Afterthoughts

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6 Life Regrets: What dying people wish they’d done differently and what you can learn from it

What’s your biggest regret in life? How deeply do you already regret whatever it is you regret? And how heavy would it weigh on your chest if you knew you would die tomorrow, next week or next month? Obviously, you will treat the latter as a hypothetical question. You might even brush it off and choose to not read any further. It might be a waste of time after all. Death is not around the corner, not for the majority of us, not just now anyway – or at least it hasn’t announced itself yet.

We all know we are going to die. It’s the cycle of life. Yet, most of us live as if we had at least another decade or even another three or five decades guaranteed. Time can be a funny thing. We live with the illusion that there will always be tomorrow to do this or that because none of us knows when we are going to die. We might say or think things like: “There will be time for this once the kids are grown up.” or “There will be time for this once I have made £100.000 or £1.000.000.” or “There will be time for this once I am retired.” And so we postpone. We hold back. We push it just another month or year or decade. And before we know it, we are old or sick – despite or because of our choices. Before we know it, our time is up.

This blog post is about the biggest regrets of dying people. They have shared them with hospice workers, doctors, family members and friends. The regrets we share here are universal. They may seem very obvious and simple. Yet, even though many of us are aware of their importance on an intellectual level and might wholeheartedly agree, our choices often don’t reflect that. If you ever get to sit with a person who is at the end of their life and allows themselves to be vulnerable and open about their biggest regrets, don’t undervalue the gift they are offering you. 

It is not about lying on your death bed without any regrets. It is about becoming fully present in your life in the here and now – for yourself as well as for those that you love dearly. It is about choosing the path you take with intention and showing up fully so that when your life comes to an end one day the regrets you have won’t make it hard for you to let go.

1. I wish I’d lived more in the moment and not worried so much

Most of us are either caught up in our past in one way or another – that includes the recent past as in the rude guy who cut us off in traffic this morning – or we worry about the future. Some of us have whole screenplays of worst-case “what if…”-scenarios running in our heads, hoping that they will prepare us for the pain or disappointment if any of them ever become real. It doesn’t achieve anything and only takes away our joy, though. And we can’t change the past, so the wisest and kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to let it go and focus on what we have power over. There is a reason why ‘mindfulness’ practices that help to become aware and fully present in the here and now have become extremely popular. Studies have shown that living more in the moment through mindfulness can improve our mental as well as our physical health. It seems that too many of us realise way too late how much time and energy we are wasting on things that shouldn’t have mattered for longer than 15 minutes. Or we end up regretting the hours, days or even weeks we spent stressing or feeling anxious about things that never came to happen and let it impact our relationship with others and towards ourselves.

“Worrying is a waste of time. It doesn’t change anything. It messes with your mind and steals your happiness.” – Ziad K. Abdelnour

2. I wish I’d taken better care of myself.

One of the most precious things we can be blessed with is good physical and mental health. And even though we have probably heard a hundred times or more that we can’t buy it with money, most of us readily jeopardise both with everyday choices we make. We might not sleep enough, move our bodies too little or push them too hard or ignore illnesses and injuries for too long, work too hard, not eat well enough, drink too much, or engage in other reckless behaviours that put our well-being at risk. It’s not about one or two big choices but the many small choices we make on a daily basis. We are stuck with this body and mind and if we don’t take good enough care of both, we might end up relying on someone else to take care of us sooner than we thought or have to live with ailments and illnesses for many years. Those who have reached the end of their lives and have been suffering bad health regret most that they didn’t take better care of themselves when they were younger.

