Top Five Regrets of the Dying – and a Buddhist’s perspective

disappearing world

A hospice worker called Bronnie Ware wrote a very interesting article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. I (and others) posted it on Facebook and it garnered a lot of attention, probably as all of us are dying sooner or later, and who wants to die with regrets?! Other hospice workers chimed in to agree that they found these to be the top five regrets amongst their patients too.

I think Buddha’s meditations can help us prevent all of these (as well as  a few other regrets I can think of) and make the most of the time we have left. I hope she doesn’t mind, but I’m going to borrow Bronnie Ware’s points and share just a few more ideas below; and please add your own ideas in the comments.

Meditating on death awareness now — remembering the fact that we are definitely going to die and lose everything external, and that this could happen any time, even today – is probably the most effective preparation for preventing these regrets. If we live each week, or day, as if it is our last, this tends to get our priorities straight! And it doesn’t have to be scary either, it can be very liberating. (You can try this experiment to see if this is true.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

We are often wrapped up in the so-called “worldly concerns” of wishing to experience praise and a good reputation and not criticism and a bad reputation, and this can make us overly fearful. We need integrity – knowing based on our own wisdom (not blind allegiance) what is good and kind, and sticking to it regardless of what everyone around us thinks or does. We need a self-worth based not on distracting, fleeting concerns like our reputation and whether or not people like us, but based on the good qualities we are developing in own mind – our own love, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and so on. These are what make us feel good about ourselves both now and at the time of our death.

If we imagine what it is going to be like to lose everything – our body, our possessions, our career, our friends, even our most dearly beloved who seems to have been validating our existence – what do we want to have left? Does it matter at that time what others expected of us? Or does it matter more that we have tried to live up to our highest ideals?

If any of you have lost your job recently, or a loved one, or your health, did you find this to be the case?

When we meditate on death awareness, we think of what it’ll be like to lose EVERYTHING, the entire infrastructure of our life, including our friends, our possessions and even our own body. This can have a dramatic effect on our mind because it puts us in touch with the naked truth. But sometimes I think it can also be very powerful to meditate on losing one thing at a time. You can start by imagining that you are fired from your long-term job/career (you can also imagine what often goes along with it, such as being pitied and/or criticized behind your back, and no longer having anything in common with the people you made your working life with.) You can imagine that your most dearly beloved partner, parent or child dies. You can imagine losing your health. What matters at these times, what protects you from pain, what do you have left, what do you want to have left?

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

So true, isn’t it, that old adage that no one’s last words are “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”?!

Of course, it depends what we’re working hard doing, and especially why. If we are motivated by a desire just for making this life comfortable, and especially if we become addicted to earning more and more money, status etc, when we see that these pursuits are pointless in the light of death we are bound to feel some regret for the wasted time and energy. But if we work hard to help others, motivated by a wish to bring happiness and freedom into others’ lives, I doubt we’ll regret that. It doesn’t matter so much what job we have to do to earn our keep and look after our loved ones. It matters far more why we are going to work each day.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

Bronnie explains that “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

I think this is related to #1 above. It’s a good idea not to suppress our emotions/pretend we’re someone different. Bodhisattvas have a vow to avoid both “pretension” and “deceit”. But nor do we have to suddenly tell everyone exactly what we think of them, especially if it may hurt them (see this article about criticism) – we’ll probably regret that too! Better to work on overcoming the resentment by learning to love unconditionally, based on a genuine self-confidence. From our side, do we really need to worry quite so much about what people think or say about us, or even say to us? It means very little in the grand scheme of things.

There is a Kadampa motto:

“Help others as much as you can. Harm your delusions as much as you can.”

Following this advice gives us the courage we need.

4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends

See, Facebook is helpful!! Children of my nieces’ generation will never have to lose a friend again; they’ll be followed from crib to grave by hundreds upon hundreds of friends…!!

Actually, of course, we don’t want attachment to our friends, as this will cause us pain at the time of death when we understand we have to lose them in this current form. But if we have the three types of love – warm affection, cherishing them as precious, and wishing them to be happy – we’ll never truly be separated from our friends. (You can find out more about the difference between the positive mind of love and the delusion of attachment in Joyful Path.)

It is good to live as if every encounter we have with another may be our last – it’ll naturally prevent our being cross with them, and mean that we appreciate every moment we have together.

5. I wish I’d let myself be happier

Bronnie says:

“Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”

So, the sooner we realize this, the better! Enough said.

Please add your own observations on these or any other likely deathbed regrets you can think of. And share this article if you feel like it.

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