“Top five regrets of the dying”
By Susie Steiner
Appearing in The Guardian newspaper on February 1, 2012
There was no mention of more sex or bungee jumps. A palliative nurse who has counselled the dying in their last days has revealed the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives…
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives…
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. "When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently," she says, "common themes surfaced again and again."
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."
2. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."
3. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
4. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
5. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
An excerpt from A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
by Stephen Levine
…When our son Noah was working as a medical technician in a Santa Cruz hospital, he was the fellow who administered the AIDS tests and, two weeks later, pronounced the results. He saw part of his job as reminding patients that while waiting two weeks to hear whether you have a fatal degenerative disease can put a strain on the mind, it was also an opportunity for the heart, for insight and reflection on priorities, goals, and desires. He suggested a mini “moment-to-live” practice, recommending to each person that, during the sometimes interminable waiting period, they closely watch how their mind related to either possible outcome…He recommended they ask themselves two questions, first: If you receive a positive diagnosis, what will you do next, who would you share this disturbing news with, and what changes might you make in your life? The second question was: If you find you don’t have the AIDS virus, that you have a second chance so to speak, what will you do with your life? After each of the more than three hundred negative “you don’t got it” diagnoses (he said he never had to tell anyone they had the disease), he would remind them that if they had imagined ruing the two-week reflection that they might “get serious” if given a fatal prognosis, or “get a bit looser” from a clean bill of health, or vice versa, what were they waiting for?
Turning to Ondrea and me before he left for Asia a few months ago, Noah said, “Once you see what the heart really needs, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to live or die, the work is always the same.”
(Note: Out of respect for privacy, the last names of church members have been removed from the text of this sermon.)
Last May, I drove up to Anacortes, Washington. I drove there to visit Carol ----- .
As some of you know, Carol joined this congregation about 10 years ago. A retired school teacher, she wasn’t terribly well-known in the congregation, but she came on Sunday mornings and really liked participating in Chalice Circles.
One evening after her Chalice Circle had finished, I remember talking to her. She was disappointed. She had recently been downhill skiing, but her leg had given her a lot of trouble, not quite doing what she wanted it to do. She had a medical appointment to find out what was the matter. After several medical tests, she told me later, she was diagnosed with ALS.
Over the next few years, I would visit with Carol. We would sit, talk, and pray together. There were moments of sadness, of disappointment, and, once in a while, of fear. But I was also very impressed with the equanimity - - the evenness of spirit - - with which Carol faced this cruel disease.
Before I began my sabbatical in February 2011, the last pastoral visit I made was to Carol. We sat in her home in Federal Way and drank tea while we talked. Her disease was progressing more rapidly than either of us had anticipated. She was walking with a cane and her speech had become affected. She told me she had decided to move to Anacortes to be closer to her daughter.
After I returned from sabbatical, Carol’s ability to speak had deteriorated more, so we communicated by email. She often sent me comments about sermons she had read online. But then last spring, she requested that I drive up and see her. She said that she wanted to talk to me about her memorial service.
When I walked in the door of her home, Carol was watching a Mariners’ game. Carol loved baseball. By that time, Carol was in a motorized wheel chair, was unable to speak, and could only move her right hand. She communicated with me by writing on a small white board with a black marker.
“This seems surreal,” she said as we began to talk about her wishes for her memorial service.
“It does for me too,” I said. During my years in ministry, I’ve had the opportunity several times to sit and talk with people who knew they would die soon to plan their memorial service, and it always seems surreal. Even for people who are days or weeks away from dying, it’s hard to imagine their own deaths.
In addition to talking about her memorial service, Carol and I talked about many things that morning - - about life, about ALS, about death. Most of the things we talked about that morning I will keep private except one thing that I share with Carol’s explicit permission. She told me, “I really only started more living more fully in the present after I knew I was going to die.” Hearing Carol say this surprised me. Carol was a very spiritually mature person, and it appeared to me that she had been living her life fully in the present for many years, but I took her at her word.
As I left Carol’s home that morning, I hugged her. We both knew we would likely never see each other again. I told her that I was glad that she had been a part of my life, which was very true, and I wished her peace in whatever was to come. It was very difficult to walk out her door, to walk back to my car, and to start the drive home. She died a few weeks later.
In the months since her death, I have thought of Carol often. I have thought of the conversation we had that morning often. It was a profoundly moving experience for me that I have reflected on often during the past months, and more than once it has helped me to have a different perspective on my own life. I have especially thought about Carol words about living fully in the present: “I really only started living more fully in the present after I knew I was going to die.”
