Regrets of the Dying = A Lesson For The Living

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse.

She has spent a number of years working in palliative care, supporting a variety of patients who are trying to come to grips with the fact that they have only days left to live.

You can imagine that the nature of this work has allowed her to spend a considerable amount of time engaging and speaking with people who, upon knowing that they are about to reach the end of their lives, have been able to look back and pick out and divulge the bits they loved, the bits they loathed… and the bits they wish they’d never allowed to happen.

Over the course of time, Ware began to notice several common themes which she collated into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, available to buy on Amazon.

The ‘Five Regrets’ have since featured on various sites across cyberspace, and so you may already be acquainted with them, but for me they serve as both an interesting and very valuable read which is worth sharing again.  I love a good old inspirational quote – and the likes of scholars, philosophers and successful entrepreneurs provide us with these in abundance, but the lessons we can learn from ordinary people, just like you and I, resonate much deeper within me.  Evidently, they had the same affect on Ware, who saw the potential that this information had to change the lives of those who still (*touch wood*) have the time left to act upon these lessons.

So here we go – the Five most frequently cited Regrets of the Dying, each followed by own personal take on them.

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

Maybe I’m completely wrong about my interpretation of this one, but here goes anyway…

There seems to be this uncodified yet uniform belief and expectation that by the time you reach the end of your life, your personal timeline will probably read something like this:

Birth -> Childhood -> School -> Work -> Marriage -> Own Home -> Children -> Retirement -> Death

I’m sure we’d all be happy with a timeline like this, but I think sometimes there’s far too much emphasis on this one particular trajectory, so much so that it almost comes across as an expectation that society has – an expectation that either you will actively seek to do the following or… be questioned, whether directly or indirectly, as to why not.

Expectations aren’t always bad things, sometimes they can act as marker points that help us move forward and progress.   But other times they can be somewhat dangerous, in that they can lead to inferiority complexes or anxieties.  People might worry that they can’t match up to a particular ‘expectation’, even if they’d like to.  Perhaps people will worry that they may never find somebody to marry, or maybe they’ll worry that just because they had an x, y or z kind of education, that their future is already written in the stars for them and that nothing they do now will change that.  But most frightening of all, is that people might worry that they are not good enough, and that their life choices aren’t respectable enough in the eyes of those around them, and this is perhaps the saddest part.

Ultimately, the quote says it all.  Trying to live up to any apparent expectations is a waste of time and a barrier to true happiness.

With anything you do, there’ll always be somebody somewhere who disagrees with it.  I don’t mean that in a negative way, but a positive one.  The reality is that there’s no point even trying to fit in with other peoples’ expectations, so save your time and stress and just follow your own.

The outside of the box can be a very scary place to be, you could end up anywhere and the possibilities aren’t always good.  By all means the inside is more secure, but it can also be at times claustrophobic and doesn’t always have as interesting a view. 

In the end, you have to do what is right for you.  It doesn’t matter if people ask questions about why you have or haven’t done particular things.  Live and let live, but for your own good, don’t let other peoples’ expectations dictate your life.  The truth is that there are a multitude of ways in which a life can be lived.  Do the things you truly want to do – be it getting married and having children or staying single and travelling around the world with your own business – and then, unlike a lot of the people featured in Bronnie Ware’s research, you’ll die without having the most common regret of the dying.  You will have lived a life true to yourself.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Ok.  Some facts:  Work is essential to survive.  Work gives us purpose.  Work challenges us. Work rewards us and, most importantly, Work prevents us from spending all of our days sitting on the sofa dunking digestive biscuits into a cup of tea whilst watching Jeremy Kyle.  We may often moan or worry about Work, but if we didn’t have it our lives would be far more complicated, fiscally much more stressful, and much more lacking in purpose.  You need only look at the various statistics denoting the link between unemployment and depression to know that this is more than just a personal opinion, it’s a reality.

