September 20, 2011

No regrets?

Having just buried my mother, I have been thinking a lot about whether people die in peace and what it takes for them to have that privilege. My mother died in peace and I think she did because she had accomplished all she wanted to accomplish in her long life and because I was there with her telling her that everything was going to be okay. And, besides, she was ready to die. She was lonely, her health was deteriorating and, honestly, she had had enough. I felt her go and, at that moment, I felt a calmness and peace unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was as if peace washed over her in a comforting, unseen wave, and I was picked up in it by virtue of my closeness to her. What a wonderful feeling and what an incredibly deserving way to go!

Dying in peace seems to imply that you die with no regrets. And while it may be nice to think that, I don't think we can ever have no regrets. Even if we climb every mountain, cross every sea, build giant corporations or become the leader of the free world, we will have regrets because at the end of our time, we are all just the same and nothing we own can be brought over to the other side to allow us to jump to the head of the line or demand any special treatment. We are just ordinary people and all of us have missed something in life - an unrequited love, an unspoken apology, a small kindness that just never happened. In this busy life we lead, we just can't do everything no matter how hard we try. So we all regret something. It is how we deal with these at the end that determines whether we die in peace, as my dear mother did. As I intend to.

A lady by the name of Bronnie Ware wrote a blog recently on Regrets of the Dying which she is turning into a book (see Bronnie has worked in palliative care for many years and, in her experience, everyone manages to die in peace. But she learned a lot from her patients in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. While they were able to find peace in the end, they all had things they would do differently. She found several major themes that people had expressed as regrets or areas where they could have done better. I'll just repeat them here without her analysis and give you my personal perspective. Maybe yours would be different.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I think we all have to adopt a role to play in life. Something that gives our lives meaning. Something that, at the end of our days, we can look back and say, "I accomplished something. I was good in that role. My life had meaning." While I wish I could have known earlier how much I enjoyed writing and that I was good at it, I didn't, so I made my own choices based on what I knew at the time and became a businessman rather than a writer or journalist. The important thing is that I made the choice myself. No one else. I don't think I lacked courage so much as information about myself.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

Okay. Got me there. Part of this is the work ethic I have (partially inherited from my parents) and part of it is just the society we live in that forces us to work hard, spend too much time away from home, all to "get ahead". Can we blame society? I suppose to some extent, but it still comes back to choices. I could have chosen to be less successful. Or I could have chosen a more sedentary vocation (although I probably would have gone crazy). But I did choose to have a wife and children and I wanted my wife to be able to stay home with the children. I would say I chose right and, while I wish I had had more free time, I definitely made the right choice. Right, Dianne?

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

It took me a while to be able to express my feelings, first to Dianne and then to the whole world, but I did make that choice. I did have the courage. If I have any regret it was in not doing it sooner.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Definitely. Friends are so important. But friends do drift apart for a variety of reasons that are nobody's fault. But it does take two to make a friendship and I could have tried harder. Dealing with cancer has taught me how important "real" friends are and I don't make that mistake any more.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. me on this one, too. Happiness is a choice, although it is often a byproduct of other choices you make. But it is a good guidepost to help in making many life decisions. I have let guilt and duty drive a lot of my decisions in the past, but have learned that this is not a healthy or happy way of running my life. I really try to make happiness a criteria these days, although sometimes it's damn hard. I just don't have enough time anymore to be unhappy or to make critical mistakes.

There are other regrets that many of us could identify. My dad, when I talked to him about death shortly before he died, told me his only regret was that he didn't meet my mother sooner. It was a lovely sentiment and one that I share, but he couldn't have controlled that anyway. So it is not a regret that he would curse on his deathbed. He was ultimately happy with the choices he made and that is what counts. It allowed him to die in peace as well. I think we all might have regrets like that.

Overall, it seems that a lot of so-called "regrets" stem from choices. Maybe we can't go back in time and make different choices (with no real guarantee that we would be better off anyway), bur we can stop the insanity and make the "right" choices now. While we have time, no matter how little we may have left.

So, in fact, it is never too late to die with no regrets. To die happy. To die in peace.

That's the plan, anyway!


Lori Hope said...

Thank you so much for this, Doug. Critical information and insight for all of us, no matter how long we think we may live.

I may want to repost this - excerpt it - for my blog. May I do so?

Many thanks. BTW, if you'd like to see the new edition of my book, pls email me your snail mail addy. Would love to send you a copy.
Big love,

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog and spent some time reading through your posts -both here and your previous blog site. I want you to know that I had an experience years ago a few days after my grandfather died where I had a dream that transended all dreams. In this dream, I was standing by the side of a road and up comes a truck which stops beside me. Out jumps my grandfather! He was not 93 years old anymore - he looked about 30. The scar on his chin that he had since childhood was gone. He had a full head of hair. He was now over 6 feet tall instead of 5 feet. He ran over to where I stood in amazement. I never say him run in my life because he had a hip problem for many years. During the dream, I remember thinking to myself "This isn't real. It's just a dream." My grandfather came towards me and I took a few steps toward him. I could feel the stones crunch under my shoes. He reached out to grasp my right hand as he embraced me. I could feel the power of his grip in my hand. I felt heat go from his hand into my hand and up to my elbow. I gasped and actually felt the air in my lungs. I was stunned, amazed, and knew that somehow this was real as it ever gets. It was actually more real than life as I knew it. I didn't know how it could have happened. All I know is that it was real and he came to me in this dream to say goodbye. He was so extremely happy. I don't think I ever saw him that full of joy. I was so happy for him that I simply could not feel sad that he died. He wasn't dead. His spirit was alive and joyful. For some reason, he wanted me to see him like this. I often wondered why it would be so important that he would come to ME in a dream when he had a wife, 7 children and 21 other grandchildren. Years later I figured out why when my 3 year old son was diagnosed with leukemia. My son went through 7 1/2 years of treatment and died in Feb 2009. Then this summer I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer so I can really relate to your blog here. I guess it was really important for me to know that YES, there is life after death because I held it in my hand once. I do believe in God and Jesus Christ, and I hope that you also believe. I have no idea to how many months or years I have left. I agree with you about quality of life and how important that really is. I am a realist and know that dying is really going to be tough having to leave behind my husband of 24 years. I want to make it to our 25th anniversay so I don't plan on dying anytime soon. I want my life to count for something and I want to spend whatever time that I can with the family and friends that I love.
God bless you on your journey. I hope this message will leave you with some peace in knowing that after you die to this world, your new life is just starting and it's going to be wonderful. I'll see you on the other side.


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