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My father-in-law died last week. He didn’t ‘pass over’ or ‘pass away’. He died. He’s dead. He’s not coming back – or at least not in a recognizable form. He was 75, touring New Zealand and suddenly collapsed and died within minutes. A good death. I can write about what he did or did not do in his life, but this is not an obituary. It’s a wake up call since death has an amazing way of reminding us of the impermanence of life.
My mother died some years back. Ten or more years before she died she told me that she deeply regretted wanting the material things life gave her. She stated she regretted not spending her time with her children rather than working to pay for things she didn’t need anyway. She died slowly and angrily with stomach cancer.
My father died a terrible death, also at 75, following two major strokes. The first was iatragenic, directly caused by the mis-prescription of warfarin. Despite having left clear written instructions that he did not want medical intervention if he was incapable of non-assisted survival, hospital staff did the opposite simply because no-one checked the admission papers! It required a failed euthanasia attempt before the doctors finally acknowledged and acted on his wishes.
A terrible death. But what of his life? He was a great achiever. He came from the harshest background yet through constant study and hard work, achieved financial independence at retirement. But happy? Never! Full of regrets? Definitely!
No-one ever dies saying they wished they had spent more time at the office!
Humans are the one species with the capacity to choose. Whether we are living a subsistence existence or running a bank, we act by choice. Of course, it could be argued that the more money you earn, the more choices you have available to you. But there is ample evidence to show that choices at that level rarely equate to happiness or even personal satisfaction. In fact, numerous studies show that those with less are usually happier than those with more! And that brings me to the burning question…
Is it possible to die without regrets?
Three or four years back, an Australian woman, Bronnie Ware, wrote a post that went viral. It detailed the things she had learned as a palliative care worker. It focused on the five main regrets that those in her care expressed as the curtains were closed on their lives. It’s subjective but, in my experience, accurate. I’ll list them in the order she did:
1/ Having the courage to live a life true to yourself
She lists this as the most common regret. As death approaches, we are faced with all of our unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. We realise that we have limited ourselves by conforming to norms and the expectations of others.
I recall as a child how my parents were exceptionally critical of my father’s step-sister and her husband. The miscreants had the temerity to want little, to drink too much and to, horror of all horrors, sit on the beach every Saturday listening to the races, with a token bet on every race, while their kids surfed. But the miscreants loved each other and their kids, they laughed a lot and showed every sign of contentment.
2/ I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
Bronnie wrote that every male she had nursed expressed that regret. Now that most women also have careers, it’s easy to extrapolate that regret to every dying person. We throw ourselves on the treadmill believing that financial success will bring happiness. While we’re busy working for the future, life is moving away from us. Marriages fail. Children grow. Our health declines. We’ve lost the ability to distinguish what we need from what we want.
I have a neighbour with terminal lung cancer. When we moved to the neighbourhood five years ago, he was building a mega camper-bus to tour Australia. He was already retired but the bus-building work was sporadic, despite his avowed intention of touring this wonderful country.
After diagnosis, given that his project was far from finished, he determined he’d buy a camper and enjoy his remaining time living his dream. The weeks continued to roll by as he searched for ‘the right one’ until, about a month ago, he bought his camper. It’s big -big enough for a family yet he’s single! Now he’s having a ‘few modifications done’ before leaving on his journey of a lifetime.
What? The clock is ticking and he still wants more? What he needed was a small campervan. What he wanted was a house on wheels. What he’ll end up with is regret! Needs versus wants!
3/ I should have been more assertive
How many times have you submerged your true feelings in order to avoid offending someone? Did it give you a warm, golden glow to ‘bite your tongue’ or did you feel frustrated and angry at your inner-self for not having the courage of your convictions? Are there people in your life that you know shouldn’t be there but you lack the courage to speak up? And how many marriages stumble along without either partner really understanding what the other partner needs?
I know of one marriage where the wife showed every sign of being a loving, caring partner. The husband took her happiness at face-value, never assuming for a moment that it was a façade. Worse, she never expressed her needs. Marital sex was regular and, on the surface, satisfactory if not wonderful.
But the day came when there was a note instead of a loving wife. She had left for another man, one with a very dominating personality, especially in the bedroom. It eventuates that the wife needed to be a submissive in a BDSM relationship. She needed it so much that she was prepared to sacrifice a 20 year relationship to get it.
But the true tragedy is that the husband had spent 20 years fantasizing about the same relationship without once having the courage to discuss it! Two people travelling the same road, in the same direction, but in different lanes!
4/ The true value of friendship
We live in an increasingly mobile society. The average Australian family moves home every seven years. Friendships become transient and even long-term relationships become difficult to maintain. The joint tyrannies of time and distance get in the way of what’s important.
When our ancestors were born, lived and died in small communities, they built life-time friendships. Those friends shared their lives and their deaths and they theirs. Today, it’s more likely that you’ll receive a phone call advising of the death of that friend you’ve been promising yourself you’ll visit.
It would seem inconceivable to our great-grandparents that someone could die alone and not be found for weeks or months. Yet we read about such instances disturbingly often. And often, such deaths occur just the other side of a dividing wall in an apartment complex! Did that person have ‘friends’? Undoubtedly, but like so many of us, those friendships had withered through lack of nourishment.
5/ Of happiness and laughter
I once read that children laugh up to 300 times a day while adults laugh less than 20 times daily. Is someone getting your share? Do you recall laughing 20 times yesterday?
I believe the transition from childhood occurs when we lose the joy of laughter. I have a ten year old. He laughs constantly and lights up all our lives. My wife laughs freely and often and, to me, it’s her most endearing trait. When I laugh, I feel good – inside and out. But, as a ‘responsible adult’, I sometimes treat laughter as a guilty pleasure.
Bronnie wrote that most of her patients didn’t realize until the end of their life, that happiness – like most things in life – is a choice. We allow established patterns and conventions to determine our state of happiness instead of taking control ourselves. The fear of stepping outside their ‘comfort-zone’ prevented them from allowing the child within to live and breathe in the adult body. They feared ridicule and ostracism when what they wanted – and undoubtedly needed – was laughter and silliness. Yet, when you are facing death, that ostracism and ridicule becomes inconsequential when measured against life’s disappointments.
It’s the choices we make…
The bottom line is that we all have choices available to us. We can choose to live simpler lives or take a bigger mortgage. We can choose to allocate our time to family, friends and community or to the office. We can choose.
Life either happens to us or for us. Your death is nearer than you want it to be. When will you make your choices?
a) My father’s death was much harder than it should have been, simply because he did not have a plan for dying. In his final months he could neither speak nor write, so communication was almost impossible without extreme patience. Atul Gawande has written extensively on the need to make everyone aware of your needs long before death finally approaches. If you leave it to others to make those final decisions, your last months could be horrible. I thoroughly recommend every adult read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End“.
My father-in-law had planned that NZ trip for more than five years and died half-way through it! None-the-less, he was fortunate enough to die quickly and painlessly. Most of us will die a lingering death. Whether it be via heart disease, cancer, stroke or Alzheimers, don’t impose the burden of decisions on others. Those decisions are yours to make today.
b) Following the popularity of her original post, Bronnie Ware wrote “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing“. It’s a good read but it is more about her journey and how she arrived at happiness rather than a deeply researched thesis.
c) After publishing this post I came across this video by The British Humanist Association. Regardless of your belief system, it highlights the value of living a fulfilling life: