The regrets of the dying are priceless because they help us hold a mirror up to ourselves, before it is too late. After all, death is something that we will all have to deal with sooner or later. It will come regardless of who we are, what we do, or what kind of impact we have had on the world. It has no respect for worldly titles or possessions and it can come at any time – when we are lying in bed, sitting by a river, or flying on a private jet.
It is very instructive, then, to listen to the lessons of people who have already passed that way. To listen to the people who have already led seventy, eighty, ninety years of life, have seen all the joys and heartbreak, and now have many memories and regrets to retell.
The process of dying and the event of death are beautiful because they strip away everything that is unnecessary. In the moment of passing you are naked and humble before eternity once more. All worldly things fade into insignificance. If you are fortunate, you might also catch a glimpse of the truth.
When reading the most common regrets of the dying it is interesting to note that there is no mention of bungee jumps, nightclubs, spending money or countless sexual partners – all things that are valued by the majority of young (and, indeed, older) people. Instead, we are taken back to the ground level. To fundamental parts of life that we feel we could have done differently. To wrong directions we may have taken and now wish we hadn’t. These insights are priceless because they can stop us from making the same mistakes.
Here are the 7 most common regrets of the dying and the lessons they contain.
1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
Many men who are reaching the end of their lives regret the amount of time they have spent working. Because of the time they spent earning money they missed out on so many of the important parts of life – the growing up of their children, the company of their partner and loved ones, the camaraderie of their friends. This trend will likely include many women from the current generation as well – people who put their careers first and their relationships on the backburner.
LESSON: Find your passion and enjoy your work. Prioritise the valuable things. Look ahead to see what is really important.
The lesson here is to make sure you enjoy your work. Unless you were born into a trust fund we all have to work in some way to get by. It is a huge part of life and so make sure you enjoy it. Also make sure you are clear on the really important things. Take time away from work to spend simple time with your children, spouse and friends. Make it a priority to be around for special events or to make an extra effort to attend someone’s birthday. To keep this in mind use your imagination and project yourself forwards, on to your deathbed. It will be the people standing around you and the relationships you have built that matter then, not whether you arrived at work at 8:15 every day because someone said you had to.
2. I wish I had made more of an effort to be happy.
Most people believe, right up until they are on their deathbed, that happiness is something that happens to you and is not something you can control. The opposite is actually true. Happiness is a choice, based on attitude, behaviours and habits, all of which you can consciously direct. To get stuck in a rut of destructive habits and mindsets is to give away your power indefinitely. The more you do this the harder it gets to change, until one day it is too late.
LESSON: Take control now.
Do not wait until you are on your deathbed to take control of your life and happiness. By then, it can do nothing but give you a slight comfort in your final moments. Instead, take the initiative now. Consciously decide to be happy right now, regardless of what is going on. Don’t feel guilty or sad about it. You must look after yourself before you can lift others up. Begin to shift your thoughts, behaviours and habits in a positive direction and don’t stop.
3. I wish I had kept in touch with my friends.
When adult life begins and consumes your energy it can be very difficult to keep in touch with old friends. One by one, all of the companionships we built up in simpler times fall by the wayside and it is only in our final weeks that we realise what we have missed. All of the laughter. All of the adventures and memories. The human being is a social animal and to realise we have lost our friends when it is too late must be one of the greatest pains we can endure.
LESSON: Make the effort.
So many of us get wrapped up in our lives and do not give our friends the attention they deserve. As a result, the strong bonds we shared begin to wither. Commit right now to not letting this happen. In the digital age it is much, much easier to stay in touch with people, even if they live on the other side of the world. Make the effort. Spend five minutes to send a message. Say you’ll be there when you get an invite, however ‘out of character’ it might seem. Screw character. Give your friends the love and attention they deserve and you will be thankful you did.
4. I wish I had expressed my thoughts and feelings.
We all, at one time or another, have repressed our true thoughts and feelings in order to keep the peace. This may have been with your family, your partner, your children – it doesn’t matter. We’ve all done it. The problem is that many times this act of repression becomes a habit. We do it automatically, bottling up who we are and what we can do for the sake of someone else’s feelings of security. As a result, we end up living a life that is only a shadow of what could have been. The life of someone who gave up their innate strength and courage.
