Regrets of the Dying Inspire Living

“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, but writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume with what he vowed to make it.” – J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister

If you were on your death bed right now, looking back on your life, what would you regret most?

Ironically, one of the best ways to prioritize what matters most, and to discover the best way to live your life to the fullest, is to think about dying. We can learn a lot from dying, but by then of course, it’s too late…   

Do you think you won’t have any regrets later in life? Most people do regret something along the way. In fact, many people often have some of the same or similar regrets. In a recent article and book, a hospice care nurse composed a list of the top 5 regrets of the dying. The list is moving in several ways. 

Reading the list of “most common regrets”, and thinking about death, and how short and fragile life is, prompts me to reexamine my own life history, similarly to how I felt after my mom passed away and I found myself parentless. I’m forced to think about what I want to do differently moving forward. What really matters, at the end? How can we live our lives so we don’t have the same regrets when we’ve reached those final days? Even after reading, learning and knowing what the common regrets are among those who’ve gone before us, it can still be challenging to avoid regret. Striving to live a regret-free life challenges you to make tough decisions and then act upon them.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”  – Bronnie Ware. Top 5 Regrets of the Dying

People think it’s easy, selfish, and simple to follow your dreams and desires in life, to go after what you want and what you know is best for you. But often, getting to where you know you’re supposed to be in life can be much more trying than it is to live complacently. It’s often much easier to go with the flow, and the status quo, to maintain appearances and live by the rules and order of how your life is “supposed” to go, according to….whom?

When reading about the regrets of the dying my thoughts also naturally turn to my mother’s final days… How did she feel as she reflected back upon her 73 years of life? Did she have a lot of regret? And if so, did she have some of these “most common” regrets as she lay in her hospice bed, laboring to take her final breaths?

If my mother’s stormy moods throughout the years were any indication, my guess is that she definitely had regrets, though she never would have admitted them, even as she prepared to leave this world.

I have some ideas as what Mom’s regrets may have been, but it’s just speculation, because again, she would never have admitted to having any regrets.

Mom’s first marriage, to my father, was a long and happy marriage, for the most part I think, but ended too soon when he died suddenly at age 52. Her second marriage was nearly as long as the first, but was an unhappy marriage, and probably didn’t end soon enough.

But from what I can surmise, based on how Mom acted after Dad died, things she said, plus a few things my older siblings have told me about my mom and dad’s relationship, my guess would be that she felt she had taken him for granted. Maybe she didn’t feel she had expressed her love and gratitude to him enough, which is why it was so painful for her that he died so suddenly, before she had a chance to show him and tell him a few last times before he was gone forever.

I don’t agree with my mom’s philosophy on grieving. She always said that the reason people cry when a person dies is not so much because they miss the person… she said that people cry for selfish reasons, because they had regrets, guilt, or unfinished business with the deceased. So she said as she shed thousands of tears over the death of my father. So that’s how I know she definitely felt regret over some aspect of her marriage to my dad, but I’m not sure what the regret was based upon specifically.

My mom remarried a year and a half after my dad passed away. Many friends and people in the community whispered that it was too soon. Perhaps it was. She devoted 20 years of her life to someone with whom she was not happy. Did she regret staying with her second husband all those years?  I’m not sure she would have been happy with anyone else after my father, so I don’t blame my stepfather for her unhappiness. Besides, my mom chose to marry him, and she could have made a different choice. But, after remarrying an old friend rather hastily, she was committed. She would tell you it was a matter of principle, of religious doctrine, and commitment, as her Catholic faith doesn’t recognize divorce. But I can’t help but wonder if it was a matter of fear – a fear of change, a fear of failure, and a fear of judgment by others.

So she pressed on. Did she regret remarrying so soon? Is she glad she invested those 20 years, for whatever her reasons? I’d have asked her this question myself, if I thought she’d have given me an honest answer.

My mother’s situation is one example of how living one’s life to avoid regret, may have proven more difficult than easy. Change is difficult, and choosing not to marry my step-father would have required her to live on her own for the first time in her 50+ year life. So she went with what she thought was the safe choice, I’m sure. Then, once she was married, making a decision and taking action to correct or change her situation would have been much more difficult and challenging than she might have been able to handle, especially after surviving my Dad’s death, widowhood, and all the change and sorrow that goes along with losing a spouse suddenly and relatively young. 

Do my mom’s regrets even matter anymore at this point in time? She has been gone since 2004. I suppose her regrets matter to me for the same reason the nurse’s list of the Top 5 Regrets is of interest to readers – because hopefully we can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who have gone before us, especially those with whom we share life experience and genetic code..

What regrets do you fear most? What regrets are you taking action to avoid? What would you add to the list? And what advice would you give to others to try to live their lives free of regret?

I already have regrets, that cannot be undone. In the summer of 2004 I should have asked my mom about her regrets in life. Even if she would have chosen not to share them with me candidly, at least I could be at peace with the fact that I attempted to learn about them, and to take them to heart for guidance in my own future.

How do you die without feeling regret? Hopefully the way my dad did it was not the only way to do so – he died instantly, so, he had no time to feel regret whatsoever.

Don’t let sudden death be the only way you can die without feeling regret. Start living your life, for you and only for yourself, today.

You’re pretending this isn’t your life. You think it’s going to happen some other time. When you’re dead you’ll realize you were alive now.  – Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest