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Top 5 Life Regrets of the Dying

Attending my grandfather’s funeral last week prompted me to delve into the research about regret. And as I researched, I realized regret is a big topic. Everyone experiences regret and no one wants to. So, I decided to keep the theme going. I started to wonder what Grandpa would have said if I had asked him his biggest regrets. I wrote most of this post on the airplane ride home from the funeral. When I returned, I found that Financial Samurai had covered this exact same thing. I recommend his post. In the Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware shares her experiences as an Australian hospice nurse. As she spent time with all of these patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, she shared their end-of-life thoughts, epiphanies, and regrets. The top five regrets she said people experienced before death were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

As we learned from the research about regret, the regret experienced in connection with relationships is felt most deeply. Three of the five regrets are about relationships: keeping in touch, expressing feelings, and not worrying about the expectations of others. It’s important to analyze the quality of our relationships periodically. Sometimes we surround ourselves with people that don’t allow us to be true to ourselves. One of my pet peeves about the average work environment is that we end up spending so much of our lives surrounded by a group of people we don’t get to choose. Instead of spending most of our waking hours in the company of friends or family, we spend our best hours with people who hardly know us in most cases. This leads us to live an entirely separate life. I give Mr. T a hard time because he wears glasses at work, but leaves them at the office, so he ends up being someone I totally don’t know when he’s at work. Also, he’s not a man of many words, so his coworkers probably know very little about him.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I had let myself be happier” are perfect bookends to the relationship regrets. No one on their deathbed is probably saying “I really wished I had made more money.” Keeping our finances in order allow us to live the lives we want, but in the last 12 weeks of our lives, I imagine money has very little value. Happiness is also a choice. Sometimes we give up the choice to be happy by choosing to work too hard. One regret leads to another regret. As I learned from my grandfather, it’s important to make your life what you want it to be now. Choose to be happy now. Based on these regrets, I am making a few goals:

  • Be more present and happy. Being the planner that I am, I spend so much time planning for and living in the future. This often is at the expense of my children who are here right now. I am going to make a conscious effort to be an example of happiness for them and with them.
  • Say no sometimes. Life is full of obligations. And we can’t so no to everything. It’s good to serve and help and work on things, but I sometimes let those obligations get out of control and start applying them to any request. I start thinking any social invitation is an obligation or any opportunity for my child is something we have to do. That’s not true. Sometimes it’s better to be true to ourselves. If I don’t want to do something and it isn’t something that is important, I can say no.
  • Maintain a good balance. As early-retirement enthusiasts, we are always hustling or planning side hustles. I don’t plan to stop, but I do need to be better about scheduling it. I need to maintain a good work schedule and a good hustling schedule so I can put my kids and our marriage first. I don’t regret days we choose to go on a family bike ride or the days we go on vacation instead of work. I need to make sure I maintain a good balance between the two so we can focus on being happy now instead of waiting until early retirement.

What are your goals to help decrease future regret?

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  1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I went to my grandfather’s funeral last week, too. It was very difficult for me, but the one comforting thought is that my grandpa had no regrets. He lived his life exactly the way he wanted. I strive to be as confident as he was.

    • MaggieBanks

      It really makes you want to find that path NOW. I want to make my life fit the way I want it to fit. Thanks for your sympathies.

  2. Thanks for the poignant encouragement to set better goals for ourselves. I try to maintain a balanced perspective which recognizes that death could come for us any day. We work hard in order to enable our dreams, not to achieve status or other meaningless goals, and not at the expense of enjoying the present. My most-recent post encourages struggling parents not to wait around for things to get better, but to make changes in their lives now.

    • MaggieBanks

      I agree with that. Part of our early retirement journey is focusing on this. We’re taking it slow because our kids are young now and we want to give them experiences and family time now instead of just working really hard during these years for a payoff later.

  3. I used to teach fitness classes, and I would also say, “Nobody looks back on their life and wishes they had spent more time hating their body.” That was my little body image and self-acceptance line.

    We’re trying hard to focus on happiness NOW, not just in 2.5 years when we quit. It’s hard when work is such a soul-sucking grind, but we try to practice some gratitude, and realize all the many ways that our lives ROCK. That even if we keep working forever (knock on wood that that won’t happen!), we still have enough and have a great life together. It’s hard to focus on that sometimes, but we try! 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      That’s exactly why this journey is going to take us longer. We are taking it slow so we aren’t miserable now. And our kids will grow up in the process. We want to not regret putting our family first.

  4. Maggie – This is great work.
    I didn’t realize that 3 of the top 5 regrets were on relationship, this only reinforces the need to take care of friends, family and our environment. It’s good to keep it in mind.

    Another element that has surprisingly worked for me many times over and brought a lot more happiness than I would expect is to “Embrace Change”.

    It can sometimes be difficult to get out of our routine, talk to new people, do something nice for someone even if we don’t feel like it, try something new… But in my experience, it’s always been worth the push. And I know it’s something that I could regret not doing enough.

    Take care.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks! I agree with the embracing change. I would align with the fact that doing something new rarely leads to regret for me. New friends, new venture, new ways to bring good into the world. It’s great to expand.

  5. J

    Hi Maggie! Be more present and happy is my goal too. Like you, I’m a planner and I like having an outline of my future. But I guess we know that things don’t always go as planned and when that happens, I get disappointed and sad. I want to be kinder to myself and free myself from worry associated with my future. It’s not easy but I’m lucky to have people to remind me to live the now instead of stressing about something uncertain. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Giving yourself grace is important. I don’t struggle as much when things don’t go as planned, I just spent too much of my life planning all the possibilities rather than acting now or taking time. I want everything to happen now. And because we’re busy people, I have to take things one step at a time. And I’m horrible at patience! 🙂

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