Perhaps it will be impossible for any of us to live fully in the present moment, to recognize each moment, each hour, and each day as precious, miraculous gifts until like Carol, we really know that we are dying - - if it will be even possible for us then.
In Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, the character Emily asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - - every, every minute?”
“No,” replies the Stage Manager... “The saints and poets, maybe - - they do some.”
Yet even if this goal is an impossible one for us, I still believe it is one for which we should strive.
I have spoken many times from this pulpit - - sometimes it seems like almost every week - - about the virtues that I believe are most important to our spiritual growth, virtues such as compassion, connection, awe, gratitude, forgiveness, acceptance, hope, and commitment to worthy ideals. But logic compels me to acknowledge that the ability to live fully in the present moment, to live mindfully, could be said to be fundamental to all of these. For example, before one can be truly compassionate, one must be fully present to one’s own feelings as well as the feelings of others.
How can we get better at this near impossible task of living fully in the present moment? In my own life, I know the most important thing I can do is not to overcommit myself.
The sabbatical I had from this church in 2011 was the longest block of unstructured time I’ve had in my life since before I started kindergarten. During this time away, I never felt bored, I stayed busy, and the days filled themselves up. One of the nicest things about this time, though, was there was nothing that had to get done by the end of any day, any week, or any month.
As a result, I felt myself slowing down. I didn’t feel like I was in such a hurry any more. I became much more relaxed. I drove slower. I stopped honking at people who didn’t move after traffic lights turned green. I stopped timing my family at Interstate rest stops. I became more patient. I also started living much more fully in the present moment and enjoying life a lot more.
Since returning from sabbatical more than a year ago, there are once again things that need to get done by the end of every day, every week, and every month, but I’ve tried to become much more realistic about my own limitations, about what’s really possible to do in any given day, week, or month, about what’s realistic to commit myself to doing. I’ve gotten slightly better at realizing that my worth as a human being is not dependent on how much or how little I get done. I’ve gotten slightly better at realizing there are many, many more things that I would like to do than are possible for me to do. Without a doubt, it’s very difficult for me to let go of certain things and say no to other things, but as a result of doing so, I feel slightly less busy, live more fully in the present moment, and enjoy life more.
In addition to not overcommitting myself, when it comes to living more fully in the present moment, I know from my own experience that having a daily individual religious practices of meditation and contemplative prayer helps me. One line of my daily prayer is, “May I be ever more aware of the mystery, miracle, beauty, and preciousness of all of creation.” As I was getting out of my car in my driveway one afternoon this week, I spotted a spider web on the rose bushes. Part of me wanted to get into the house as soon as possible, but part of me remembered this line, so I stopped and looked. I am glad I did. It was stunningly beautiful in the autumnal late afternoon light. “We are here to abet creation and to witness it,” Annie Dillard writes, “to notice each thing…so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
I also know the busier I am, the more important having an individual religious practice is. There is a story about a rabbi, and the members of his synagogue knew that he regularly prayed for one hour a day, but one day one of them asked him, “But rabbi, what about when you’re particularly busy, when you have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, when you are feeling frazzled and overworked, do you still pray for one hour a day?” “No,” the rabbi said. “On those days, I pray for two hours.”
In addition to not overcommitting ourselves and perhaps having some kind of regular religious practice, I want to suggest for your consideration one more thing that might help us live more fully in the present moment. Perhaps it is not until we truly know we are dying that we can live as fully as is possible for us in the present moment, but throughout human history, religious sages have said that when contemplate our own mortality, when we confront the reality that each and every one of us will someday die, that we have a better chance of doing so right now. “Teach us to number our days,” Psalm 90 says in Hebrew Scripture, “so that we may have a wise heart.”
I recently read the book A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were You’re Last by the Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine. One of our reading’s this morning was an excerpt from that book. In the book, the author writes about his experience of living one year of his life as if it were his last year, but the book also challenged me to ask myself the question, “What if this coming year, 2013, were the very last year of my life? What would I do? What would I do differently? How would I live if I knew I only had one year to live?”
Sadly, when I ask myself this question, do you know what the first thing is that comes to mind? Paperwork. I would want to make sure all of my paperwork is in order - - wills, durable powers of attorney, advance directives, and such. Though I have sometimes exhorted some of you to make such preparations, I have not yet made all of them myself.
Besides paperwork, what would I do? How would I live differently?
