06 December, 2012

No Regrets Living

In her article, Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, reported asking her patients their regrets as they faced their last days.  She cited the five regrets that were most commonly expressed. 

1.  I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me 
2.  I wish I didn’t work so hard. (Every terminal male patient she had nursed expressed this view.) 
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.  
5.  I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This article struck a particular chord with me.  When I was seventeen, I started to work with the Visiting Nurse’s of Martha’s Vineyard.  They had a new program they were starting and offered me the opportunity to work with them as a nurse’s aid; it was called Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.  We had weekly sessions to discuss Death and Dying. We read Elizabeth Kubler Ross, author of On Death and Dying. What was most important was that the small group of us were part of a new focus dedicated to caring for the patients and families of those who had been identified as having terminal illnesses.  If life has chapters, that chapter of my life was one of the most formative.  I spent the summer of 1976 through the Spring of 1980 working with dying people.  The first three months were the hardest.  I had five patients.  I lost five patients.  I was the one who stayed by their beds when things got messy, when they were scared, when no one else would feed them or listen to their fears.  I was willing to ask, “Are you afraid?”  “Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?” Sometimes, patients answered with mechanical adjustments like plumping a pillow, bringing a book, baking a cake. However, when they were feeling low or angry, I found that they simply wanted me to be there.  I worried about being paid to sit, but one of my early patients, Nettie Allen, told me that she was paying me and I would do what she wanted me to do.  Some days, I canned fruit or weeded her garden under her direction. Some days, I sat next to her on a bench and we listened to bird calls.  Her feisty spirit waned, but her lessons did not. I learned a lot about dying over those years. I observed that people die as differently as they live.  Some fight hard, but go quietly, others seem to have given up, yet linger.  Some people talk about the past and their mistakes, others focus of leaving things in order for their families. There is an intimacy borne of death. The questions that may have gone unspoken without the impending sense of leave-taking may be asked openly.  The one I asked every patient was, “Would you have done anything differently?”  It was that question that prompted me to label the kind of life I hoped to lead as No Regrets Living.  The biggest takeaway that those years working for hospice -- first on Martha’s Vineyard, then later, in western Massachusetts -- gave me was a belief that each of us should strive to live in a way that we do not harbor regrets. I asked myself, “What if we lived life large?  Took a risk to do exactly what we wanted to do with our lives?” I wondered if regrets could be nothing more than an acknowledgement of our mistakes.  Are they an inevitable result of life?  After all, part of life is failing. The more important part is getting up again. Did my patients have regrets because they were misinformed, too afraid to choose the path they desired or because they simply did not get back up when they failed?  No matter how regrets are defined, these patients were unanimous in their message to try to live as close as I could to a No-Regrets Life.  This imperative has been a compass rose for me.  Faced with life’s hardest decisions, I still pause to ask myself, “What would I do if I knew tomorrow was my last day? Would I regret this choice?” This strategy has stood the test of time.
Bronnie Ware did a commendable job summarizing the five regrets most often expressed by people who were dying.  If only we could heed the message contained there in, we might be better equipped to live a No-Regrets Life.  For now, maybe I will just print the five regrets on card stock and hand them out to everyone I meet. If one person, just one, changes the direction of his or her life because of the sage advice of moribund patients, the strategy would be worthwhile. We will all have earned a spot on the stage to sing alongside Frank Sinatra...  “Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
Bonnie Ware’s essay may be found at  http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html


  1. really well written and thought provoking Dawn....I am going to reread and ponder.....

  2. Let me know if you have any epiphanies you would like to share! d.


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