Apparently Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse in Australia, had spoken over the years to people who were dying and had made a list of the regrets that they expressed. Reading the list there is a lot in it that anyone could agree with.
Here is the list in full and a short synopsis of what the poor souls who were dying said:
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 realise 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."
Now I have no knowledge of Bronnie Ware or her work other than what I read in the article from The Guardian which was published in February 2012, but when I look at the list in a little more depth I begin to feel a touch uneasy.
The first thing that struck me about the list was that there was nothing of hope for an afterlife or a better life to come; everyone was focused on themselves and how they had not controlled their life in the way that they thought they could and should have.
There is a lovely old saying in the Catholic Church: “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
This is one of those beautiful assurances that God gives us which states that when we get to heaven he shall take care of everything, even the unfulfilled dreams.
The second point that struck me was that if this was the way that these people were feeling then they had to see their life as a failure and that is a terrible way to end your days.
The third topic that shouted out from the hilltops of these words was that there was no mention of God. How do you face death without thinking of God? Surely one regret would be that you had not developed a better relationship with God while you still had the time.
When I realized this last fact I looked up Ms Ware’s website and went to the page where she gives a description of herself and her work.
The first word I looked for was ‘God.’ No matches.
The second word I looked for was ‘Christ.’ No matches.
The third and final word I looked for was ‘love.’ Eight matches.
The use of the word was interesting: “Inspiration is my love:” “How to love who I am:” “Deserving of our own love:” “Your journey towards self-love:” “great love for our magnificent planet:” “self-love:” again, and finally “An open heart of love.”
Those of us who are from the Christian tradition should be able to see immediately what is wrong with these references to love. For example the first one should read, “God’s inspiration is my love,” and the second should read, “How to love who I am in God.”
You can fill in the rest yourself; oh, and don’t forget to change ‘love of self’ to ‘love of neighbour.’
We all have regrets about life because we are all human and we also know that none of us really tried in life to live up to our true potential. Those who do are generally called saints or have big statues put up to them in the squares of our cities.
Most of us sort of drift along in life doing the best we can while muddling through on a daily basis, fighting the chores of the world. We are sort of ‘a bit lazy’ about life or at least that is the way we feel.
But even that is not true. When we think like that we are being a tad too harsh on ourselves. Both of these extremes, the regrets shown by the people Ms Ware spoke with and those who think they haven’t really lived life, reflect the thoughts of people for whom control of their life is the most important thing.
If you think of yourself as being in control or that you should have been in control then you are always going to end up a failure because death is the big reminder that God is in control.
I look back over my own unremarkable life and from the point of view of the world I am certainly no big success case. I am not wealthy, famous or important: I live in an ordinary house, have plenty of failures behind me and if I wanted too I could have plenty of regrets.
But then I look at the positive parts of my life.
I have three great children, one of whom has pre-deceased me, and the other two of whom I am immensely proud. I have a wife who thinks I am the cutest thing this side of the Mississippi and looks after me as if I were a king.
Most of all, in my journey of life I have come to know that there is a God, that when he walked this earth he did so in Jesus and that we shall all spend our eternity in some sort of relationship with him.
Heading into death I don’t think I shall spend the time dwelling on regrets, and indeed there are many things I have done that I wish I had not. When I come to the judgement with Jesus I shall certainly be red faced and shall have a lot to be ashamed off.
No, when we come near to death we should be looking forward not backward. I will be looking forward to seeing my child again, looking forward to meeting God and all the family members who have gone before me, my parents and my brothers and sisters.
One of the problems that we Catholics and people of other Christian denominations do not do often enough, is think about the promises that we have from the church about the afterlife.
We are promised eternal life, everlasting bliss in the presence of God. Why would we approach such an event with fear and trembling? God gives us three score years and ten to prepare for our death, is it his fault that we wasted the time running after money and privilege?
When I think of death and dying I always go back to two men who had a great influence on me in my life. Both of them were priests and both faced death with great joy and serenity.
The first was called Fr Pius and he was one of those jolly priests that we all love. He had some disease that meant that his feet all swelled up and that he couldn’t wear any shoes. The poor man had cancer, thought that it was gone and in September 1995 he got news that he had secondary cancer and it was terminal.
Fr Pius was as human a man as you could ever meet. He had a passion for fast cars, though I don’t think he ever drove himself, and once when I asked him if he regretted not having got married, he said that he would marry if ever he met a woman as nice as Our Lady.
Fr Pius was full of life.
I remember talking to him one Sunday morning after he heard his news. I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject.
“I’ll have Christmas day’s dinner with the Lord,” said Fr Pius when he saw that I was a bit awkward about the subject. “There is nothing to fear in dying, sure we are only moving on to our real home.”
As Christmas day approached I began to think that Fr Pius was mistaken. He was going downhill rapidly but it looked as if he would live til after Christmas.
He died just before 8am on Christmas morning, 1995, the same day as Dean Martin: he had plenty of time to go and get ready for lunch.
The other man who taught me a lot about dying was my old friend and mentor, Fr Aengus. In the end it was living that became an annoyance for Fr Aengus, he couldn’t understand why God had not taken him long before.
On the night he died, earlier this year, Fr Aengus said to the nurse who was looking after him, “Am I dying?”
The nurse replied, “Yes, Father, you are.”
Fr Aengus turned from the nurse, opened his hands in prayer and said, “Thank you, Jesus.” These were his last words.
You see, every person on God’s earth knows that there is a God, even the most vociferous atheist; they have to shout loudest to drown out his voice.
On the subject of atheists, Ray Varghese, one of the world’s leading philosophers of religion, said recently, “We have all the evidence we need (for God) in our immediate experience and only a deliberate refusal to ‘look’ is responsible for atheism of any variety.”
And every person on God’s earth, simply because we all have a conscience, knows that we are going to have to give an account of our lives. Cardinal Henry Newman wrote about this wonderfully in the 1800s.
Newman wrote a poem about the old man who dreamt about his own death: ‘The Dream of Gerontius.’ In it the old man asks his guardian angel why he is not afraid as they go to meet God.
“Dear Angel, say,
Why have I now no fear at meeting Him?
Along my earthly life, the thought of death
And judgment was to me most terrible.”
Gerontius went on to say that all through life he had kept the fact of his judgement in front of his eyes and it had filled him with dread but that now that he was on his way to meet God, he had no fear at all.
The angel replied: “It is because then thou didst fear, that now thou dost not fear.”
Gerontius had lived his life in the knowledge that someday he would have to give an account of himself. The new fad notion that there is no God and that we can do whatever we want was alien to him.
Then should we live our life in terror? Of course not. We are ordinary people going about living our ordinary lives. We try to look after our families, keep ours affairs in reasonable order and care about the people near to us.
An ordinary life is never a life wasted; there is a lot of good in the average day. The wee old woman praying in the back of the chapel for her husband and children already knows this.
She knows there is a God and she knows that she is ok.
And if you ask the same old lady about love she will not speak about ‘loving who she is,’ or ‘self-love’ of any kind, or being ‘deserving of my own love.’
She will probably talk about the grandchildren, how that man of hers annoys her but ‘sure he’s the best in the world,’ and she will tell you she is praying for Mrs So-and-So down the street who is not well at the minute.
Regrets are something she does not have time for.
Happy New Year.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of
the editor but are the views of the writer.
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