Four years of my professional life were spent working in hospice. Director of Bereavement and Pastoral Care. Simply put, four of the best years of my life. Creative, energizing, and a daily learning curve. A downer? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite. More hopeful, inspirational, meaningful.
I listened to the mortals in the bed. Talked to them. Was always struck by how undramatic they were. Not a lot of 11th hour confessions. Not a lot of sudden, grasping forays into philosophy or religion. More, I was struck by the simplicity of things. Stories. Memories. Just kinda wrapping things up. Maybe talking sports, world events, politics. I often had the feeling this is exactly the interaction I would have had with this patient had I met them in their living room a year before the terminal diagnosis.
But, from time to time, the mortals in the bed would trust you with their regrets. Death shines a light unspeakably bright on what really matters. And, standing in the imminent shadow of death, hospice patients often inventory the treasures they missed.
A friend introduces me to the work of Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, writer and singer/ songwriter who spent part of her profession in hospice palliative care. Ware is the author of “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A life transformed by the dearly departed.”
The “Top Five” are no Surprise. Not When you Say them Out Loud.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard. (Ware says this one has a particular masculine twist. Men lament missing the childhoods of their children. Men lament time not spent with the beloved mate.)
- I wish I would have had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I would have stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I would have allowed myself to be happier. (We humans tend to act as if there is a “Happiness Authorization Board” whose permission we must be granted before we can be allowed to revel in the miracle of this existence.)
In my heart, I nod at this author whom I have never met. Yes, those are the great themes. I heard them, too. The dying teach us.
When you turn this discussion upside-down, it becomes even more stark and obvious. Yes, I listened to the mortals in the hospice beds. What they said, and what they didn’t say. The latter is just as important.
PEOPLE NEVER SAY
- I should have vacuumed more often.
- I just forgave way too many people.
- As a child, I had too many competent, supportive adults in my life.
- I regret the way I neglected my Facebook page.
- I should have worried more.
- I should have envied more.
- There never seemed to be enough time to be cynical.
- I was always too merciful and generous in my views of others.
- I should have spent more time at the office.
- I told my wife/husband “I love you” too often.
- I wish I would have been better at grudges.
- I was never clear about my racial prejudices.
- I wish I would have made myself sick with alcohol more often.
- My children, you wanna squeeze every drop of bitterness out of life.
- [name], would you please read my tweets at my funeral?
- I wish I would have made more time to be catty.
- I really regret the time I spent learning to play the piano.
- I’m having doubts whether I was sufficiently antagonistic toward homosexuals during my life.
- Don’t you just hate the sound of laughter?
- I should have hoarded more.
- I could have used about 12 more meaningless sexual experiences.
- I should have cursed at my children more.
- I should have hit my children more often.
- Can you sit shiva on SnapChat?
- I’ve made a photo album of all the people I hate. I want you to have it.
- I regret not taking more ‘selfies.’
- Does my butt look too big?
- I gave away too much money.
- I missed out on a lot of pornography. • I’m still mad at [name] for not ‘friending’ me back.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)