5 Regrets of the Dying

5 Regrets of the Dying

For many years I worked in palliative care.

My patients were those who had gone home to die. I used to think they were weak, that they’d given up, until I realized how sick they were. I mean, they were really sick.

Despite having no formal medical training (I found the job on Craigslist) or any interest at all in the medical field, I had the honor of being with these people the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. Often my smiling face was the last thing they saw before darkness overcame them.

I spent those last days, hours, and minutes with them asking them question after question about their regrets, ways they wasted their lives, and how they had completely screwed things up. 

People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I saw it in the face of one woman who after four weeks with me nonstop (often with me strumming my guitar, I was working on an album) died with a smile on her face, as if she had finally found peace.

Even faced with certain death, many of my patients delighted me with their sense of humor. One time Larry pretended to be dead so he wouldn’t have to eat the food I prepared or answer my questions about his life regrets. What a joker! He passed away the next day.  

When I asked my patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes emerged, such as, Will you please leave us alone, my granddaughter is trying to read this book to me before I die, or, I’d like to just spend some time here with my family without you playing your guitar.  

Overall here are the top regrets I discovered when speaking with the dying. 

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

Whenever I peppered my new arrivals with questions about their life, many of them would look at me strangely and say, I’d rather not talk about it, can I just please sit here with my own thoughts?

Sometimes I’d have to insist on an answer. If you want this glass of water, I’d say, I really need you to list your top five regrets on this paper first.

What I learned from seeing their sad faces as they answered my questions so that they could be given their painkillers, is that it’s very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. I mean, most won’t come true, but maybe one small, tiny dream will. Don’t give up that tiny, small, minuscule, insignificant dream.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

This came from every male patient that I cared for. They missed playing with their children and their partner’s companionship. Women also mentioned this regret, but more so this came from men from an older generation who were the sole financial providers.

All these men I spoke to deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence, which is why when I told them about my plans to have long sabbatical in Bali with my boyfriend if only I could get a few more thousand dollars they seemed totally fine when I pawned some of their belongings. It was their way of saying thank you to me for the joy that I brought them during their final moments.

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

Many people push down 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.

This is why it was so important that I had my patients get in touch with their feelings. Instead of me waiting on you hand and foot, I'd say, I'm going to go to the bar. Why don't you try to express your feelings to yourself out loud here as practice while I'm gone?  

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

Often those dying would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. It’s understandable to get so caught up with life that you forget your friends. One patient asked me to call their best friend they hadn't spoken to in years and when I called them and said Gerald wanted to speak with him the man said, Who the hell is that?

I didn’t have the heart to tell Gerald but later I realized I might have dialed the wrong number because some of the phone keys were sticky. The point is everyone misses their friends when they’re dying.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.

This is actually the title song on my album, "Let Myself Be Happy." It's the song that I played for many of my patients as they lay dying. I could see this song appealed to them, deep into their souls. I saw it in that wild look in their eyes.

They longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. They wanted to laugh the way I did when their will was changed to list me as the sole beneficiary. They wanted to smile the way I did I slipped that diamond ring off their finger for safekeeping in my pocket. 

Choose happiness. Do it now so that when you are on your deathbed you know you did everything you could to live a life true to yourself and you won't just be a cranky old person who is constantly ringing the bell and asking for water and drugs and a cold washcloth on your forehead even though it's 4am in the morning and you don't seem to care that you're annoying your extremely-sleep deprived caregiver so much that she slips a little extra painkiller into your IV and you die the day before your family is set to arrive to say their goodbyes.

Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose to buy my book and also my life mentoring course and also come to my retreat in Bali, it will truly CHANGE YOUR LIFE. We will talk to an actual dying person to get a first hand perspective. Be well, and live without regrets.