But – let’s stop massaging Work’s ego and making it out to be some kind of heroic deity sent down from the Heavens to save us, because there are limits to the wonderful things that Work can do for us, and in actuality, we need more than just Work to survive and feel fulfilled.  There are some things that Work just can’t, or won’t, ever do for us.

Work won’t love us back.  Work can’t give us a hug.  Work might help us afford the ingredients but it won’t help us actually cook the dinner for our families, or tidy our houses.  Work can also dump us at any time without warning, if Work so needs.  Work won’t sit with us and share a cocktail whilst looking out over a sunset, and Work won’t sit and listen to you share your innermost thoughts and emotions in the way that family or friends can.  Ultimately, when you look back over your life and pick out the most memorable and happy moments, Work probably won’t (and nor should it!) feature as often as your loved ones will.

All in all, Work is somebody you need to keep close, but not too close – a friend who has the capacity to be a bit of a bitch at times.  And so the solution comes in finding the optimum work-life balance, and that can be hard, but it is most certainly a necessity.  Work at work.  Be free in your free-time.  And do whatever it takes to enable it to be that way.

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

I’ll be short and sweet about this one.

If somebody cannot respect your feelings, regardless of whether or not they agree, get them out of your life.  Immediately.

The more respectful the people around you are, the less courage you’ll feel you need to be able to express your feelings without fear of any reprisals.

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

Of the Five regrets, I think this is probably the more easier to sustain – thanks in large to the likes of social networking and other forms of technology that put our friends as far away only as the palms of our hands.  Such technology was probably not available or as prominently used by the generation which was the focus of Ware’s research.

Indeed, this hasn’t always been the case – you need only go back a few decades and the only form of communication accessible to all, aside from face to face interaction, were handwritten letters sent in the post. Before these, there was barely anything.  If you weren’t in close proximity to somebody then that was it,  good luck finding out how they were without relying on the likes of carrier-pigeons or paper cups adjoined by long pieces of string.

But despite how much easier it is now, I still see that this is an important value to adhere to.

I’m the sort of person who can go weeks, sometimes months, without getting in touch with some of my friends.  It doesn’t mean the love is lost, it’s just a natural by-product of everybody being so damn busy these days, and the weeks speeding by so much faster because of this.  Regardless, the people who are the most important to you should be in your heart and mind all the time, no matter how frequent or infrequent the literal contact.

Just remember to check-in once in a while, at least.


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

I wasn’t completely sure what was meant by this one so I read further into Ware’s article:

“Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. 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”

I understand what Ware means, but I also think that a general sense of ‘always wanting more’ is another thing which can lead to people not being as happy as they ought to be.

There is always going to be another step up you can take in life, always something more you can obtain – a new relationship, a better paid job, a new phone – but there seems to only ever be a certain period of time before things begin to plateau and you’re already thinking about the next step up – marriage, an even BETTER paid job, a phone which doubles up as a treasure trove of everything you’ve ever needed (and everything you didn’t.)

Maybe what people sometimes regard as an ambition is one of the biggest contributors to people not being as happy as they could be, or not, as the Regret implies, allowing themselves to be as happy as they could be.  Seldom do people ever think or accept that they’ve reached a peak.  All too often, there’s this ‘one thing that’s missing’.

The solution?

Stop thinking about that extra step so much.  Enjoy the plateau for a little bit longer sometimes.  It’s not always about the heights you’re reaching but the fun you’re having whilst you’re experiencing all of it.  If you like where you’re at then stay there until you feel any different.


And that’s it, the five most common regrets which Ware noticed were expressed by her patients.

I think the conclusion is pretty clear – stay true to yourself, live in the moment and keep a hold of what’s really important.  Apparently, that’s all we need do to avoid having any regrets later down the line…

And I can believe that.

Song of the Day:  Mint Royale – Show Me

Not entirely sure what the fan-made video is about, but this is a tune-and-a-half. “Jabulani siyashada namhla”.  Indeed.