5 Regrets of the dying, and what it teaches us

I came across an article that outlines a book written by a palliative care nurse. She explains what the greatest regrets these people have when facing their own death. I explain what such means when it comes to living a better life.

The regrets of the dying she lists as:

  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 hadn’t worked so hard.
  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.


What I notice about this list is that so many of us regret not living our own lives, but succumb to the pressure to living a life according to someone else’s rules. Regrets 1,2 and 3 cover this.

It’s the regret of not living for ourselves. Of not paying attention to the important things in life, the parts that matter because they make us happy.
We think we are living in an individualistic society, with the power to make choices about our lives. Yet despite all our freedoms we spend a lot of the time chasing after other people’s expectations of us. Living a life that is not out own.

There are those people and individuals who live on the edges of life by choice not necessity. Fringe groups and people who don’t live by the mainstream rules. That kind of courage shouldn’t be ridiculed, shamed, or prosecuted but praised.

It just goes to show how powerful those forces of conformity are. As I like to think, the most powerful forces in the world are the one we don’t even notice. Conformity, social pressure through unspoken values.

The pressure to conform is conveyed through ridicule, criticism, public shaming and ostracising. Or being brought up to think that you are flawed, weak, or that your own needs and wants don’t matter.

Another way is through our consumer society, being sold goods we don’t need because companies have convince us we have a problem.
The lesson here is to stop trying to squeeze yourself into the expectations of others, friends, peers, family, your culture. Living your own life and your own dreams regardless of what other people think is what life is largely about.

The problem is that so much of our society is dead set against that.


The male patients spoke of their regret at working too hard, and not spending enough time with their families, friends or projects they want to do.
It sort of relates to the above. But here it is the idea that for men at least, a good life is one where work, money, and status are at the core.
We work so hard now that it’s affecting or health and happiness.
Work had become the cornerstone of life because society is run by economists and businesses. We mistakenly think that we live to work, not work to live.
The desire to have more wealth, and status means we are never satisfied with what we have, so up go the working hours, because it’s what we have to do to pay for all of the luxuries we need.


Regret number three the shows how much self-expression is important to life.  We keep our feelings bottled up for fear of upsetting others.  Worse still we can blame other people for that fear because we feel it’s they are being unreasonable for not seeing things our way.

Without expressing our wants and needs we are far less likely to receive them, and without that, we can’t ever be successful or happy. Growth, intimacy, connection, and resources are not acquired unless we ask.

We can be amazed at how much we hold back.  Yet the solution I feel is to learn how better to express ourselves whilst minimising the hurting others. But also to to accept that some conflict in life is inevitable.

I heard a saying once that is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

We should all try to get better at asking for what we want and need, even at the risk of upsetting others. But never forgetting that no one has the obligation to meet those needs.


The fourth regret undermines just how much a social circle is important to our happiness. Something that science has confirmed.

Further still, we don’t tend to value something until it’s lost. Only then do we realise how important it was.

Our best and worst moments in life can be traced back to other people.  Sharing our life with others is what makes us feel alive at all.

If we lived a life in isolation, with all our deeds and work unremembered, our contribution lost. Then what does it matter that we lived at all?

Developing relationships, facing the world as a family, team, unit, business lets us feel that we are part of something greater than ourselves. It’s through others that we make our contribution to life, leave a legacy, pass on what we have learned, and help others.

It’s also the fear of insignificance. We need to know, that others know, that we exist.

So we need a witness to our life, someone who can testify to what we did, what impact we made.

All that can only be done by other people.


The last regret is probably the most interesting.

We all want happiness and success, yet we don’t realise that it’s not a destination to be reached, through endless goal setting, working and struggle.

But that happiness is the journey itself. The everyday moments you live, the work that you do, the strife you endure.

We get so hooked into the culture that tells us we can be happy if we get this product or use this service. Or we think that if I just have this promotion, this house, this partner I will be happy.

When our desire to be successful or happy is not met we get upset. Yet each successful goal gets replaced by another goal. So we never really arrive at happiness. Desire is the basis of our suffering according the Buddhists. The desire to be happy then is what prevents us from being happy.

Happiness is about how you live in each moment.

But it’s also about how you live your life. Do you allow yourself to get stuck in the comfortable and familiar? Without growth and change, we get caught in a rut.
Like music, life is about that changes that take place and your life is the tone of that piece as a whole.

Sometimes we take life far too seriously, our desperation comes to live the good life causes us to work to hard, follow fads, but too much stuff, look for the silver bullet answers. Which means we have less time and resources to spend on the stuff that would make us happy.

We treat life far too seriously, as if its a test we need to pass rather than art we want to create.

Instead of what we could be doing is relaxing, enjoying the moments, Remembering the simple pleasures and laughing at ourselves for the folly of our own desperate existence.

We seem to find it hard to find the fun in life, or even know what that looks like. We are told such a thing in self-indulgent. So it goes back to societal values in some way.
We need to try our best and enjoy what little time we have in between the moments of seriousness.

What I take most from all of this is that we spend far too much of our lives trying to live up to a standards we don’t ourselves create. We forget that our life is our responsibility, and that’s it’s no one else’s job to make is happy, successful or wealthy.

We seem not to notice the toxic nature of society in our lives. So we end up pursuing goals without questioning whether or not the cost to get them is worth it.
It’s a pity we don’t spend more time questioning our existence, what our lives contain, and where they are headed.

We need to remind ourselves daily if possible of our inevitable death.  Contemplate what sort of life we want to end up with and what it contains. It’s probably not what we are working on now.

These these elderly or dying patients would know better than anyone, because are facing the ultimate test. That when all is said and done, it’s relationships, authenticity, self-expression that give us the happiness we seek.

It’s a lesson for us all, to work on what’s important, spend less time chasing happiness and learn more from our elders to boot.

Image Credit: limonzest / 123RF Stock Photo

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