LESSON: Have the courage to speak the truth, even if it hurts.
To repress our true thoughts and feelings is to destroy our sense of confidence and wellbeing. It is not a natural thing to do. It is a fear-based mental defence mechanism we use that actually has its roots in seeking approval. We do it when we feel the other person is more valuable than us, or the source of our happiness. The irony is the more we do it the more people feel on a subconscious level that we are not being authentic and, consequently, are weak. Don’t wait until it is too late. Pluck up the courage now and speak the truth, even if it hurts for a moment. That hurt will pass. The courage and flow of life you feel from expressing yourself will stay with you.
5. I wish I had been true to myself, and not lived for others.
Eerily similar to the point above, one of the main regrets of the dying is not being true to ourselves. It is only in the final moments we realise how much of ourselves we sacrificed for things that, in reality, don’t actually mean much anymore. Again, this is based in seeking approval and the fear of rejection, two things we are very aware of when we are young but are actually seen as illusions when we are about to die. So many of us never have the courage to do what we want to do, or to chase dreams we may have had since childhood. We can bury these things away when we still have youth and vitality but, one day, when we are old, those dreams may be beyond our grasp.
LESSON: Be bold enough to be yourself.
To walk on eggshells and be afraid all of the time is only half a life. In order to get the full experience, you have to have confidence in who you are. You need to know and be truthful about your strengths and weaknesses. To live a full life – one that is rewarding to yourself and those around you – you must be bold enough to walk the path you have chosen, not one that has been chosen for you. This will not only stop you regretting your life, but will also set a golden example for the people to follow.
6. I wish I had taken more risks.
It is easy to fall into the habit of taking the safe road. When we feel we have something to lose it is much easier to play it safe and to stay nestled in our comfort zones. Risk taking can appear foolish and reckless from a certain viewpoint. The truth is, however, that no person who has ever made a great success of anything did so without taking a risk. It is not surprising that one of the most common regrets of the dying is the regret of taking the safe road too often. Nothing new ever came from the safe road. It is mostly a path of quiet mediocrity – something which we realise when we are about to leave the world.
LESSON: Take the plunge more often.
Taking risks and, more specifically, learning to take action, is only a habit that we need to build. There are informed risks we can almost everywhere – in our relationships, in our finances, in our hobbies. The key is in making a commitment to not always walk the safe road. To feel the nerves and heightened self-awareness that only come from stepping outside of your comfort zone. The more you do this the more your comfort zone expands, turning you into the confidence, courageous person you always wanted to be – and who has no regrets.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” – Muhammad Ali
7. I wish I had loved more.
Many of us are hurt early on in life – whether through family or a relationship – which causes us to close up our hearts and to hide our emotions. In its more serious forms, we actually avoid making friends and forming real relationships because we are fearful we will be hurt again. Once this wall is built it is hard to break down as it keeps reinforcing itself through our negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours. This emotional stinginess leads to emotional poverty and, because we only learn the value of forgiveness when it is too late, perhaps one of the most painful regrets of the dying.
LESSON: Forgive and then love with all of your heart.
We stop loving and feeling because we have been hurt. We carry that hurt inside like a splinter, guarding it carefully in case someone knocks it or tries to pull it out. In the end, all we have left is the splinter, which is a pretty sad state of events. A more sensible course of action would be to forgive whoever or whatever it was who caused us to stop loving in the first place. That time has gone and to keep holding on to it will only hurt yourself and your future. Another upside is that forgiveness automatically releases the tension in our bodies and allows our emotions to flow again. We can then begin to love and open ourselves up to the world, like we did when we were children. It is not uncommon during this process for people to discover hidden or forgotten talents, or to suddenly come across their life’s purpose. It is nature’s away of rewarding the courage to love again, and is the only way in which to have no regrets at all.
“Unconditional love is the most powerful force in the universe.” – Warren Buffett
– Beast Hacker