The death of my grandfather was one of the more difficult moments of my life. I remember visiting as he went in and out of the hospital. I was in high school at the time, and pretty unsure about how to deal with the whole situation. No one close to me had died before.
When I visited for the last time, I held his hand as he struggled for each breath. He couldn’t speak anymore. I remember wondering if he’d had more he wanted to say, but couldn’t. More to do, but he’d run out of time.
It wasn’t until after he was gone I realized just how much knowledge and wisdom was extinguished that day, never to be recovered—so much the world could benefit from, but never got recorded or written down. My grandfather lived a long, happy life, and I have many fond memories. But I wondered: If he could have done it all again, would he have changed anything?
It’s a question I’ll never get the answer to. At least not from him.
So, I was fascinated when I ran across an article written by a palliative nurse who’d spent a large part of her career talking with and getting to know people who were about to die. She would ask each person she cared for, “What do you regret?”
Over the years, she compiled a list of the five most common regrets people have at the ends of their lives. As I read over them, I couldn’t help but realize how closely our mission here is connected to them. More importantly—how to avoid them. In fact, I’ve published a lot of material here over the years that deals directly with many.
Here are the top five regrets of the dying—as collected by a palliative nurse—and the Smart Riskologist’s strategy for avoiding them in your own life.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
You and I are quite lucky to live in an age where people are starting to become aware of this big, potential regret long before the end of their lives. And if you’re reading this article, then it’s fair to say you’re far ahead of the game.
The problem is it’s still easy to look at the distance between the life you see yourself living now and the one you want to be living and dismiss the challenge of changing as “too great.”
But how did it come to be this way? Through the building of habits! And how do habits form? One small action at a time, repeated over and over.
If you want to take up the challenge of living a life true to yourself, you only have to change one small thing at a time to make an enormous difference over time.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
I know few people who can’t relate to this one. We live in a culture where we feel measured and valued by the hours we work each week and what we produce.
This is excruciating if your work isn’t something you enjoy. You feel the responsibility to work as hard as you can, and it comes at the cost of your health, your family, and your friends. For some, the answer is taking a pay cut and working fewer hours so there’s time to do what’s really important.
I prefer a slightly different approach. Working less has many benefits, but it’s also important to strive to make the work you do more satisfying. You can’t remove it from your life entirely, so why not optimize it?
There are lots of ways to do this. Here are just a few:
- Focus on what’s important.
- Align your job with your passion and your mission.
- Find ways to stop doing the things you don’t enjoy.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I don’t know about you, but I can be painfully introverted at times. This leads to keeping my true feelings to myself when I wish I’d speak up. I worry about what people will think of me, and I carefully craft every sentence to avoid conflict. Of course, when I do this, it leads to other problems (see regret #1 above), and I usually wish I’d just said what I felt from the beginning.
It was a close friend of mine, though, who taught me if you live with conviction, you really can say what you think, and people will still like you.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
You don’t have to get to the end of your life to have this regret. As an introvert who struggles to keep up connections, I have it now!
But a few years ago, I developed a game that helps me stay in touch with friends and build strong relationships. It enriches my life and ensures the golden rule—that I’m acting like the type of friend I want to have. If you have the same struggle as me, I recommend giving it a try—preferably before it’s too late!
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
If you attempt nothing else in life, at least try to be happy. If you succeed at that, you’ll have accomplished everything you ever needed to.
I imagine this is a big regret of the dying because it’s common to believe your happiness in life will come from working hard or buying things or accomplishing something. There’s never been a bigger hoax foisted on society. These things will make you happy, yes, but their effect is fleeting.
Thinking of happiness as things or achievements is like using heroin. You need more and more get the same effect until you run out of money or you overdose and die. A Smart Riskologist knows happiness is not something to be pursued or obtained. Doing things. Having things. These have their place in life, but they are not required for happiness.
So what do you need to be happy? Turns out, you just have to decide to be.