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

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.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

14 thoughts on “Top Five Regrets of the Dying – and a Buddhist’s perspective”

  1. Reblogged this on wellturned and commented:
    A good reminder of what’s most important (hint: it’s not how much time you spend at work, or whether you conform to everyone’s expectations…)

  2. Well, ironically,I feel as if I have been trying to lose my (paralytic) fear of death to then allow me to develop a(helpful) fear of death. If that makes sense?
    It is impossible to engage in death meditation with the first type (blinkers on, heart of stone) so it’s taken me a couple of years to lose that (mostly) so I can begin to develop some realism to the meditation. Here’s hoping! 🙂 x

  3. Thanks Luna, i really appreciate your articles as i find it helpful to understand how dharma instructions can be applied to daily life as you always write about relevant daily experiences with and then the dharma approach.
    Thank you:)

  4. Of course I am teaching the death meditation tonight and the articles always appear when I need them! Having just spent time with my mom while she passed away in Oct. I find the above comment very true. She was ill for 3 years and I found meditating on her death also very beneficial for me to clean up our relationship, at least from my side. I was with her in hospice doing Powa while she went through the death process and caring for her the best I could physically but mostly in my view of her in the years and months leading up to her death.

    Towards the end I had no regret, no guilt, no blame, just compassion and gratitude for her and an appreciation for life and all she gave. There was sadness but it felt like clean pain that just opened my heart. I had a lot of anger and blame for many years and thanks to the Dharma it has gone with respect to my mom.

    Meditating on our death and losing those we love is powerful, like you mentioned, going through losing things one by one.

    It helps cut through any nonsense. I pray for deep authentic death awareness.

    thank you!

  5. Living life true to oneself, is a belief that that’s what we are doing anyway, and accepting we did our best. Having a conscience and sense of love for everything we do is being true to ourself. When I think I hate work, I hate it, but when I think I love work, that happens too. It’s a choice. The only thing that changed here was my mind. We can think about our good fortune, then we are less likely to regret anything. No one can ever truly deceive themselves if only we believe love is the answer and wisdom is an expression of the truth without delusion such as malice or attachment.

    I am happy working hard, especially when I know what I am doing is helping others. If we believe we are helping others, then we are. Our attitude to it can be very positive, and it rubs off on to others.

    Expression of the truth without malice always works well. Sometimes others may not want to hear, but without malice means no harm.

    When we love our friends, we are always in touch with them on a higher level. Connections come from the heart, and love is a high vibrational field.

    Happiness is a state of mind. We choose what state of mind we have.

    As Shantideva says ‘all the happiness in this world comes from wishing others to be happy’ this is an expression of love….wishing others to be happy.

    1. More to think about, thank you Gakyi. I like the way you put this: “Happiness is a state of mind. We choose what state of mind we have.” And I would add that we have a greater ability to choose once we start to control our mind.

  6. I find this interesting and would agree with all the ‘regrets’ mentioned being major ones. But I see things from a slightly different perspective.

    My biggest fear is actually getting to that point of death and having regrets at all!
    Fear of regret is one of the things that holds me back in life, so worrying about what I might regret then could be seen as counterproductive.

    This is one of the reasons I am following Buddhism, because it opens up these issues and allows us to try and put them in some sort of perspective. I don’t know how well I am doing but I’m trying.

    I am trying to gradually lose my clinging to the ‘I’ so that eventually maybe regret won’t even be something I can have…

    Sorry, not sure how much sense this makes. I love your articles, I don’t have much time to respond but I try to read as many as I can because they are very thought-provoking.

    1. It makes perfect sense, what you are saying, and that the main point IS that we think about all our issues and fears ahead of time and get them in perspective so we get past them. We don’t need to fear having regrets if we are simply doing our best.

      The Kadampas would say that the best time to fear uncontrolled death is now, when we still have something to do about it, and not on our deathbed. Death awareness, perhaps paradoxically but truthfully nonetheless, helps us overcome ALL our fears.

  7. Have to say that for the most part I agree with that article. I worked in palliative care for more than a decade and the only thing I would say I found different was the idea of “not working so hard”, the sentiment was the same though, with wishing more time had been spent with children and loved ones, including the small things (those things which seemed small at the time anyway) like reading bedtime stories or snuggled up watching a film. The majority of my patients did find acceptance in the end,even the young patients showed an amazing amount of maturity and acceptance to what would happen, it was the parents who couldn’t accept. I always found that the hardest part was the ones left behind who seemed to have the most regrets in things they wished had been done differently,from a personal and a professional opinion. As well as working In palliative care, I began my nurse training aged 17 whilst caring for my husband, who was diagnosed with terminal leiomyosarcoma, and have experience of personal and professional experiences of regrets relating to the dying.

    1. Thank you for your comment, very interesting. Of course, death affects everyone around the person, and I think we are doing ourselves a favor if we start working to overcome our potential regrets with respect to each of our loved ones dying. Remembering death does improve our relationships, makes them more precious, makes us kinder; but it helps to start thinking about these things as soon as possible while we have some time, not later when we have cause for regret at not doing what we wanted.

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