The Five Biggest Regrets of Dying People

I’ve teared up twice since we lost our family home in the bushfires three months ago. The first was when I was reunited with my wife and son — but really, they were tears of relief. (In our makeshift rented home we have a sign that says “home is wherever I am with you”, and that’s the guts of it). The second time was tonight.

The thing about losing all your stuff is that you reach for something only to realise it’s gone. It’s still happening, though honestly it hasn’t worried me. Until tonight.

I’ve just worked out I’ve lost something I wrote (badly) 20 years ago.

Those were the days of floppy disks. Of dot matrix computer printouts. And somewhere in an unopened box (that is now ashes) is the story of Jack.

The story of Jack

On my way to and from school each day I’d walk past an old people’s home. I would never have gone in had it not been for an English assignment that required me to write about someone’s life.

My thinking was simple: if I had to pad out an essay, I’d write about the oldest bugger I could find. And the nurses didn’t disappoint. They introduced me to Jack, a man in his nineties.

Each week I’d find him patiently waiting for me in his chair, neatly turned out in a suit he’d wear specially for our meetings. His face was riddled with skin cancers, his voice was croaky and hard to hear, and his frail hands felt like soft leather gloves.

He told me about the “good old days”, which to a modern-day teenager didn’t sound very good at all: he fought in the war, lived hand-to-mouth through the Depression and worked his entire life at the same company.

“You’re the only person that comes in to see him,” a nurse whispered to me as I left one of our last meetings.

The Five Biggest Regrets of Dying People

Maybe Jack sensed that we were nearing the end of my visits, but he began opening up and sharing his wisdom. He told me about the day he lost his best friend — his wife of over 60 years. His lip quivered at the pain of outliving his only son. And he confessed his biggest regrets to me, his last visitor — a schoolkid on an assignment.

Aussie nurse Bronnie Ware has met many people like Jack. She spent years as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies on her blog (which later became a wonderful book). And she found there were five things that kept on cropping up. Here they are.

1: “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”

Many of life’s biggest regrets start early.

Like when you choose a university course based on your score — or to please your parents — rather than pursuing what you’re really passionate about.

Or a little later when you choose a job for the social status — or, worse, for the money.

And it continues when you allow the busyness of work to have a higher priority than spending time with your family, or travelling, or doing what you were really meant to do.

“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,” says Bronnie Ware.

2: “I wish I hadn’t worked as hard”

This was Jack’s greatest regret.

He was far from a millionaire. He never ran a company or got written up in the paper. Yet he still spent forty years at a job he didn’t really like.

Most of my mates would rather be doing something else, but they’re trapped in a comfortable corporate cocoon of their own making. They grind through the weekdays, live for the weekends, and begin googling their next holiday the week after they get back from the last one.

3: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”

Ware’s talking about family and friends here, but it also applies to work relationships.

When it comes to your career, your ‘EQ’ (emotional quotient) is just as important as your ‘IQ’.

I’ve met young highly qualified graduates who’ve spent years, and tens of thousands of dollars, investing in their technical qualifications but are totally under-qualified in what will really drive their income: people skills like empathy, listening, and having the courage to back yourself (and occasionally tell your boss to get nicked).

4: “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”

Ware says “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.”

Enough said.

5. “I wish I had let myself be happier”

“This is a surprisingly common one,” says Ware. “Many didn’t realise until the end of their life that happiness is a choice.”

That’s a key point. As a financial guy, I’m obsessed with the future: planning for it, funding it, and working doggedly towards it. But while that’s a great strategy for investing your money, in the end, all we have is today.

And that’s the biggest lesson I learned from Jack — it just took me twenty years and my house burning down to fully understand it: it takes most people a lifetime to learn to live in the moment, but by then it’s often too late.

Tread Your Own Path!