What Dying Can Teach Us About Living

“The peace each of these dear people found before their passing is available now, without having to wait until your final hours. You have the choice to change your life, to be courageous, to live a life true to your heart, one that will see you pass without regret. ”

Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Every now and again, the stuff doing the rounds on Facebook, or via the ever-present email, pricks ones ears up. I’ve heard about Bronnie Ware before, and perhaps you have too, but take a break and revisit this one with me. It might change your view of the world and your place in it…

After years of unfulfilling work, Bronnie Ware began her search for employment that had meaning. Despite her lack of qualifications and experience, she found herself working in palliative care.

During the countless hours she spent tending to the needs of her dying patients, Bronnie’s life was transformed. In 2009, she wrote a blog article titled Regrets of the Dying, which gained enormous momentum online. In it she explored the five regrets she’d heard over and over again from her patients. Following the popularity of the blog post, Bronnie authored a memoir that became a bestseller.

So, what are the nuts and bolts of Bronnie’s message?

In short, she says, “My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth.”

Bronnie goes on to share how working with dying people and developing close relationships with them in their last weeks often resulted in uncluttered, open and honest conversations about life and death, including the things patients wished they’d done differently.

As barriers fell and time turned to reflection, Bronnie noticed she was hearing the same things over and over again. She identified five regrets that show up in 90% of conversations about a life coming to its end. Here’s the short version…

  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 didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

Let’s take a closer look at the thoughts Bronnie shared on each of those five regrets…

(I’m quoting her verbatim, from the original blog post)

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 realise 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 honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

 

I wish I didn’t work so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

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 suited to your new lifestyle.”

 

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.

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. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.”

 

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was 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. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

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. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

 

I wish I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. 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.

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.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”

 

 

There you have it – five poignant lessons from people who realised it was time to reflect and be brutally honest with themselves. I don’t have the courage to work in the field Bronnie does, but I know her experience of those five lessons to be true for a few reasons.

First, when told I had three years to live, (9:30am, 11th April 2003 – not that I’m counting) similar thoughts and feelings emerged for me. Second, my sister’s battle with the same disease brought it up all over again years later. It’s fair to say that I’ve put plenty of thought into this one.

When it all comes down to it, the truth is that list of regrets is uttered by people who, despite perhaps fighting valiantly with life’s challenges, ultimately gave up. I may be unpopular for saying this, but I believe your future happiness is important enough that I’ll risk being blunt…

If you are not engaged in a full body contact, smash down, drag out, winner take all battle with life designed to force it to suit you and the way you want it – that list above will start falling out of your mouth when your body demands that you stop and take notice.

I’ve been told a thousand times that I live in dreamland, that life demands you fit in with it. “The bills have to be paid you know…” “Kids just don’t take care of themselves…”

That’s true – but we all make our choices. Many people just want the choices without the consequences.

 

Check Bronnie’s list again. You’ll find that those regrets are not about what was going on, whether the bills needed paying, who was there, how the job went, taking care of the kids or paying the mortgage.

They are about our inner life. They’re about the person we are in the midst of all the chaos and turmoil. They are about wishing that the strength could have been found, the courage developed, the willpower exerted…

Yes – it takes all sorts of wonderful inner characteristics to:

  • Switch to a career that may turn out to be a disaster
  • Turn the television off and call someone, knowing it will be time consuming and/or difficult
  • Tell someone you object to their words or deeds
  • Get up and leave the office knowing it’s all mounting up
  • Stand up for what you believe in, in the face of almost certain criticism
  • Decide to celebrate the ordinary

Those internal strengths are not given out at birth.

You have to fight yourself everyday to avoid what’s easy and battle with the difficult. You have to find the guts to hang in there, knowing that a number of small victories add up to being the person you want to be. To the life you want to live.

It isn’t easy.

But neither is dying with a heart broken by your lack of support for the one person who needed it most – you.

 

Find Bronnie Ware’s original blog article here http://www.bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying