The Top Regrets People Have at the End of Their Lives
What do people regret at the end of their lives?
What will you regret at the end of yours?
At No Story Lost, we speak mostly to people in their twilight years writing their life story. That gives us a unique opportunity to ask all of our storytellers what they think life is all about, and what the most important things in life are. Sometimes, this is a time when storytellers will share regrets with us.
We often spend a significant portion of our lives planning and pursuing various goals, seeking fulfillment and happiness in our personal and professional lives. However, as we approach the end of our journey, many of us experience a sense of reflection and introspection about the choices we've made and the paths we've taken. In these moments, we may find ourselves contemplating our regrets, missed opportunities, and unrealized aspirations.
Studies have shown that many people, when faced with the end of their lives, express a range of common regrets. These regrets often center on themes such as living an authentic life, nurturing meaningful relationships, and pursuing passions and experiences that bring joy and fulfillment. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle of life, the things that feel important in the moment, and in doing things for other people or because we’re ‘supposed to.’ Often, spending time on the ‘wrong things’ causes regret later in life. Understanding these regrets can offer us valuable insights into the human experience, and provide guidance for how we might choose to live our lives more fully.
We strive to share compelling stories that resonate with our readers. The theme of our blog is to help people ‘live a good story,’ – inspired by Donald Miller’s quote. The regrets of the dying can offer us a powerful lens through which to view the human experience. By studying regret, we can provide readers with tools for personal growth, resilience, and the pursuit of a life well-lived.
In this blog post, we'll explore some of the top regrets of the dying, as reported by palliative care nurses and other content creators.
Let’s explore some of the most common regrets expressed by those at the end of their lives, and consider how we can learn from them to create a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
People in Emergency Situations
Matthew O’Reilly, EMT
Matthew is an EMT from New York, and has the challenge of responding to emergencies and meeting people in dire medical circumstances every day.
Initially, when people would ask if they were going to die, he would lie to them – to try to comfort them. But then he started telling them the truth when he knew they weren’t going to make it.
He was surprised to find that people almost always have the same reaction – they are overcome with an inner peace and acceptance.
Then, most people experience one or more of the same general themes:
- They feel the need to be forgiven for their mistakes (regardless of religious background)
- They often wish they had spent more time with loved ones
- They feel a need to be remembered, and would often ask Matthew ‘will you remember me?’
- They need to feel like their life had meaning.
- They need to know that their life wasn’t wasted on meaningless tasks
- They often feel like there was ‘so much more I wanted to do.’ They wanted to make a mark.
To see Matthew’s Ted Talk, click here.
Palliative Care Patients
Bronnie Ware, Palliative Care Nurse
Bronnie writes about the phenomenal clarity of vision that people have at the end of their lives. She has shared the top five regrets people have, and also written a book about it.
Here are the regrets:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."
"Zero Life Regrets"
A few tips on Zero Life regrets from Sanford Didonna
Click here to see the article with an explanation for each regret.
1. Not traveling when you had the chance.
2. Not learning another language.
3. Staying in a bad relationship.
4. Forgoing sunscreen.
5. Missing the chance to see your favorite musicians.
6. Being scared to do things.
7. Failing to make Physical Fitness a priority.
8. Letting yourself be defined by gender roles.
9. Not quitting a terrible job.
10. Not trying harder in school.
11. Not realizing how beautiful you were.
12. Being afraid to say “ I Love you"
13. Not listening to your parents advice.
14. Spending your youth self-absorbed.
15. Caring too much about what other people think.
16. Supporting others’ dreams over your own.
17. Not moving on fast enough.
18. Holding grudges, especially with those you love.
19. Not standing up for yourself.
20. Not volunteering enough.
21. Neglecting your teeth.
22. Missing the chance to ask your grandparents questions before they die.
23. Working too much.
24. Not learning how to cook one awesome meal.
25. Not stopping enough to appreciate the moment.
26. Failing to finish what you start.
27. Never mastering one awesome party trick.
28. Letting yourself be defined by cultural expectations.
29. Refusing to let friendships run their course.
30. Not playing with your kids enough.
31. Never taking a big risk (especially in love).
32. Not taking the time to develop contacts and network.
33. Worrying too much.
34. Getting caught up in needless drama.
35. Not spending enough time with loved ones.
36. Never performing in front of others.
37. Not being grateful sooner.
Sahil Bloom did a great exercise to help with life regrets. At 32, he wrote down the 10 things he thinks he’s most likely to regret, so that he can start working on them now.
Click here to see all 10 of his predicted regrets.
No Story Lost’s Lessons
We ask all of our storytellers “reflection questions” – we want to hear what they’ve learned about life during their time. Their family members want to know what lessons and advice are important, and if there are any regrets. Here are a few themes we’ve seen so far:
- Many of our storytellers have made a conscious effort to live without regret. We think they’ve learned that the feeling of regret takes energy and doesn’t do one any good.
- When we ask what life is all about, the answer is invariably about love – and time spent with loved ones. They also stress the importance of telling people how important they are to you.
- The regrets we do hear about are usually about people, too – wishing they’d spent more time with important people to them, and having more kindness for people.
We hope that these thoughts and tips from experts and from people who have experienced a long life and faced death can help you live a better story and a better life.
One regret we feel strongly about? Missing the chance to ask your parents or grandparents questions before they’re gone.
And, what do all of the examples have in common? We'll regret not investing in the most important relationships in our lives. Spend time building and strengthening the key relationships - family, spouse, and friends.
Learn about our life story books here.
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What was the most helpful learning for you?