3. I wish I had spent more quality time with my family and friends.

The only thing that counts at the end of the day, at the end of our life is love. It’s so simple. It sounds so cheesy. It is also very true. Not loving more or better, not showing or expressing their love more is one of the single biggest regrets dying people voice. Things, possessions, titles, trophies and money don’t matter after all. It’s the memories that they missed creating with their loved ones because something else seemed more important that they regret most. Other things might seem terribly important in the moment but if you weigh them against love and showing up for those that you care about, they are insignificant. If we are blessed with a few special relationships in our life, those that let us experience true connection and give us a sense of belonging, we can consider ourselves very lucky. These relationships deserve our time, energy and attention. They need to be nurtured and nourished because more often than not we cannot make up for the lost time. We also never know how much is left.

4. I wish I had been more true to myself and cared less about what others thought – I wish I’d lived a more authentic life.

We are all playing roles and wearing masks to some degree. However, sometimes we abandon ourselves to try and fit in, to get a sense of belonging, to be accepted, to please someone or meet someone’s expectations. Not only do we abandon ideas, dreams and hopes, we sometimes abandon whole aspects of our personality, of who we are at our very core. We don’t speak up. We don’t show up fully. And some of us end up living a life that is more driven by the worry about what other people might think than what feels true and right for them. Those who did that often or continuously end up regretting deeply that they wasted their years, maybe even most of their lives by not showing up and living authentically. It’s one of the biggest and most painful life regrets of the dying. In the past, this regret was often based on things like being secretly gay or not having a career as a woman and mother because it wasn’t accepted or becoming a mother simply because it was expected. In the future, it might stem more from feeling the pressure of society through many of us leading more public lives on social media and therefore feeling the need to keep up appearances there. It’s worth remembering that we only have this one precious life in this body and with this mind and that being uniquely and boldly ourselves is one of the biggest gifts we can bring to this world.

5. I wish I’d had been brave enough to be more vulnerable and show up imperfectly.

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you. In you, it’s courage and daring.” – Brené Brown

We all yearn to be seen and heard. Yet, as strong as this desire may be, most of us are equally scared of being truly seen in all their messiness and imperfection. This is the root of one of the seven biggest life regrets: Dying people often wish they had allowed themselves to be more vulnerable, to show and express their feelings without reservation, without holding back. We lead by example: If we dare to show up vulnerable and can admit how we are really feeling, it teaches those around us that it is not only okay but also safe to do the same. Relationships deepen and become more authentic when the pretence is being dropped (which ties into the above). There are no bad feelings, just uncomfortable ones. You could call them difficult feelings. They are all very human, though. When we dare to unpack them in front of others, we will realise that not only can we be accepted and loved while being perfectly imperfect but also that we are not alone in this. 

6. I wish I’d paid better attention to the little things and appreciated them more.

We take so many things for granted. Our health. Our five senses. Just the ability to see the beauty of nature, hear a special piece of music, know pleasure from pain when we are being touched, taste amazing food or recognise the scent of something burning which lets us realise we might be in danger. Having a warm bed to sleep in, especially when it’s cold and nasty outside. To have clean drinking water from the tap and a washing machine for our convenience. That we feel valued, appreciated or even loved by someone we care about. The grand gestures and big things in life can be awesome. But it’s the small things, the many, many small things that we tend to take for granted way too often that truly matter. Often, we run through our lives, focused on the rat race and the bigger picture and forget to appreciate the abundance of all the small things we already have and that make life good. Sometimes, we only realise all that we had when we are slowly or very suddenly losing it. And if we had paid more attention, if we would have made an effort to notice and be grateful, we might have been a lot happier with what we had and not gotten all too distracted by the shiny carrots dangling in front of us.

If you wish to dive deeper into the topic, you could have a look at Bronnie Ware’s blog post “Regrets of the Dying” that went viral a few years back and started a discussion on the topic. It earned her a book contract and her work has been translated into 32 languages.
At Safe Hands Funeral Plans, it is our mission to make end of life, a part of life. We believe that planning for your funeral should be a fact of life. We want you to get back to living life and enjoying it to the fullest with the peace of mind that end of life planning provides. If you would like to learn more, please have a look at our services or our “About Us” page. You can also contact us to ask any questions you might have.