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The top five regrets of the dying

Living a happy and fulfilled life so that there’s as little as possible to regret at the end? Not so simple, apparently. How else could a book entitled “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying” get on the best-seller lists? Indeed, why did I buy this book, given that I had always skirted round the subject for ages? Do I really have to deal with death in order to be able to live a more fulfilled life?

Of course I realise that, in theory, many things that annoy me aren’t worth the energy I invest in being “properly” bothered. Yes it’s annoying when the bus drives off right in front of my nose or I’ve forgotten by umbrella and am getting soaked. But, just a short time later, all is forgotten once again. At the end of my life, I surely also won’t regret that, in the closing-down sale, that fantastic designer-handbag was snapped up right under my nose. Or that I didn’t buy that fifteenth black pullover that would supposedly have made my life perfect at last. At least I hope I won’t regret such things.

We don’t actually regret the small annoyances …

But back to the book by Bronnie Ware. As an Australian palliative nurse, she has accompanied many people through the last weeks of their lives. In the process, she noticed that many of those in her care had something they regretted at the end of their lives. Even though the lives of these people had been widely diverse, the points that were sources of regret tended to be similar. Of course it’s no surprise that these were not things that were annoyances at the time but ultimately trivial. So what are the 5 things that, according to Bronnie Ware, the dying regret most? [1]

I wish I had …

  • … had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • … not worked so hard.
  • … the courage to express my feelings.
  • … stayed in touch with my friends.
  • … let myself be happier.

Happily not everyone has something to regret …

I already start pondering at the first point, because I’m moved by Grace’s story. For over fifty years, Grace was married to a tyrannical husband to whose wishes she deferred. She sacrificed herself for the sake of the family and the home, brought the children up and, in the process, dreamed of living independently. Maybe even to travel. When Grace was over 80, her husband was moved to a care home and Grace, still fit and healthy despite her age, decided to start living at last. Shortly afterwards, the doctors diagnosed that she had an incurable and rapidly progressing illness. Grace was embittered and furious with herself because she had never had the courage to live her life when she could still live. Still, she gave Bronnie this advice in passing: “Never let anyone stop you from achieving what you want.”

Happily not everyone has something to regret …

Not all of Bronnie Ware’s patients were preoccupied with “I wish I had…”. There were indeed people who died peacefully and had nothing to regret. They had managed to change the circumstances of their lives in such a way that they had nothing to regret at the end. A lovely example of this (not featured in the book) is the mother of the well-known mindfulness trainer, Jon Kabat-Zinn. At the age of 80 she did something for which she herself said she had previously lacked the courage. She left her husband, moved to another town and had her first art exhibition at the age of 95. Now, at 100 years old, she lives more contentedly than ever, even though age has left its mark and she can no longer draw.

Perhaps the secret of the success of books like that of Bronnie Ware is down to the fact that they provoke questions. Uncomfortable questions. Because it’s never too late to think about what really matters to us.

The book “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying” has now been translated into almost 30 languages and, in August 2014, Bronnie Ware delivered a follow-up entitled “Your Year for Change: 52 Reflections for Regret-Free Living” .

[1]Bronnie Ware: “5 Dinge, die Sterbende am meisten bereuen: Einsichten, die Ihr Leben verändern werden”, ISBN: 978-3-442-34129-0, Verlagsgruppe Random House.

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Updated on: 17. January 2019
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