Top Five Regrets at the End of Life


I know.  This is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable.   Yet it is really important to challenge ourselves to think about what matters in our lives, NOT when the end is in view, but when we are young, vibrant and still have ample time to impact our behaviors.

We teach a class at the Xavier Leadership Center on personal leadership.  A portion of our program tries to get people to reflect on their own life goals and consider the value of creating an action plan aimed at helping to achieve them.   One part of our assessment is to get people to define how they think of themselves as leaders.  Then we seek input on how our colleagues see us.  (Often there are substantial differences).   Next we ask people to consider various dimensions of their personal and professional lives (like financial, health, personal achievement, personal relationships, family, etc.) measuring our own satisfaction with each component.   Mostly, we see that people have some significant areas where there lives are “out of balance.”   Finally, we try to get them to consider items that really matter.   What do you want your life to account for?   How do you want the world to be different as a consequence of your existence?

If you have tried to do this kind of self-assessment before, then you know how difficult it can be.  We seldom take the time to stand back as individuals, as married couples, or as a family to talk about what matters in our life, and how we want to be deliberate about living our lives in accordance with those things.

It is interesting to me that we don’t take the time to think about this topic, and yet according to one study by the Corporate Executive Board, fewer than one in three of us feel we are achieving a good balance between our professional and personal lives.  Moreover,  the Hudson Research Institute reported in one of their surveys that “work-life balance is, along with flexibility, the most important factor in considering job offers. Compensation still matters, the survey found, but it finished second (23 percent) behind lifestyle when workers were asked to name the primary reason they accepted their current positions.”

So if it is so important to us and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of us live in an out-of-balance condition, why then are we so afraid to do something about it?

Well, here is another piece I want to bring to your attention that may (I hope) help tip the scales in your case.  Who else has a better perspective on the question of life meaning and purpose than people who are facing the end of life?   An absolutely fascinating article appeared in the British paper The Guardian, describing the work of a hospice nurse who began interviewing her patients, and recording their responses. Bronnie Ware is an Australian palliative care provider who recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  (Check out the blog when you are in the mood for some “heavy reading.”)

So what did her patients conclude?  Here are the five top regrets (from people on the way out.)

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

We all feel duty bound to fulfill the expectations that other people have of us … parents, family, bosses or neighbors.   How sad is it to get the end and look back with regret about  all the things you didn’t pursue, never had time for, or were simply too afraid to go after.   Kind of makes me think about Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the acclaimed film The Bucket List about two geezers with terminal cancer who decide to hit some of their wish list items before they “kicked the bucket.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Bronnie reports that this one came from virtually every male patient she nursed.   They missed so many important events in the lives of their kids or spouse.  In the end, the rewards from all the hard work seemed not to stack up very favorably with the experiences that were missed.

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

We succumb too easily to societal pressure to be polite, avoid confrontation and be positive.  So we let a lot slide.  In the end we recognize all that “water under the bridge” was not good for us, or even those people to whom we were never honest.

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

You get a phone call to learn that someone you knew well (in college perhaps) has just died.  When you reflect on it you remember how important and valued a part of your life they once were, and ask yourself why you never made the effort to stay connected.  Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.    In the past 5 years, a group of my old college buddies and their spouses and I have been making the effort to get together a couple of times per year.   We sometimes rent a big house (like in the movie The Big Chill).   I can tell you that this has been an extremely rewarding experience, and when we are together, it feels just like it was back in the day.  How great it is to have them again a part of my life.  (We just got back from an Alaskan cruise).  I deeply wish we started doing this 10 years earlier.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

According to nurse Ware, “many [of her patients] did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”   We often allow such little things to get under our skin, and then to fester, until massive amounts of time have been wasted, and our emotional state hovers in the zone of unhappiness.  We all long to laugh, be silly, and feel good.

So there it is.   Will you wait until you are facing the Grim Reaper before you take stock, look back and tabulate your regrets?  If so, what an unfortunate choice that would be.   Take the time to ask yourself the deep questions not about the meaning of life, but about the meaning of YOUR life.   Start by writing your own obituary (as you would like it to read).  This is not an easy assignment.

I am reminded of another of my favorite movie classics featuring Joe Pesci as Simon Wilder.   It was called With Honors.   At the end of the movie Simon is dying of asbestos poisoning and he writes his own obituary shortly before he dies at the movie’s climax.

Simon B. Wilder bit it on Wednesday.  He saw the world out of the porthole of a leaky freighter, was a collector of memories, and interrupted a lecture at Harvard. In 50 years on earth he did only one thing he regretted. He is survived by his family: Jeff Hawks, who always remembers to flush; Everett Calloway, who knows how to use words; Courtney Blumenthal, who is strong, and also knows how to love; and by Montgomery Kessler, who will graduate life with honor, and without regret.”

What would you write about your life?  How would that differ from the version those you leave behind will write?

Other Resources

Achieving Balance in Your Life: A Blueprint for a Strong Foundation,by Erica Orloff and Kathy Levinson

Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Susie Steiner, The Guardian

The Increasing Call for Work-Life Balance, by the staff of the Corporate Executive Board, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Work-Life Balance: A key to Job Acceptance, the Hudson Institute

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