With only five minutes to live, what are your regrets on your deathbed?

“Yesterday was hard – put it down.” ~Unknown

Death is still taboo in many parts of the world, but I must confess that I am fascinated by the art of dying well.

I was pondering the word “morbid” the other day when I heard someone use it when berating their boyfriend for his interest in better preparation for death. The definition of the word refers to “an unhealthy fixation on death and dying,” but who gets to define what is healthy? And why do so many of us avoid talking about the inevitable?

We talk about death from time to time on our podcast, and through this work I have thought about the subject of repentance.

We all have a story, and it’s rarely a fairy tale. As we doggedly plow through life’s box of chocolates, it’s not uncommon to say (or not say) and do (or not do) things that we later regret. However, if we move on and never evaluate or address the regrettable moments of our past, could we hold on to regret for years?

In such cases, do we unconsciously keep disease in our body and mind? After all, it’s a handsome weight. Some of us spend our entire lives bearing shame and regret. Awkward, compound emotions that cloud our hearts and minds, we bring these dark passengers to the end.

So there you are – dying – still living in the past or an unreachable future. Even then you are unable to forgive. Even then, you can’t let go or express your true feelings.

Is this the ending you want? Unable to spend the last moments of your life surrounded by loved ones (if you’re lucky), but unable to be present, all thanks to the regret chugging through your failing, anxious mind? Now there is a positive joyful thought.

And what about my regret and motivation for writing these words? Well, there’s a question.

Like you, my life has not been without incident. I’ve lived with child abuse, high-functioning addictions, self-harm, depression, and emotional immaturity. There is nothing special about my suffering; I’m just another samsaric citizen doing the rounds.

As is tradition, I carried the shame and regret of my actions for a long time, and the weight of my co-created drama nearly drove me to suicide. My rampage spanned nearly two decades, and I’ve made quite a mess in that time. However, after quite a bit of internal work, I have to gratefully report that I don’t feel that way anymore.

In recent years I have discovered a new way of living – living in sobriety, self-love, forgiveness, acceptance, mindfulness, gratitude and presence.

Through this beautiful transformation, I saw that living a life within a life was already a gift, but two was an absolute miracle. You could say I died before I died. This experience drove me to rethink, reinvent, and learn the art of living and dying well. And I will continue to study until my last day here at Earth School.

So I’m in an incredible position now. If you told me I only had five minutes to live, I would wave you goodbye and then spend my last few minutes reflecting on how infinitely grateful I am for the lessons and gifts I have received during my stay have.

But this isn’t about me – quite the opposite. You see, I’m currently on a mission to understand how others feel about shame and regret. Do you long to let go of grudges? Do you wish you had said “I love you more” or spent less time at work and more with family and friends? Or do you put off such petty concerns until you reach that goal or milestone?

But what if you suddenly run out of time?

In her book On Death and Dying (What the Dying Need to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Ministers, and Their Own Families), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, occasionally touches on the regrets of the dying. Some of the regrets described include failures, missed opportunities, and sadness at not being able to do more for those left behind.

The book contains excerpts from many interviews with people with terminal illnesses and remains an excellent guide for people working with people who are near death.

Some thoughts are circulating about the many mournings of the dying. One might assume that people in the final phase of transition often lament the life they have not lived, culminating in a significant level of regret. But very little research has been done to prove this idea.

In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware interweaves her memoir with five deathbed regrets collected during her time as a palliative care nurse. It seems there is no science to back up the anecdotal regrets listed in her book, but they are interesting, not least because they seem entirely probable.

As I delved further, I found more information at the top of Ware’s list discussing the greatest regrets on the deathbed. My totally unscientific internet search has thrown up some general themes as follows:

I wish I had taken better care of my body. I wish I had dared to live more honestly. I wish I had had the courage to express my feelings. I should have said “I love you” more. I wish I would let go of grudges. I wish I had left work at work and had more family time. I wish I had stayed in touch with friends. I wish I had been the better person in conflict. I wish I had realized much earlier that happiness is a choice. I wish I had chased my dreams.

Heartbreaking if true, right?

So while I found little to no research on deathbed regrets, I did find a 2005 American paper called What We Regret Most… and Why by Neal J. Roese and Amy Summerville.

The report collects and analyzes several studies related to the phenomenon of regret. Nine of these articles were published between 1989 and 2003 and contain some very revealing metadata on lifetimes. However, one wonders how attitudes have changed over time.

The study asked participants to think about their lives and what three aspects (out of a list of eight) they would change if they could turn back the clock and start over. Other studies asked what parts of life they would change, and another asked about people’s greatest lifespans.

Interestingly, the studies showed a correlation between advancing age, decreasing ability, and gradual reduction in regret. As the life chances of older people diminished, so did their most painful regret. Maybe that meant they just gave up because they felt there was no point in regretting something you no longer have the power to change.

While not specific, there were clear categories for Americans’ greatest regrets, as follows:

Education 32% Career 22% Romance 15% Parenting 10% Myself 5.47% Leisure 2.55% Finance 2.52% Family 2.25% Health 1.47% Friends 1.44% Spirituality 1.33% Community 0 .95%

The paper concludes: “Based on these previous demonstrations, we propose that the areas in life that hold people’s greatest regrets are marked by the greatest opportunities for corrective action.” That makes perfect sense indeed. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people regret career and educational decisions in adulthood (when there’s still time to change course).

However, I suspect that such thoughts change completely the moment one faces their mortality. At this point, you certainly don’t care as much about education and a successful career—the stuff you may or may not have accumulated.

I envision that as we reach the inevitable moments before death, we contemplate the true beauty of life, love, experience, family, friends, and living at peace, free from hatred, envy, or resentment toward one another . But then again, I’m a bit of a hippie, and maybe I’m misunderstanding everything.

So how about we create our own study? I invite you to grab a pen and paper (or keyboard) and spend a few minutes imagining that you have five minutes to live—not in the future, but right now, at this point in your life. You have five minutes.

Contemplate your regrets on your deathbed. Close your eyes if it helps (you eventually die). Take a little time to consciously breathe in these reflections. When you’re done, maybe you can share some or all of your list in the comments section of this post. Regardless, perhaps this offers a chance to address deathbed regret by looking at it with a little breathing room now.

Perhaps it is a timely invitation to pause and take stock. By thinking about life and death in this way, we learn that the secret of the art of dying well is right under our noses as we live our lives.

With only five minutes to live, what are your regrets on your deathbed?

About Martin O’Toole

A recovered alcoholic and addict, Martin hosts the How To Die Happy Podcast, where he shares stories and practical tools for living and dying well. His book of the same name will be published in January 2023. As a mental health advocate and outspoken ambassador for the safe use of herbal medicines, Martin’s words come from the soul and are articulated to inspire and help others on their long journey in life. Follow him: @martinotoole

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