It wasn’t the big homes or expensive cars, membership in the right social clubs or having a closet full of designer clothes.
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In the end, none of that mattered.
Instead, they wished they would have set aside time to enjoy the things in life too often overlooked — sunrises and sunsets, reading a book with their children, an act of kindness toward a stranger.
Most people eventually learn the lessons of how to conduct a satisfying life. But for many, those lessons come too late.
Instead of being the person they could or should have been, they have spent a lifetime denying their true passions. They have missed tee-ball games and dance recitals, canceled dinner with friends and ignored the promise to their spouses of ’til death do us part.
And, in the end, what they thought was more important — the jobs, the money, the status, the cars — never brought about their ultimate goal: Fulfillment.
Now, as they face death, there is no time for do-overs. Instead, it’s a time for regrets.
In the best-selling book, “The Five Top Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing,” the author, Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, spoke with individuals who were approaching their final days and asked them if there were things in their past they would do differently.
It’s a thought-provoking look at how people lived their lives compared to how certain decisions pulled them away from the things that should have mattered the most.
The five most common regrets compiled by Ware included:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
They are the kind of regrets social workers and volunteers with Hospice of Washington County hear almost on a daily basis.
“Death inspires people to reveal or consider revealing parts of themselves that may have been unspoken,” said Dr. Eileen Stanzione, LCSW-C, PhD and director of bereavement services for the local Hospice. “It may be dreams or wishes that were unfulfilled or it may be secrets.”
Among the examples Stanzione shared was the story of a Vietnam veteran who said he always wanted to go back to Vietnam as the love of his life was there, as well as a child he fathered with her. He never had the resources to visit his child and the mother. He also had a lifelong regret that he hadn’t told his American children that they had a stepbrother.
There was a woman who wished she had had the opportunity to travel more and another patient who revealed she had never told her daughter that she had been adopted. Others wished they hadn’t worked so hard or spent so much time acquiring material possessions.
Then, there is the touching story of a man who was dying of cancer.
“I went prior to the death and met with him and his wife,” Stanzione shared. “He took the opportunity while I was guiding the conversation to say that he wished he had been more affectionate with his wife. She made hand gestures indicating that she wanted him to stop, as she didn’t agree. I indicated to her to let him talk. He wept when he said that he had seen other couples hugging in pubic. He felt bad that he hadn’t done more of that with his wife. He made his amends, in his own way, and it was important for his wife to hear. She told me later that he had never talked like that to her before.”
Stanzione isn’t sure she would call these experiences a clarity of vision.
“For some, yes,” she said. “For others, I think it is, instead, things left unspoken that can at last be said either to a trusted friend, a hospice worker, family member or whomever. It seems more like an internal pressure to make amends, to confess, to express bitterness or deep contentment. The end of life creates an internal pressure to die in peace. And dying in peace is part of our society’s mandate for the individual. We put it on our tombstones and on our social network sites — RIP — rest in peace. But people go about seeking peace of mind and resolution in their own ways.”
Stanzione said not all individuals have the opportunity to examine their lives.
“Some deaths are sudden and we don’t know what that person thinks,” she noted. “For example, we have dealt frequently with individuals who are grieving because their loved one died of a heart attack, a motor vehicle accident, suicide. This leaves individuals reflecting on the life of the deceased and wondering why he or she died, what they could have done differently, etc. It’s with great unease that they face the future. People, for a multitude of reasons, often blame themselves or someone else for a loved one’s death. We see it over and over again,” she said.
Then there are those with a prolonged illness, who have the advantage of having the time to say their good-byes and to express their thoughts to those around them.
“It’s something loved ones never forget,” Stanzione said. “They face the future with less guilt and may even develop a measure of resolve about what they want to do differently in their lives, based on the person’s early demise or his or her thoughts and dreams. Family members will often review the life of a loved one after death and understand, for perhaps the first time, that life is brief and knowing this in a personal way will often help them consider what they really want in life and go about figuring out how they will attain it. Whether they can do it, of course, is dependent upon their personal strengths and resources.”
One local social worker noted that while “there are oh so many regrets, the biggest appears to be family discord regrets.”
“Marriage, births and deaths are pivotal moments in a family’s life,” Stanzione further explained. “These experiences often bring to the surface and crystalize problems the family has that have not been addressed or resolved.”
Stanzione said death, in particular, “can be a very intense experience. The family’s complex negative undercurrents raise their ugly heads. I always tell people that from my many years of experience in working with people with terminal illnesses, I find that death is the trump card for revealing what is going well and what is not going well in the family. This is a double-edge sword, as family members and patients are coping with the illness with all of its complications, as well as very intense emotions and, at times, discord.”
