Thursday, 8 December 2011

Deathbed regrets

If you're on your deathbed, the chances are you'll be reflecting on your life and how well or badly it went. And in many cases, you'll be regretting something or other you didn't do, or didn't do whole-heartedly enough.

An Australian woman* who spent many years looking after dying patients and listening to what they said about their lives has come up with a fascinating list of the five major regrets they mentioned most often.

1) "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
2) "I wish I hadn't worked so hard."
3) "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings."
4) "I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends."
5) "I wish I'd let myself be happier."

How sad that so many people feel their life was a false one and they repressed their real self, hid their feelings and stifled their happiness. We still think far too much about other people's expectations, or imagined expectations, and feel we have to change our own behaviour accordingly. It's very hard to just be yourself, however bizarre or outrageous or inappropriate this might seem to others.

How common too that people wish they hadn't worked so hard and spent more of their time enjoying their own personal pleasures, or doing things with their partners or children. Sometimes this is our own fault, chasing after perfection and unachievable goals. Sometimes it's the nature of the job and long hours are necessary simply to get the work done. But either way, it's not healthy.

And how difficult it can be to stay in touch with friends when we're all leading such busy lives. When we're rushing from one urgent task to another, friendships can easily be neglected for so long they lapse altogether. Then a few years down the line we discover all those bosom buddies we used to have such fun with have somehow vanished. And our psychological well-being suffers.

What a shame we don't take a good look at what we're getting out of life while there's still time to do things better. Once you're on your deathbed and heading for oblivion, it's too late.

* Bronnie Ware is a writer and singer/songwriter from New South Wales.


  1. If I were dying tomorrow I don't think I would have any regrets. I live my life as I please, see my friends regularly and tell my sons I love them often.

  2. It's only no.1 that I think I will have a problem with. I have been working on it this year and have gone a little way to overcoming my fear of what will happen if I don't do what people expect of me.
    There has been nagging, but I have stuck to my guns.

  3. Sometimes we need reminded to just relax and be ourselves. It's ok to lie en masse on the sofa eating chocolate biscuits if that's what you want to do. Better that than all the household in different rooms, playing on different electronic devices!

    *plans lots of sofa lying, en masse, for the school holidays*

  4. Having watched many of my loved ones and friends die with unfulfilled dreams, I now live in the moment. Right this moment it is sitting at the window watching the trees dancing to the tune of high winds, while I am warm and cosy indoors!

  5. Myra - I wouldn't have any regrets either. I've had a very enjoyable and interesting life and I can't think of anything important that's missing from it.

    Scarlet - An intriguing experiment. Isn't it tricky though, ignoring other people's expectations and being true to yourself?

  6. Speccy - Yes, what's wrong with relaxing and doing nothing now and again? So much of our habitual rushing around is not actually necessary. Or good for us.

    Grannymar - I know, so many people have unfulfilled dreams that they've never had the courage or the determination to turn into reality.

  7. Number 2 is so totally true of me. (Not!!!) My life is fairly regret free I think. But then I start thinking and think ... if I'd stopped worrying earlier or had more confidence or ... blah blah - but I'll reach the end content and life is but a journey. (ooooh, I knew I should have been a philosopher!)

  8. Liz - As long as you reach the end content, however much you've worried or doubted during your life, that's the important thing.

  9. I've worked with a lot of terminally ill patients (one of my specialty areas) and what I find is that people far more often regret things they haven't done than things they have. I often suggest to patients that they put things to the deathbed test - will they be regretting a particular decision or act on their death bed? Or will they regret passing up an opportunity?

  10. Secret Agent - I've heard that before about people regretting what they haven't done. I like the idea of the deathbed test - it must focus minds wonderfully.

  11. nick thank you for this blog... I used some of the "stats" in my brothers eulogy

  12. John - I'm trying to imagine how you could have used my post in your eulogy! But I'm glad it was useful. I'm sorry your brother was wrenched from life so prematurely.

  13. Sometimes circumstances make us work so hard and long. I don't know what I'd change. I don't have any regrets, I follow my dreams now that I've been given a reasonably long life.

    Friends tell me I have enormous courage to hold my nose and jump like I have. I don't feel it's courage, I think it's recognition of this ONLY wild and crazy life I have and I just suit up and show up for it every day.

    And yes, I am enjoying it so very much.

  14. A very interesting and thought-provoking post, Nick. It's a good list which rings true for so many of us, I think. I've had regrets along all those lines at one time or another.

  15. I probably regret having not done a few things but mostly my situation is through my own folly. I think I'll try to remember the things I HAVE done which are all pretty cool

  16. www - You really seem to have found your true self and your true home. You've done what's right for you and not been seduced by "normal behaviour". So it's not surprising you're enjoying yourself!

    Heart - I don't have any serious regrets about my life but yes, I'm also prone to some of those tendencies, like not letting myself be happy and not expressing my feelings enough.

    Baino - I think your big problem is that nobody wants to buy the sprawling Baino estate and throw you loads of dosh! True, we need to remember all the cool and amazing things we've done rather than the things left undone.

  17. Nick, I took a long time over responding to the five regrets. I thought about how my life has panned out so far and how it is likely to in the future. I am not being facetious.

    1) I am trying to internalise the fact that I do not have the free will that I think I have. My life is being lived for me. It is foolish to expect that I live my life.

    2) In all honesty, I never worked in my life. My definition of work is doing something that I do not want to do.

    3) I have always expressed my feelings. The only time that they have failed to elicit an appropriate response is when the other person was either hard of hearing or is a narcissist, or both, who blocks out such communications.

    4) This is one regret that I plead not guilty to. I have stayed in touch with my friends and I am blessed in that many of my friends too have reciprocated.

    5) I don't think that I had or have a choice in letting myself be happier.

    And there is just one regret that I have now and that too I believe is due to my life not being lived by me but being lived for me by karmic forces. I am unlikely to whip myself for it.

  18. Ramana - Very thoughtful and intriguing response. It's true that sometimes we're obliged to do certain things and there's no free will. An unusual definition of work - I would call that duty rather than work. Glad you've always felt able to express your feelings. I think I was deterred at an early age by my very authoritarian and feeling-averse father.

  19. why is regret wrong? Why is anything negative to be shunned? I'm very wary of those that have no regrets, no mistakes, no missed do you learn if everything is always so right???

  20. Young At Heart - Hmmm, I think there's a difference between thinking you missed a few valuable opportunities or made some poor choices, and on the other hand regretting the results and wishing something else had happened. Too many regrets can be depressing and debilitating.

  21. Once again I agree with Scarlet Blue - number one is more difficult. There's duty, obligations, whatever you want to call it - which may totally go against self-expression, fulfilment, realisation, etc. But sometimes putting other people first feels right - or if not right, less wrong than not.
    It's a trade-off.
    Not necessarily a regret then - just one of those things in life.

  22. Blackwater - Exactly. There are so many social pressures that make being your real self very difficult. And personally I'm very reluctant to say or do anything that may be grossly offensive or upsetting.