Sunday, April 8, 2012

Five Stupid Regrets of the Dying

A short list of the top life regrets of the dying, as compiled by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, has been making the Internet rounds for at least a year, and has recently picked up virality with its publication in several news outlets, including The Guardian, More, and The Huffington Post.

The five regrets, far from being the ones you might expect—those having to do with the wish for more money, more travel, more fame, more (or less) children, etc.—at least score points for being original. That said, I fail to understand why whatever regrets we might have in the last months of our lives are  more significant than the regrets we might feel while still having decades left.
There's not necessarily a correlation between the length of time on the planet and amount of wisdom gleaned—in other words, just because you regret something in your nineties, it doesn't mean it's anymore important than a regret you had when you were 25. In fact, since many people in the last throes of their existence are suffering from decreased mental abilities, these regrets may not even make the most sense.

Additionally, the regrets of the dying are the most fleeting regrets of all, considering that the regretter won't have them for much longer. Personally, I'd pay more attention to the regrets of those in their late 40s to early 50s. This is the perfect vantage point from which to cull regrets from decades of living—and still have a couple of good decades left to mope about them.

Herewith are the regrets and my responses to them:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 

I happen to think this is a fine and worthy regret, despite it's lack of specifics. But one has to wonder, what exactly defines a life "true to myself." Do you wish you became a poet instead of an accountant? What if your poetry stank, even though you loved penning it? What if your courageous life as a poet resulted in a lifetime of poverty, which, in turn, created its own distinct set of regrets—not to mention a shortened life span? It's a lot easier to regret the path not taken when the path before you is the short, clear path to death.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

It's fairly easy, when you're lying there in your hospital room, with your palliative care nurse spoon-feeding you, to regret that you didn't take more time off work. It's not so easy when you're in your 30s, and your boss is telling you to work the weekend, and the economy sucks, and you know you might not get another job and be able to feed your kids if you tell your boss that you'll be taking some time off, thank you very much, otherwise, when you're dying, you might regret not doing so.

3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

This one surprised me. Says the author: "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others... Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."  

As someone who has little trouble expressing my feelings and who, in fact, has spent years learning how to NOT always express them, this particular regret made me wonder if I'll be one heck of a deliriously happy dying person (except for that nasty dying part). However, the uncensored expression of opinions and feelings can lead to a lot of unhappiness. I'm not sure if a lifetime of telling people exactly how you feel about them, and dealing the consequences of that, is worth the last moments of comfort you might feel with knowing that you never backed away from calling your friends and family on their idiocy.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

So, as you lay dying, you suddenly wish you'd stayed in touch with old friends—presumably so they can now visit your dying self? Please. If those friends were important to your life at time, you'd have stayed in touch. Many people simply outgrow friendships with each other. If you didn't stay in touch, there's probably a good reason for it.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Says the author: "Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice."   I do wish that we would all live a happier life, to let ourselves "choose" to be happy. However, I think to look back on the chaotic whirlpool or the mind-numblingly mundane sameness that is life and, from the benign vantage of your death bed, declare that you simply could have willed yourself into happiness, is a tad naive.

 Still, it would do us all a world of good to remember that death doesn't come easy, and whatever difficulties we may be dealing with now, in the thick fullness of life, are probably preferable to the ones we'll be dealing with then, with our palliative care nurse jotting down our dying musings for her blog.

Check out my book, "Can't Think Straight: A Memoir of Mixed-Up Love," on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, Nook. and in bookstores.


  1. Congratulations for your new blog. May it help you find joy, satisfaction and success.


    1. Thanks Geoff! I'll keep my expectations of it a bit lower. :)

    2. That's very zen of you and you are right: low expectations and few desires make for less disappointments.