For certain, I would try to spend even more time with my wife and son than I do now. One of you said something to me last week which I thought was brilliant, so I’m going to say it now and pretend I thought of it: “You can’t TiVo your kids.” I think I would also try to say things like, “I love you,” “I’m glad I married you,” “I think you’re a great mom,” and “I’m proud of you,” even more often than I do now. I hope I would be more attentive and more patient than I sometimes am now.
Would I encourage my son even more to try hard in school, knowing this was my last chance to do so, or would I just encourage him to have more fun in life? I don’t know. I’m still wrestling with that one, though I’m leaning toward the latter.
If this coming year were my last year, I think there are certain old friends that I would look up and try to spend time with, but I also think there are a few relationships that I would just give up on all together, a few that always seem to take more effort than they’re worth.
I recently saw the movie God Bless America. It’s an extremely dark comedy - - I actually don’t recommend it - - about a man who has an inoperable brain tumor and decides to spend the last months of his life going around the country shooting mean people. I wouldn’t do this, but in general, if I had only one year to live, I think I would put up with a lot less crap. For example, I’ve got some neighbors who like to have loud parties, especially on Saturday nights, when I usually try to get a good night’s sleep. Several times, I’ve been tempted to call the police, but I haven’t, because, you know, I’m a nice person, and who wants to the call the police on their neighbors, even if they are rude, insensitive louts? But if I only had a year to live, I would have called the police a long time ago.
If this coming year were my last year, I think I’d be less conventionally polite and swear more, but I’d also try to be kinder. I’d also ask for help more often because, after all, the worse that could happen is somebody just says no.
I’d totally give up on my efforts to lose weight, but I’d keep on exercising just because I feel better when I do.
I’d probably stop flossing all together.
There are certain projects - - like cleaning out my garage again - - that I would just let go of all together. There are others - - like finding a publisher for my book manuscript - - that I’d pursue, even if took time away from other things.
I’d watch more sunsets. I’d spend more time looking at the stars at night. I’d listen to more music, especially more live music. I’d sing more karaoke even though I’m not very good at it. I’d go to see more movies, but walk out of more bad ones. I wouldn’t feel any compulsion to finish boring books. I’d drink more wine, eat more good cheese, and eat more chocolate. I would wear my favorite sweater more often even if it had a gravy stain on it. I’d cut the Comcast cable to my house. I’d stop reading the news all together, though I’d still vote. I’d either hire somebody to mow my grass or never mow it again. Let the neighbors complain.
If this coming year were my last year, how would I celebrate the holidays? I can sometimes be Scrooge-ish about the holidays and take a “Why bother with all the fuss?” attitude, but if it were my last Christmas, would I go for utter simplicity or a tinsel-on-everything-including-the-dog approach? I’m not sure.
In this thought experiment of mine, I’m assuming I would have to and would want to keep on working. I remember before Barbara -----, a member of this congregation, died in 2010, one of the most difficult things she had to do was quit her job. If I had only one more year of ministry with this congregation, what would I do differently than I’m doing now? The truth is that I try to be as honest with all of you as I can, but would I say things that I don’t say now? If I had only one year left to work on something with this congregation, what one big thing would I choose to work on? I’m not quite sure, but I think it’s a good question for me to keep asking myself. In general, I think I might spend less time going to meetings and spend more time sitting down with more of you one on one, talking about your own lives.
Next summer, [my wife] and I have been talking about the possibility of driving back to Chicago to spend time with all of my relatives there. But we’ve also been talking about one day taking a road trip with just the three of us up the Alaskan-Canadian Highway. But if next year were my last year, which of these would I choose?
How about you? If this coming year, 2013 were the last year of your life, how would you live it? How would you live it differently than you’re living now? Over the next few days and weeks, I’d encourage you to spend some time wrestling with that question. Then after you’ve wrestled with that question for a while ask yourself an even more difficult other one: Why aren’t you living that way now?
Let me finish this morning with one of my favorite poems, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon.
I got out of bed/
on two strong legs./
It might have been/otherwise.
I ate / cereal, sweet/ milk, a ripe, flawless / peach.
It might/ have been otherwise. /
I took the dog uphill / to the birch wood./
All morning I did/ the work I love. /
At noon I lay down / with my mate.
It might / have been otherwise. /
We ate dinner together / at a table with silver/ candlesticks.
It might / have been otherwise. /
I slept in a bed / in a room with paintings / on the walls,
and / planned another day / just like this day. /
But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.
My friends, may all of our days be long and good upon this earth, and when they come to an end, which they will, which they must, may we each be able to say, “I lived my days well.”
So may it be. Amen.