter brings a positive impact on one’s well-being. It reduces stress, improves immunity, and even burns some calories.

Life is short. And despite the constant challenges — many of whom are beyond our control — we face each day, we still have the choice to think positive thoughts, dwell in hope and be happy. So once we’re near the end, we can affirm we had a life well-lived.

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