November 28, 2022

“Yesterday was heavy—put it down.” ~Unknown

Death is still taboo in many parts of the world, yet I must confess that I’ve become fascinated with the art of dying well.

I was thinking about the word “morbid” the other day, as I heard someone use it when berating her friend for his interest in better preparing for death. The word’s definition refers to “an unhealthy fixation on death and dying,” but who gets to define what’s healthy? And why are so many of us keen to avoid discussing the inevitable?

We talk about death from time to time on our podcast, and it’s through this work that I’ve been contemplating the topic of regret.

We all have a story, and they’re rarely fairy tales. As we doggedly plow through life’s box of chocolates, it’s not uncommon for us to say (or not say) and do (or not do) things that we later regret. However, if we motor on, never assessing or addressing the regretful moments from our past, could we hold onto remorse for years?

In such cases, are we unconsciously retaining dis-ease in our bodies and minds? It’s a hefty weight, after all. Some of us spend our whole lives carrying shame and regret. Cumbersome, compounded emotions clouding our hearts and minds, we take these dark passengers to the end.

So, there you are—about to die—still living in the past or an unattainable future. Even then, you’re incapable of forgiveness. Even then, you cannot let go or express your true feelings.

Is this the ending you want for yourself? To spend the last moments of your life incapacitated, surrounded by loved ones (if you’re lucky), yet unable to be present, all thanks to the train of regrets chug-chugging through your failing, fearful mind? Now there’s a positively joy-filled thought.

And what of my regrets and motivation to write these words? Well, now, there’s a question.

Like you, my life to date was not without incident. I’ve lived with childhood abuse, high-functioning addiction, self-harm, depression, and emotional immaturity. There’s nothing particularly unique about my story of suffering; I’m just another Samsaric citizen doing the rounds.

As is traditional, I bore the shame and regret of my actions for a long time, and the weight of my co-created drama nearly drove me to suicide. My rampage lasted almost two decades, and I made quite a mess during that time. However, after a fair whack of internal work, I’m grateful to report that I no longer feel like that. 

In recent years, I discovered a new way to live—a life of sobriety, self-love, forgiveness, acceptance, awareness, gratitude, and presence.

Through this beautiful transformation, I saw that to live a life within a life had already been a gift, but two was an outright miracle. One might say that I died before I died. This experience drove me to review, reinvent, and begin learning the art of living and dying well. And I’ll continue learning until my last day here at Earth School.

So I now find myself in an incredible position. If you told me I only had five minutes left to live, I’d wave my goodbyes and then spend my last few minutes contemplating how unequivocally grateful I am for the lessons and gifts I’ve received during my stay.

But this isn’t about me—far from it. You see, presently, I’m on a mission to understand how others feel about shame and regret. Do you long to let go of grudges? Do you wish you’d said “I love you more,” or that you spent less time at work and more with family and friends? Or are you deferring such inconsequential concerns until you’ve achieved this goal or that milestone?

But what if you suddenly ran out of time?

In her book On Death and Dying (what the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own family), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, occasionally touches on the regrets of the dying. Some of the remorse described includes failures, lost opportunities, and sadness at being unable to provide more for those left behind.

The book features excerpts from many interviews with folks with terminal illnesses and, to this day, remains an excellent guide for people working with those near death.

A few ideas circulate about the many regrets of the dying. We might suppose that in the final transitional phase, folks often lament the lives they didn’t live, which culminates in a significant degree of regret. But there’s been very little research done to prove this idea.

In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware interweaves her memoirs with five deathbed regrets gleaned during her stint working as a palliative care worker. It would appear that there’s no science to support the anecdotal regrets listed in her book, but they’re interesting, not least because they feel entirely likely.

Digging into the subject further, on top of Ware’s list, I found more information discussing the top deathbed regrets. My entirely unscientific internet search coughed up some common themes as follows:

I wish I had taken better care of my body.
I wish I’d dared to live more truthfully.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I should’ve said “I love you” more.
I wish I’d let go of grudges.
I wish I’d left work at work and made more time for family.
I wish I had stayed in touch with friends.
I wish I’d been the better person in conflicts.
I wish I’d realized that happiness was a choice much sooner.
I wish I’d pursued my dreams.

Heartbreaking if true, right? 

So while I found little to no research on deathbed regrets, I did find a 2005 American paper titled What We Regret Most… and Why by Neal J. Roese and Amy Summerville.

The report collates and analyzes several studies surrounding the regret phenomenon. Nine of these papers were published between 1989 and 2003 and contain some highly insightful metadata on life regrets. That said, one wonders how attitudes have changed in all that time.

The research required participants to review their lives and consider what three (from a list of eight) aspects they would change if they could reset the clock and start again. Other studies asked what parts of life they would alter, and another inquired about people’s most significant life regrets.

Interestingly, the studies showed a correlation between advancing age, diminishing opportunity, and gradual regret reduction. As older individuals’ life opportunities faded, so did their most painful regrets. Perhaps this meant they simply gave up, feeling there’s no point in regretting something one no longer has the power to change.

While not specific, there were clear categories for Americans’ biggest regrets as follows:

Education 32%
Career 22%
Romance 15%
Parenting 10%
Self 5.47%
Leisure 2.55%
Finance 2.52%
Family 2.25%
Health 1.47%
Friends 1.44%
Spirituality 1.33%
Community 0.95%

The paper summarizes, “Based on these previous demonstrations, we suggest that the domains in life that contain people’s biggest regrets are marked by the greatest opportunity for corrective action.” Indeed, this makes perfect sense. Perhaps it is not surprising that people regret career and education decisions in adulthood (with time left to change their course).

I suspect, however, that such thoughts change entirely the moment one comes face-to-face with their mortality. At this point, one surely cares less about education and a successful career—about the stuff one has or has not accrued.

I imagine that when one reaches the inevitable moments before death, we consider the true beauty of life, love, experience, family, friends, and living in peace, free from hatred, envy, or resentment toward one another. But then, I’m a bit of a hippie like that, and perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. 

So how about we create a study of our own? I invite you to grab a pen and paper (or keyboard) and spend a few minutes imagining that you’ve got five minutes left to live—not in the future, but right now at this point in your life. You have five minutes left.

Consider your deathbed regrets. Close your eyes if it helps (you’re dying, after all). Take a little time to breathe into these reflections consciously. When finished, perhaps you might share some or all of your list in the comments section of this post. Regardless, maybe this offers a chance to address one’s would-be deathbed regrets by considering them now, with a little breathing room.

Perhaps it’s a timely invitation to stop and take stock. By contemplating life and death in such a way, we are learning that the secret to the art of dying well is right under our noses in how we live our lives.

About Martin O’Toole

Recovered alcohol and addict, Martin hosts the How To Die Happy podcast, sharing stories and practical utilities for living and dying well. His book of the same name will be published Jan 2023. A mental health advocate and outspoken ambassador for the safe use of plant medicines, Martin’s words are from the soul, articulated to inspire and help others along life’s rambling journey. Follow him: @martinotoole

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