Bronnie Ware: The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying
“Look at me now, Grace continued. ‘Dying. Dying! How can it be possible I have waited all of these years to be free and independent and now it is too late?'”
Bronnie Ware worked as a nurse in palliative care. She realized that most people that were about to die had several regrets. Things they had never learned in their life, items they had never taken care of. Now that they were dying, the time was gone to do what they had always dreamt of.
“The Five Top Regrets of the Dying” tells the stories of several of these patients. They came from all backgrounds of life, many were old, some were young. Most had never allowed themselves to be really happy, to life a life true to themselves, to really let people know what they were feeling. Some people though passed on with fond memories of their life. We also learn from them.
Ware let them speak to the reader in a very personal manner. She talks about the time they spent together, and she tells us the impact they had on her own life journey. The author’s ability to focus on the details makes it appear as if we ourselves are there with her and the “dearly departed”.
This is also what makes this book not an easy read – the same people that we connect with in this book inevitably die. You win a new friend each chapter and have to let him or her go after a couple of pages – there is no escaping the urgency of the messages: live your life now! Don’t wait until it is too late.
“They were all people who had been given the time to contemplate their lives. Those who go suddenly do not have such a luxury, and many of us will be amongst those too. It is so important to consider the life you are living now, as there may be little time given at your passing to find your peace.”
(Disclaimer: anything I have set in quotation marks below are actual sentences and phrases from the book itself.)
I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
This was by far the most common regret people felt.
Some people fear going against the grain. Grace, for example, only dared to make plans for her live after her abusive husband was gone – and was then diagnosed with terminal disease, likely induced, in a cruel twist of fate, by her husband’s smoking habit.
Others let the environment completely determine their state of mind. Thought patterns sneak in and take hold of their identity. Anthony was in his mid-thirties when an accident permanently confined him to a nursing home. Within months, his personality changed from joyful and energetic towards timid and disinterested. He was not able to overcome the monotony his environment exuded. He gave up on all the talents he was gifted with.
And then there are those who impose mental traps on themselves. Florence had become paranoid after her husband was sent to jail for shady business deals. She distrusted everyone around her until she was unable to leave. Her gorgeous mansion became a prison. If you let hatred or paranoia consume your soul, you mind can wither away under that burden, no matter how great your environment is. But any situation can only hold as much power over you as you let it.
“It takes fortitude to create big changes. The longer you stay in the wrong environment and remain its product though, the longer you deny yourself the opportunity to know true happiness and satisfaction. Life is too short to watch it go by, just because of fear that can be conquered if faced.”
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
“Out of the afternoon peace John stated, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard Bronnie. What a stupid fool I was”. Sitting in the other lounge chair on the balcony, I looked across at him. He needed no encouragement to continue. “I worked too damn hard and now I am a lonely, dying man. The worst part is that I have been lonely for the whole of my retirement and I need not have been.”
While working on something that is your true passion can be extremely fulfilling, many people work for reasons that are not authentic to them. They love the status their work gives them, they feel others depend on them, or they think they need more money. These are all external factors. As long as we don’t define what makes us happy, we will always be following somebody else’s lead. Since this kind of work is not anchored in our own life, the only way to feel any impact is through adding more work, slaving away for someone else or for a cause that is not ours and does not deserve our loyalty.
For example, John had successfully raised five children with his wife, but when she asked him to retire, there was always “just one more deal” to be closed – until his wife had died. Retiring alone, he realized that supporting his family so he could spend time with them was the original goal of his work.
At the end of our lives, possessions or other people’s opinions about us mean preciously little, as Charlie noted.
What matters instead is having worked because it was important to you, not because you feared scarcity, as Pearl noted.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
“After a while I suggested it wasn’t too late. But he disagreed. He was too frail to speak for long periods now, so that alone would have made it difficult.”
We take the possibility of expressing ourselves for granted, yet one day we may be too weak to talk with anyone about what matters to us. If we have never expressed ourselves during our lives, we may not know how to do it when it matters most. For example, Jozsef wanted to “express himself but didn’t know how”, and now he “died feeling like his family had never truly known him”.
Other people are afraid to admit their true feelings and become bitter as a self-preservation mechanism. When the time comes, all this “safety” matters little. But what has happened is that people have locked themselves into a prison of hatred and bitterness and are not able to make amends anymore.
