Deathbed Regrets And How To Avoid Them

Deathbed Regrets And How To Avoid Them
Deathbed Regrets
Photography of Victor Hugo on his death bed, by Félix Nadar
Deathbed Regrets

Life is so short. My imprisonment as a teenager made me aware of this earlier than most. Learning about people’s most common deathbed regrets is more recent, but both experiences have directly influenced the way I live my life now and the conscious effort I make to invest my time and energy in what really matters.

When I was 18 years old I was convicted of murdering my drug dealer. I was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of ten years. At the time, this seemed like forever. I was too young to be able to put ten years into perspective. To avoid the reality of my situation I spent the first couple of years stoned. I then tried to get a better sense of what this length of time meant by calculating how long 10 years was in months, which worked out to be 120. Thinking about my minimum non-parole period as 120 months was less daunting than thinking about it as 10 years. I knew that a month went relatively quickly, whereas a year seemed such a long time.

I changed my perspective to make my imprisonment seem shorter and therefore more manageable. But this also made my life seem shorter and therefore more precious. The benefit of this perspective is that it makes you more aware of how you spend your most limited and valuable resource, your time. If you live to 70, you only live 840 months, or 25,550 days, or 613,200 hours. At 18 I was waiting for 120 incredibly scarce months to slip away. Even at this desperate time I knew that wishing away the most precious resource I would ever have was wrong, yet I couldn’t wait for this time to pass. The irony of this concern over my own mortality when I had taken someone else’s life escaped me for many years.

We often allow ourselves to get so caught up in our day-to-day life admin that we forget just how short our lives are. We live like there will always be a tomorrow. Feeling like I was wasting time in prison made me conscious of the need to be realistic about how short my life would be. I know from speaking to others that the loss of a loved one or the experience of illness often serve a similar purpose. There is no avoiding the brevity of life, but we can ensure that the life we live is sufficiently meaningful, so we can look back from our deathbeds with a sense of fulfilment rather than regret. The famous psychologist Erik Ericson said that the final stage of life development was experienced when confronting death with a sense of either integrity or despair. Integrity through the belief that we had lived a life that was meaningful and true to ourselves, or despair that we had failed to do so.

Through years of research into palliative care we know several of the most common deathbed regrets:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to lead a life that was true to myself, not what other people 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’d stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier.

You will notice that none of these is about not having had enough money or material assets. Based on my work with clients I’d add not spending enough quality time with family to the regret about working too hard. I’d also add holding on to hurt and having unrealistic expectations as key causes for people not letting themselves be happier.

The way to avoid these regrets is to keep them in mind. Regularly reflect on your life and identify what you are at risk of regretting. Give yourself a score between 0 and 10 on each regret (where 0 means regret is completely irrelevant and 10 means this regret is completely applicable). If there are any scores above 3, these areas become your focus. You will die too soon. Don’t wait until it is too late to ensure you look back from your deathbed with integrity, not despair.

Three Key Take Away Messages:

  1. Life is too short: Approximately 70 years, 840 months, 25,550 days, 613,200 hours
  2. