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Jun 27 2013

Top five regrets of the dying

An Australian nurse who spent years working in palliative care looking after dying people during the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their epiphanies at the end of life and has compiled a list of their top five regrets.

  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 (most often expressed by men)
  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

Such lists suggest that if those people could live their lives again, they would do things quite differently. Publishing such things is perhaps seen as a way of warning people not to make the same mistakes they did, so that they will not have the same regrets at the end. But will it succeed in achieving that goal?

I think that the problem is that when one knows one is dying, then one feels that the situation cannot get worse, so thinking that doing what you really want to do seems a much better option. But when has no expectation of an early end, things could seem quite different. A good decision when one has no expectation of dying in the near future can be quite different from a good decision when one knows one has just a short time to live. The choice may be between feeling good while living to feeling good at the end of life.

Take #1. It is nice to be able to make decisions independently of the needs of others but how many of us can do that? Many of our decisions are due to being considerate of the needs of others because we care about them. Sacrificing our own interests for the sake of others we care about may actually make us feel better than indulging ourselves, though it may not seem so at the end.

Take #2. You may feel that if you did not work hard that you might lose your job and not be able to support yourself and your family or not have enough money to retire. So working hard may well be the best option.

Take #3. Yes, it would be nice to be totally frank but we may feel that keeping the peace with others and not hurting their feelings makes for a better life than having disrupted relationships.

Take #5. This suggests that people wish they had taken risks with their lives. Perhaps they didn’t because the risks may have not have been rewarded and they feared that their lives would become worse by taking them. This is particularly the case with people in abusive relationships. People on the outside often wonder why people stay in them but for the people on the inside they may fear being killed or beaten or becoming destitute and homeless if they make a change. What this regret tells us is that we, as a society, should be providing people with options so that escaping from bad situations would not be so risky. If people in abusive relationships were assured of safety if they fled, then they are more likely to do so.

I think #4 holds up for any situation. At all stages of one’s life, keeping in touch with friends is a good idea.

My belief is that people make decisions that seem to them to be the best. Looking back, one may be able to think of better decisions but they may not have been better at that time. I think that it is probably better to not to spend too time in useless second-guessing of what might have been.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    It is nice to be able to make decisions independently of the needs of others but how many of us can do that? Many of our decisions are due to being considerate of the needs of others because we care about them. Sacrificing our own interests for the sake of others we care about may actually make us feel better than indulging ourselves, though it may not seem so at the end.

    I think you’re falling into the trap of thinking that living truthfully is a zero-sum game. That someone must conceal themself in order to keep others comfortable. My experience, as one who has lived pretty much exactly the way I want to, is that you don’t have to tell people “fuck you! I’m doing what I want!” you can simply do what you want and not justify it with reasons beyond the aesthetic. I know my privilege is considerable. But there are the social constraints we accept because of moral arguments and there are the social constraints we accept because of aesthetics. I know this is going to sound silly but my big mental breakthrough in this area was when I was about 30 and went to a favorite restaurant that has really good chocolate cake. So I had chocolate cake for my entree. And then I had, damn it, more chocolate cake for dessert. The people I was dining with thought it was odd but mostly amusingly quirky. That was when I realized that a whole lot can be done under the rubrick of amusingly quirky.

    We need the presence of mind to realize where our quirks are going to conflict with others’ before the conflict occurs – which means making decisions: is avoiding conflict more important than doing what I want? This is a matter of life-strategy rather than life tactics.

    You may feel that if you did not work hard that you might lose your job and not be able to support yourself and your family or not have enough money to retire. So working hard may well be the best option.

    This might simply be interpreted as dying with money in one’s pocket means that maybe you should have taken that snorkelling vacation to Cozumel. It’s a general refutation of the desire for unending wealth: as Epicurus pointed out, once your basic needs are provided for plus a margin for safety, there isn’t much point to adding infinitely to that margin because there is no rational way to decide where to stop.

    Yes, it would be nice to be totally frank but we may feel that keeping the peace with others and not hurting their feelings makes for a better life than having disrupted relationships.

    Here I disagree: a conflict concealed is not a conflict avoided. If someone asks “do you like my outfit?” and you don’t but say, “Yes!” you’re neglecting the fact that they asked which implies that they doubt it. The underlying conflict is there and grows.

    I don’t advocate “radical truth” because to do so I’d have to care a lot more about other people’s feelings than I do. Choosing to always be truthful means that you’re over-valuing others’ impressions of you. You can simply choose not to respond unless you’re cornered. Another way of removing conflict from such situations is to ask why they are asking and focus honestly on that.

    This suggests that people wish they had taken risks with their lives. Perhaps they didn’t because the risks may have not have been rewarded and they feared that their lives would become worse by taking them

    I think a lot of us make fairly rational decisions, we just re-weight our risk assessment when we’re dying. I have a friend who went through this – he died of mesothelioma back in December – but before he died his risk profile got all whacky. He would say stuff like “I wish I had gone skydiving” and I finally suggested that it would make more sense to wish he hadn’t taken risks by not wearing a breath-mask while doing asbestos abatement.

    Knowing that you’re going to actually lose all your bets makes taking risks seem more attractive but we need to recognize that skydiving when you’re 20 could mean a lifetime of physical therapy and pain until you finally die at 40. Now, if you know you’re going to die at 40 by all means, go skydiving on your 39th birthday.

    I’m 50, now, and my 49th birthday I took myself to Chernobyl for a couple days of wreckage exploring in Pripyat. Because I figure I’ll die of a heart attack sitting behind a keyboard far more likely than of a cancer that might take 10-15 years to kill me. I’m guessing that if I make it to 65 and am diagnosed with cancer I’ll convince myself I got it from smoking that pack of cigarettes in 1995…

    This, by the way, is why professionally I think risk management is a funny concept. Our weightings are garbage, our probability estimates based on our garbage inputs are garbage, too. But people take it very seriously – until they don’t like the answers – and then they adjust the inputs.

  2. 2
    CGM3

    I’d think the #1 regret by someone dying would be, well, dying…

  3. 3
    invivoMark

    I’ve been dying since I was born. I haven’t had the time to regret that yet.

  4. 4
    MNb

    My prospects are pretty good. Now I’m almost 50 I can honestly say:
    1. What I have done last 13 years is exactly what I wanted to do.
    “Sacrificing our own interests for the sake of others we care about may actually make us feel better than indulging ourselves.”
    It’s all about finding a satisfying balance. I think I have found it and yes, to some extent that meant indulging myself and hurting other people.
    2. I live in a country where the motto is: we don’t live to work, we work to live.
    “So working hard may well be the best option.”
    Lowering your demands might also help. See Marcus Ranum on Epicurus.
    3. Only to those people I can trust, but that’s enough.
    4. Yeah, that’s an issue. Friendships tend to peter out for all kinds of reason.
    5. Done so. See point 1.
    “This suggests that people wish they had taken risks with their lives.”
    The risks I took (crossing the Atlantic Ocean three times) were well calculated.

    “I think that it is probably better to not to spend too time in useless second-guessing of what might have been.”
    I agree. But I think it’s probably even better at some point in your life to imagine that you’re old, look back on your life and ask yourself: will I regret my decisions? I know I won’t.

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