Many of us spend our lives chasing the wrong narratives, only to realize what really matters when faced with our own mortality. Unfortunately, by this point, it’s too late to start over, which is why many people end their days heavy with regret.
Of course, no two people share the same life history and it’s impossible to predict exactly which events, actions, or tendencies an individual will feel most remorseful about when their time’s up. Having said that, the small amount of academic literature on this topic suggests that there are certain themes that tend to trigger the strongest pangs of conscience when death comes a-knocking.
For instance, in a 2011 study involving hospice patients receiving end-of-life care, those with the least regrets were those who felt they had maximized their personal relationships. This is exemplified by the testimony of one participant, who said: “I don’t have no regrets. I always took care of my wife and family and I always, we always went on vacation two or three times a year. And I feel good now. I don’t have no regrets.”
The same study found that the greatest source of death anxiety was the inability to witness one’s grandchildren or other loved ones growing up, highlighting how the simple things suddenly take priority when the mortal hourglass runs low.
And while very little additional research has been conducted on this subject, author and palliative nurse Bonnie Ware’s poignant book entitled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying confirms the importance of personal relationships. “It all comes down to love and relationships in the end,” she writes. “That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”
According to Ware, the top regret expressed by dying patients is the failure to be true to themselves, instead living the life that others expected of them. “Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made,” she explains.
This is followed by a regret about working too much, with the result being that people often spent less time with their partner or kids than they would have liked. Number three on the list was the regret of having suppressed one’s feelings in order to avoid upsetting others.
“As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming,” says Ware, who even claims the "bitterness and resentment” this aroused may have been the cause of some patients’ illnesses.
Sorrow over not having stayed in touch with old friends was the fourth most common regret, while the final item on the list relates to a failure to allow oneself to be fully happy. “Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice,” writes Ware.
“Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
The key to a regret-free life, then, may be to put your friends and family first, have the courage to be your true self, and lose your inhibitions about being silly. All of these may seem easier said than done, but as Ware points out, “when you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind.”
“How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.”