We never know how much time we have left, as Jude remarks – a 44-year old mother who was dying of terminal disease. Gladly her estranged parents came back and rebuilt the bond with their daughter before she passed on.
Not only do the dying feel a need to say what they wanted to say, but also those that left behind are releaved when they could express their feelings, as they took the chance to be authentic when they still could.
And even if you think the other person can’t understand you, express yourself. Nanci was dying from Alzheimer’s, yet in a moment of clarity, she told her nurse, who had treated her very gently: “I think you’re lovely”. It was only a brief period of clarity, but full of warmth.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
“You imagine your friends will always be there. But life moves on and suddenly you find yourself with no one in the world who understands you or who knows anything about your history.”
Don’t take your friends for granted. It can happen so easily. Doris had simply stopped contacting her daughter, her family and friends over the years. Little by little, the contacts vanished, until there was no one who realized she even existed anymore.
Often, however, broken connections are easy to mend. It is always worth a try. Bronnie Ware was able to track down one old friend Doris had from childhood and school. Soon they were chatting on the phone, connecting over old stories and experiences.
Some people shut themselves out from their friends by following a destructive path. Elizabeth had become addicted to alcohol and was dying from diseases related to her addiction. The drug had steered her away from all her old friends, replacing them with new friends that were themselves addicted. Her family kept them away when she went through therapy, and only in her last days she was allowed contact again.
The more friends you make, the more people you meet, the more you can build up a supportive network. Harry had a strong sense of family, but he had also made friends through his activities – those friends now came and visited him all the time to be there while he was dying. It was important to him to not only see his children and grandchildren, but also friends of his own age – you need company of your own age too. Many people tend to focus only on their family when they get married. All of a sudden, they drop off the “face of the earth”, because everything they do is with their family. This is a mistake and it can make them lonely despite having a family. Thus, even if you get married, never lose contacts to friends outside of your marriage.
“Watching the roster of Harry’s support team only continued to emphasise the importance of this at the end. While it can be a gloomy time of sadness for others, the person actually dying wants to enjoy their remaining time as much as possible. Friends bring humour to sad times and this humour brings happiness to the dying person. Whether you are dying or not, friends are the ones capable of making you laugh through the worst of times.”
Regret #5: I wish I had let myself be happier
“It really is our own choice, isn’t it? We can stop ourselves from being happy because we think we don’t deserve it, or because we allow the opinions of others to become a part of who we are. But it is not who we are, is it? We can be whoever we allow ourselves to be.”
Happiness, too, is a choice you take every day. On the long run, being happy can become a habit.
Some people think they don’t deserve to be happy, as Rosemary’s example shows. As a high-level executive, she worked hard and built on her power of intimidation. She confessed that this was due to the desire to live up to what her parents wanted her to be. She had never learnt to accept herself and only in her last days allowed herself to be happy. She did not think she “deserved to be” happy. But there is no need to feel guilty for being happy.
We can also miss out on happiness by focusing too much on the results of our actions. We are always expanding, so we want more from life. But while we are growing every day, there will never be a point where we have everything. All we ever have is the moment, so it is important to be present. As Cath noted:
“It is so easy to think that happiness depends on something falling into place, when it is the other way around. Things fall into place when happiness is already found.”
Being happy is often a matter of perspective. Lenny was orphaned by the time he was 14. He lost his siblings over the coming years. One of his daughters died young, his wife soon thereafter. He lost his son to the mental health system… but all he said was that it had been a “good life”.
“Of course, your perspective makes a huge difference to happiness, as beautiful Lenny showed. Despite the losses in his life, he focused on the gifts he had received and saw his life as a good one. The same view you look at every day, the same life, can become something brand new by focusing on its gifts rather than the negative aspects. Perspective is your own choice and the best way to shift that perspective is through gratitude, by acknowledging and appreciating the positives.”
“Then opening his eyes, Lenny looked straight at me and smiled. But it wasn’t my mate Lenny who I had come to know. It was Lenny and the full glory of his soul. There was no illness in his smile. It was one of a soul now free of ego and personality. It was pure love, completely free of everything else, radiant, glowing, and joyous.”
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