In her book, ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Beloved’, Bronnie Ware, after working in palliative care with people who were dying, compiled some of the most commonly expressed regrets of those she worked with. Those regrets were:
- I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I’d let myself be happier.
As humans we want to be accepted, to be validated, and not to have our feelings crushed. So often this means doing and saying things just to please other people, staying in situations we’re grossly unhappy with for fear of the unknown, and hiding how we really feel because we’re afraid of rejection. In the end though, we’re the ones who have to live with our decisions, who have to live our lives, not anyone else. It’s up to us to make choices we’re happy with, to do and say what feels right and in alignment with our hearts, so that when the time comes we don’t have to look back wishing we’d done it all differently. They say hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think foresight truly is better. By bearing in mind the above regrets maybe we can make better choices, choices that will lead to more meaningful and fulfilled lives.
Recently, my class finished up our first month of clinical training in hospital. The aim of those 4 weeks on wards was to learn how to take patient histories, perform physical exams and come up with possible diagnoses and management plans. What I didn’t expect however, were the lessons that the patients I saw everyday would teach me.
While these are not regrets of the dying, I hope that, combined with the above, some of the lessons I learned at the bedside will inspire you to continue to create meaning and purpose and to find some peace during harder times.
What I learned:
1.We don’t have forever, we only have today. Sure, we know it, somewhere in a dark space at the back of our minds we know that we’re not immortal, but we try to convince ourselves that we are anyway. It’s pretty terrifying to think that everything we know and have known could be gone tomorrow, so we ignore it, and fill our thoughts instead with worries of tomorrow and regrets of yesterday, yet neither serve much purpose. I think Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described this perfectly when she wrote ‘For many the dreams of youth become the regrets of the old, not because life is over, but because it was unlived. To age gracefully is to experience fully each day and season.’ It’s imperative that we embrace each day, remembering always that it could be our last.
2. Appreciate what you have while you have it. We take so many things for granted – being able to walk, to see, to breathe without help. Such things may seem small and trivial, but being told you’ll never walk again is anything but. We never know when our health will be taken from us, or anything else for that matter – our homes, our relationships with loved ones. There will be days when it seems like it’s us against the world, but I think if we take a moment every day to consider everything we do have in our lives, the things that are going right for us, we can find the strength and courage to get through even the darkest of times.
3. ‘Why Not Me?’ A patient once asked me ‘Why me?’ I couldn’t answer her, I wish I could have, but I couldn’t, and I still don’t have an answer. All I know is that life happens, whether or not we want it to, and often we’ve no say in how things pan out. We can fight and resist as much as we want, or we can surrender our need for control and simply accept that life happens. Perhaps we can find some comfort in knowing that it isn’t always our fault, sometimes there really is nothing we can do to prevent the ‘bad stuff’ from happening. As Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford neurosurgeon who died of metastatic lung cancer at the age of 37, wrote in his book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, ‘Why not me?’
4. ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’. We really have no idea what’s going on in another person’s life – death, divorce, illness, bankruptcy – it’s so easy to pass judgement, often subconsciously, but as humans so much of what we say and do is shaped by experiences we’ve had in the past, or things we’re going through at present. It’s easy to forget this when someone annoys, or indeed hurts us, but we’re human, we make mistakes, and for the most part, we’re doing the best we can with what we have.
We may not be able to avoid suffering and death, but we can choose to fill our lives with love and purpose, to let go of things that no longer serve us, and to do our best to find peace in the face of the seemingly impossible. We may only get to live once, but if we do it right, hopefully that once will be enough.