Reflecting Life Through Death’s Lenses: Bronnie Ware on The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying

From time to time, I let my mind wander to the abyss, as it is often depicted, of death. Not with warped fascination or desire to forfeit the present for what lies in that uncharted path, but with solemn contemplation. “If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, how would I spend today?” 

Fervently, I set out to answer that question, half-expecting to find something grand, the apogee of existence—one final culmination between the ellipses dots of life and death. Instead, what I found was at once simple yet stripped of any trace of ordinariness. 

I think about the falling sands in the hourglass and realize I am no longer in a frantic hurry to get things done. Time is a friend who sits and waits patiently at the bottom of a hill, unfazed by the voice claiming that we are running out. 

Through the pinhole of death, we [finally] see our lives, not reduced but magnified by the sheer simplicity of being. A smile here, a hug there. The sound of laughter. Everything we need is not so far after all.

Peaceful Hill by Yogi Rachmat

And with a minute to spare, I’ll go over another list compiled by the gentle soul of Bronnie Ware, who, in her care for the dying, found the secrets of life. 

Bronnie worked as a palliative nurse for eight years, caring for the ill and dying during what remains as the last twelve weeks of their lives. There she had learned not to underestimate a person’s capacity for growth, even, or perhaps especially, in death. With keen insight, she reflects: 

“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. […] Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.” 

Bronnie would then go on to write a most beloved memoir that has transformed the lives of many all over the world. 

The Top Five Regrets of The Dying

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

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

Illustration by Nandita Pal | Blue Haired Girls
  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

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

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

  1. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Now, I ask you—how would you spend today?

Couple this article with Steven Pressfield’s bold declaration of the unlived life and my own collection of gentle reminders for every woman embarking on the journey of self-discovery. Perhaps, as we weigh the question—“What constitutes a meaningful life?”—we may come to understand the puzzle of living.