The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Updated: May 13
The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing - Bronnie Ware- 2011
What would you be thinking if you knew you only had a few days left to live? Besides being sad and afraid, would you feel like you lived a pretty good life, or would you have regrets? There's nothing like impending death to shake our awareness out of day-to-day problems and force us to look at the big picture.
This book, written by Australian writer and speaker Bronnie Ware, goes where no other book has dared to go- right into the souls of those who knew they were about to die. Ware spent several years as a caregiver for the terminally ill, and wrote this book to gather the many lessons her patients taught her.
This blog is about mental fitness, and the answer to the question of lifelong regrets is a huge one. If you're not doing what you want to do with your life right now, changing that one thing could have an enormous impact on your mental health down the road. Selling yourself short is how a lot of anxiety and depression gets started.
Ware's book title is a bit deceptive. There are a lot more than five people that she works with. I counted seventeen. There are many regrets, but she summarizes them nicely into a memorable package. The book is written in a conversational style from her memories. I assume the author didn't carry around a recording device all the time, but she captures some moving and poignant moments with people at the most vulnerable and honest points of their lives.
Here are the top five regrets, a list that has been published and shared all over the globe.
1- I regret not having lived a life true to myself. This was the most commonly regretted thing, and it makes sense. So often we live with others and for others and deny bits of ourselves so as to not complicate things. Being true to yourself is a hard thing to wrap your head around if you've barely ever thought about what it is that you want to be. Almost everyone has a hobby or career that they would have liked to try out. Or perhaps a relationship they wished they had ended that wasn't serving them anymore. Don't waste time waiting for life to start. Make every moment count.
2- I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Ware describes a tragic tale of a man who's wife begged him to retire, but he didn't want to. She wanted to take trips and spend more time with him, and he finally agreed to retire in a year. But before that could happen she got sick and died, and he was stuck alone with enormous amounts of guilt. It's funny how our work and careers seem to define us while we're young, and how little they seem to matter in the end.
3- I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Ware devotes four different cases to this regret, and the stories are touching and sad. "Don't take people for granted", one of her patients told her. Make sure you tell people how much you love and appreciate them while you still have the chance. For those that don't, they are stuck with this regret that their relationships weren't as honest and rewarding as they could have been.
4- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. People come and go in our lives. Once gone, many of the dying patients regretted not re-connecting with the dearest friends who had drifted away. Ware went to great lengths to find three elderly friends for one lady, and was able to connect with one by phone that made this woman's last days much richer. Nursing homes can be lonely places, but not because there aren't other people there. They are lonely because the people there don't have a history of knowing the real person they were when they were young, vibrant and full of life. Losing those lifelong friendships causes a disconnection with the past.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier. "Happiness is a choice," one of the dying patients tells us. Impending death makes people reflect on happiness and the choices that they made. You can be wealthy and miserable, just like you can be poor and grateful. A lot of happiness relates to how you react to your circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. "Don't worry about the little stuff- only love matters," is what another dying person tells us.
Beyond the five regrets, there are some wonderful descriptions of the transformations that happens to people when they die. There are some moments, like the glorious and transcendent smile that comes over Stella's face when she makes her transition. So many people fear even the idea of death, but Ware, having witnessed it personally over a dozen times, makes it seem beautiful and peaceful.*
(*- Note that all of the deaths witnessed in this book are natural deaths. Suicides are generally not accompanied by peace and transcendence, but by sadness and fear. No shortcuts here. If you know anyone contemplating suicide to get to this point, call 800-273-8255)
Ware shares some of her personal life stories while all of this is going on and how it affected her. She was basically homeless for a while and questioning what to do with her life. This process obviously meant a lot to her, and she eventually left palliative care and settled down to marry and have children. Her writing about this experience has been shared all over the world.
Death is not as scary as we imagine, though the gradual loss of body functions is described in detail here. More importantly, death gives people a chance to come to grips with their lives and realize how they would have done things differently. Regrets are only sad if they don't produce learning opportunities. If you are a spiritual or religious person, learning opportunities are what life is all about, and in an after-life we hopefully can put all those lessons to good use.
The biggest benefit of this book is giving the readers a sneak preview of what awaits them so they can learn the lessons now instead of waiting until the end. Seeing what others have regretted as mistakes gives all of us a head start and some valuable information about what's truly important in life. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to get closer to their true purpose and make their life more meaningful.