Samuel Johnson once said that there is something about facing the end of life that tends to focus one’s attention, particularly on those aspects of life that we may previously have ignored, denied, or put off. Inevitably there comes a time when the debts from all of this procrastination come due; and the piper must be paid, with interest and penalty fees. The cost of deferring our concerns and true feelings until “later” can be excruciatingly high: deep remorse, guilt, despair, profound loneliness, isolation, and unrelenting regret over what we wish we had done differently.
Bonnie Ware learned about this from dozens of dying people whom she served in her years as a professional caregiver in Australia. Her experiences taught her first hand about the extent to which end of life regret plagues many of the dying as well as their families and friends. Her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying illuminates the lessons she learned from working closely and intimately with people in the end stages of their lives. Many of them lost in a quest for material success or approval realized too late that the only thing that they could take with them in the end was regret that they didn’t live life differently.
While the lessons that Ms. Ware cites in her book will not be surprising to any reader who has given this subject some thought (which given our culture’s aversion to confronting issues of mortality, may not be many of us), the insights and depth of feeling that she expresses hit home for even the most casual reader in a very powerful way. It’s clear that she not only served her clients with dedication and conscientiousness but also as a devoted and compassionate caregiver who often experienced greater love and closeness with the dying than their own families.
Her heart-felt words provide a deep appreciation of such well worn phrases as “money can’t buy happiness,” “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” “true happiness comes from living your life with honesty and integrity,” and “very few tombstones are inscribed with the words ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work.’” Throughout the book, Ware reminds us that the secrets to savoring life are simple, though not necessarily easy to implement: Living in gratitude, not waiting until “later” to express our love to those who we care about, living with an open heart, experiencing and expressing compassion and forgiveness, and perhaps most importantly, living in the present moment.
Not all of the people who she cites arrive at the end of their lives with regrets. Some reflect back over the years with deep appreciation for the gifts that life gave them. Some approached death with curiosity rather than fear, with openness rather than dread, and with gratitude rather than remorse.
What we have found most striking about the wisdom Ware shares is that nearly all of the regrets that she refers to have to do with relationships, or perhaps more accurately the neglect of them. While many of the dying failed to anticipate until close to the end, the depth of the pain that they would experience in failing to adequately express their appreciation of their loved ones, others were confronted with a different but related issue. They withheld unspoken resentments in order to avoid activating conflict or hard feelings, and in so doing created emotional blocks that prevented them from experiencing and expressing love. These incompletions act as much if not more than the barriers created by withholding love because of distractions or preoccupations with other activities.
And yet surprisingly The Top Five Regrets of the Dying is not a depressing book. On the contrary, it is inspirational and enlightening. It illuminates ways in which even during the final stage of life, there can be redemption and acceptance through the expression and openhearted exchange of honesty and gratitude. True, some relationships are so damaged at the end that reconciliation between parties is unattainable, but acceptance, compassion, understanding and forgiveness (of self and other) are possible. These are the fundamental elements of emotional healing and that is what those individuals suffering from remorse and regret at the end of their lives are most in need of.
While the pain of taking loved ones for granted over an extended period of time cannot be dissolved by an affirmation or a simple apology, the healing process which starts with an acknowledgment of one’s guilt or regrets is a most powerful step, and also, the one to which there may be the greatest resistance to taking. There is something greatly empowering in taking the most difficult step in any process. The steps that follow are usually less painful.
Ware’s book is ultimately about living, not about dying. One of its unspoken messages is that the way we live is the way that we all die, and the way we die is a reflection of how we have lived. Tibetan Buddhists believe that all spiritual practice is preparation for dying and the way we die is critical to what follows next for the journey of the soul. Whether we believe this or believe any other religious tradition, living with an open heart will produce a very different experience for us than the alternative. Like so many other things in life, it’s never too late to start practicing.