Death and life – review article

Some years ago, when my work-life balance was causing me serious stress (I’m reformed now…) I used to remind myself that “Nobody on their deathbed ever says ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’”. As a mantra it helped bring some perspective back into my life, and I’ve since repeated it when counselling others.

Little did I know at the time, but the quote probably originated from a now-famous blog post – Regrets of the dying – written a decade ago, which I discovered soon after it was published.

The five regrets in the piece were simple and wonderfully matter-of-fact, but ultimately deep:

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

I could relate to each of those five regrets, even though I was only 54, and certainly not close to death. I suspect many men of my age would agree – particularly the one about expressing our feelings!

Author Bronnie Ware had written the blog post from her experience of giving one-to-one end-of-life care to many people – men and women, mostly older, but some as young as I was when reading the piece. The positive response to her initial piece prompted her to write a book – The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – a Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing – which I would describe as a personal understanding of life through death. For Bronnie Ware, it’s also about re-birth after being on the brink of taking her own life, induced by what reads like PTSD at a time when, objectively, she shouldn’t have been happier.

The book isn’t just about her close relationships with people with terminal illnesses, it includes many other diverse elements of her personal and professional life – including a violent upbringing, an abusive adult relationship, teaching song-writing in a women’s prison, house-sitting other people’s properties, travel to remote places, falling in and out of love and, ultimately, motherhood.

Many of the issues addressed by the author are life lessons for us all – much is about finding balance: the need to work and the desire to find something we love to do; a longing to be free but wanting to have enduring relationships; a desire to travel but feeling a need for security and having somewhere to settle down. She shares wisdom throughout the book – not just her own reflections, but advice she’s inherited. “They say everything comes down to love or fear: every emotion, every action, and every thought” and “Nothing good can be done alone” are just two of many.

The author’s relationships – with herself, with family, friends, the natural environment and, of course, the people for whom she is a professional but loving carer – are a golden thread running through the book. She writes well and movingly – I had many a tear in my eye as she described (with verbatim records of conversations that makes me think there’s been some artistic licence in the retelling) intimate moments so vividly.

The subject matter of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying may not seem like an obviously read while the world is witnessing a pandemic which is bringing death to thousands. But the book is strangely uplifting and the writing makes the numbers real and lifts the taboo about talking about death.

As Bronnie Ware herself writes “Our society has shut death out, almost as a denial of its existence. This denial leaves both the dying person and the family or friends totally unprepared for something that is inevitable. We are all going to die. But rather than acknowledge the existence of death, we try to hide it. It is as if we are trying to convince ourselves that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really works. But is doesn’t because we carry on trying to validate ourselves through our material life and associated fearful behaviour instead.”

Further reading

Bronnie Ware’s blog

The book–A-Life-Transformed-by-the-Dearly-Departing/23828296

A related blog post

3 thoughts on “Death and life – review article

  1. peter durrant

    Chris. How helpful and frank. Well done and, as you probably know, I spend too much time in thinking about, although hopefully one sound reason is to think healthily and well about a decent death, living on borrowed time. Whilst another equally positive remembrance is always to remember Sarah, her life and the way in which she taught the children and myself to cope with leaving us all….Peter. >

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