People who work in hospice and palliative care are able to learn so much from those who are facing death. The last three to twelve weeks of a person’s life are those of reflecting back on their lives. For some, most of what they remember will be positive. For some, most will be negative. Far too many people end their lives with feelings of regret that outweigh feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. Those who still have their wits about them experience a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Most are hoping to find peace before they depart from this world. It seems regrets are the greatest obstacle to finding that inner peace. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surface again and again. Here are the most common five that have been reported by elderly caretakers:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Therefore, what we can learn is, that while we are still able, we need to make choices that honor our true selves as much as we possibly can. Most people do not realize how much freedom they really have while they are in health. They only appreciate it when it is gone.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard or so much.
This is the most common complaint among male patients. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. They deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the work treadmill, and not enough of their lives with friends and family. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. Many women regretted that they had NOT gone to work or earned their own money.
It seems there needs to be more balance. People need fulfilling work and time for hobbies, recreation, enjoyment, and socializing. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more enjoyable and suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. People regretted most not telling their loved ones how much they loved them. They regretted not showing their love with affection, time, and communication. They also regretted spending too much time and energy with those who could not or would not be able to love them the way they wanted and needed to be loved.
One of the benefits of growing older is that we become more confident and comfortable about who we are. We should be able to express who we are and have others respect us. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. If not, it can end an unhealthy relationship. Either way, it is much better for your health overall.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often people do not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and then it is not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks -- love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common regret. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They tended to stay stuck in old patterns and habits. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. Most revealed that deep within, they felt they had missed out on happiness, laughter and fun. They felt they had taken life much too seriously and worried far too much. This made them wish they could have a “do-over.”
When you are on your deathbed, it is not so much the things you DID in your life that you will regret, it is more the things you DIDN’T do. Just think of how wonderful it would be to let go and just be who you are now, long before you are dying. How wonderful it would be to let go and let yourself be happy. To let go and let yourself love freely. To end your life with fulfillment rather than regret. Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, and choose honestly. Choose your own happiness!