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The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and What We Can Learn from Them

career change connection entrepreneurship peter axtell purposeful living retirement May 14, 2018

by Peter Axtell

drawings by Peter Axtell

Minimize regrets at the end of your life

In this post, I'm going to take on a weighty subject that most people don't want to face and that is the fact of our mortality. Michael A. Singer says, "why are people worried about dying? You are going to die, it's a fact so why worry about it?" These are wise words indeed. So what can we learn about living life to the fullest with the precious time we do have? We can learn to minimize regrets at the end of our life.

The top five regrets of the dying

Bronnie Ware who worked with people at the end of their lives noticed recurring themes in what they regretted which she summarized in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and I will illustrate them with some examples: 

1 - “I wish I'd dared to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I have a friend that went to a prestigious law school to fulfill the wishes of his parents. He acquired a massive student debt, spent four years of his life in school and a few more practicing law and then realized he didn't want to be a lawyer despite the substantial financial rewards and prestige. He left the law and became a therapist which he loves despite the cut in pay.

2 - “I wish I didn't work so hard.”

According to a 2015 American Psychological Association Study, millennials are experiencing the highest levels of stress of any age group. A friend of mine's daughter is a millennial and works for a large corporation. She told me she works six days a week minimum. She gets to work at 8:30 am and often gets home at 9:00 or 10:00 pm. This environment is typical of corporate America that is grinding up young people and justifying it by saying “this is the way we do things around here.”

3 - “I wish I'd dared to express my feelings.”

This response was surprising. It always amazes me when I talk about feelings that a typical response is "oh that's touchy-feely stuff, or that's woo-woo.”

I was watching an interesting Netflix series called Madam Secretary. In the show, Téa Leoni plays a smart, powerful and vulnerable secretary of state.

Her husband is an academic “be strong” kind of guy. All these disasters occur, and he always has a brave face on, never shows his emotions and is trying to hold it together.

They have two teenage children, a boy, and a girl, who are continually asking their dad "is anything wrong?" The dad always responds "no nothing's wrong" despite the constant disasters.

You can see in the boy's and the girl's face that his answer does nothing to make them feel safer. At one point the stress becomes too strong for the dad, and he finally breaks down, shares his feelings that he doesn't always have it together, he's scared and confused sometimes and can't hold it in any longer.

What happens to the kids is insightful. They are relieved that he's stopped with the brave face and shows his vulnerability as a man and they feel safe.

4 - “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP's Loneliness Study.

In an article by the American Psychological Association So Lonely I Could Die, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D. professor of psychology at Brigham Young University stated: “To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for premature mortality, Holt-Lunstad presented data from two meta-analyses. The first involved 148 studies, representing more than 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.“

5 - “I wish I'd let myself be happier.”

Five years ago, I was lying in the Emergency room in Santa Rosa California waiting to go into surgery after suffering a major heart attack. I realized how many years I'd been unhappy, stuck, suffering and just putting up with how I was living my life and who I was being. Because of my job, I was absorbing vast amounts of stress, not eating that well, not exercising enough and punishing myself day after day ignoring the fact that someday it would all catch up with me. Until one day, it did catch up with me. As I lay there not knowing if I would live or die a fantastic gift came to me – from where I don't know. It's not that important where it came from, what's important is that it happened. I made a declaration to myself that if I made it out alive, I would do whatever it takes to be happy. I remember saying to myself: "No more. Throw me out on the street (for a while) if you have to, but I'm going to figure out the actions I need to take to be happy.” At that moment, that declaration started a chain of events I could never have imagined…


I somehow found myself comforted after writing this post. Being reminded of my mortality has helped live each day a little more in the present. Shining a light on the fact that I will die someday (I almost died five years ago) has provided a bit more peace around this reality of life.

Question: Has this post caused you to think about death a little differently and if so, how?


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