Earlier this year, I had a meeting with a terminally ill man that had a profound impact on me. Surrounded by his loving family, he warmly smiled at me and said, “I’ve lived a full life, no regrets.”
I thought to myself, “Wow, if I were in his shoes, I’d probably find a quiet spot, and whimper.”
I walked away from that meeting with a new resolve, to be able to say the same at my life’s end. Interestingly, I came across an article by a nurse who spent years working in palliative care (caring for those who are dying). She documented their regrets as they reflected upon their lives and their impending demise.
Eventually her observations were published in a book called “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware. The subtitle states, “Don’t wait until your health fails before living the life you want to live.” Here are some of her opening remarks followed by the top five regrets:
“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected: denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Yet every single patient found peace before departing. Every one of them.”
1. 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 realize 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 have not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they’d made, or not made.
It’s important to try to honor at least some of your dreams along the way. It’s too late once you lose your health. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient 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 will. By creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. As a result, 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 adversely when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end, relationships are raised to a whole new and healthier level. Either that, or it will release the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realize 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 they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone with 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 all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks: love and relationships.
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. 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 themselves, 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.
Hopefully, every one of us can heed some part of this advice — “Don’t wait until your health fails before living the life you want to live.” Why don’t you give an old friend a call (or visit)? Or take that trip that you’ve always talked about while you can still walk (or see)? And try to see the humor in life all around you?
Of the five deathbed regrets, the one that struck me the most was the #2 most common regret: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” As the nurse noted, “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”
I thought about this for a while, and wondered if it would be possible for me to truly “stop and smell the roses.” After a great deal of introspection, I came to a very candid conclusion: No, probably not. It must be part of my DNA. I’ve always been told that I have to “work hard.”
So for now (at 55 years of age), I have decided to take on a partner in my law practice so I can carve out some more time from my work. Starting this summer, I’m going to slow down and try to “smell a rose or two” a little more often. Perhaps Mrs. Matsunaga and I will create a “bucket list” of our own.
Now, if you’re not swayed to join my “Stop and smell the roses” campaign, you should know that a 2012 study from Rutgers University found that it is actually sound advice for finding satisfaction in life. The new study found that appreciating the meaningful things and people in our lives may play an even larger role in our overall happiness than previously thought.
“People are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life,” according to Rutgers University psychology professor Nancy Fagley. Thus, appreciating the “roses” in your life — be they relationships, family, or even the beauty of nature — will likely lift your spirits and increase your happiness.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.