Other regrets cited by social workers have often pertained to the milestones a person will be robbed of because of death.
“Many patients will say that they will not get to see their child or grandchildren graduate from college, marry or have a child,” Stanzione said. “Still others regret leaving their homes. Many people have invested so much of themselves in their homes or properties. They love that they were able to create a safe and welcoming home for their children and grandchildren and fear that the children will not understand that their home is really an extension of themselves and what was important to them while they lived.”
Some people regret that their death will mean their pets will be without them, she added. Many people, especially if they have spent much of their time alone, become attached to their pets and worry “because who will truly want and love them as they have been loved?”
“My experience with the dying is that there is a marked focus on others — wanting more time with others, worrying about others who won’t do well when they are gone, realizing that they were the hub of the wheel and now the kids will drift apart,” she shared.
But they also reflect on how their lives could have been different if they had taken better care of themselves.
“People who are dying will regret that they didn’t care more for their bodies and that now they feel guilty for dying because they abused alcohol and cigarettes and ate foods that were not good for their health,” Stanzione said. “They think, ‘If I had lost weight or taken care of my diabetes, I would still be around next year. Now, I won’t. I have been selfish and it is all my fault.’”
They also wish they could have loved themselves and others more, “but often say they didn’t know how,” she added.
In the end, Stanzione said, people don’t talk about their jobs or their cars or their accomplishments. They talk about how their wife cared for them 24/7 and how grateful they are or how much they wish they had spent more time with the family and had the nerve to express their true feelings to their families and friends. Or they may have someone call an estranged brother that they haven’t spoken to in 20 years and ask for a visit. And they make sure that their grandchildren get to go to Disneyland on their dime.”
Stanzione said there are valuable lessons the living can learn from the dying.
“Treasure the time you have on this earth and don’t waste time because you don’t know when your last day will be,” she said. “Everyone who works at Hospice understands intimately that there are no guarantees and one’s life can turn on a dime. All the wisdom that we gather from the dying speaks to being true to yourself, your feelings, your friends and family.”
As bereavement director, Stanzione said “we talk to so many people who have lost a loved one and are wracked with guilt about what was said or not said, what was done or not done, promises that were not kept or harsh words that were said. Sadly, we can’t undo what we have done or not done, said or not said. But we can learn from those wiser than ourselves about what to strive for in this life.”
A closer look at ‘The Five Regrets of the Dying’
In the book, “The Five Regrets of the Dying,” author Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, names the missed opportunities she most commonly has heard from her patients.
Dr. Eileen Stanzione of Hospice of Washington County, reflected on each of the regrets and what the living can learn from them.
1. I wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“As a lifelong therapist,” Stanzione said, “I am aware that this is a concern of many people — that somehow we lose ourselves by loving a man or a woman, or working at a job for money rather than for the love of it or that we give so much of ourselves away throughout life that when family members die, we don’t know who we are or what we wish to do with our futures. Many of our spouses verbalize these things after a death. But they also say that they would have had it no other say. Selfishness is part of being a care provider. Altruism is part of living; hopefully, it will continue to be so. In contrast, often people give away a part of themselves to others as part of a grand bargain we make to earn money, maintain a relationship, send children to college or keep a job. There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t stay true to themselves.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“Yes, we hear this all the time,” Stanzione said. “What does it all mean now that I am at the end of my life and I have not had enough time with my wife or my children? I never helped them like I thought I would. I never went on that vacation, etc., etc.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“This is a constant,” Stanzione noted. “I worked with a woman who regretted she hadn’t permitted her daughter to speak her true feelings about how she felt about dying or how she felt about the fact that she had never married and had a family of her own. Another mother regretted that she hadn’t the courage to stop caregiving for a moment and speak to her dying daughter. She was busy washing her daughter’s body when she realized that her daughter had spoken her last words and she said she hadn’t even looked up.
I kept doing what I thought was right, instead of saying good-bye.’ Oh, yes, this is all too common.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“We do hear this at times. This seems to go hand-in-hand with being true to oneself,” Stanzione said. “Often, people sacrifice friendship in the name of the family and their jobs or careers. They reflect on their old friendships as those time when they did things that they enjoyed.”
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
“This is a similar thought, too,” she said. “People regret working too hard or sacrificing too much and never having had the time to enjoy what they have or who they are with or expressing gratitude and pleasure for those who have stood by them and helped them and were their true friends, thick or thin. When people acknowledge others who were with them in good times and bad, this can create personal peace of mind. Sometimes, knowing that you have been loved and cared for, just for who you were, can bring happiness at the end of life and other times in life.”
— Marie Gilbert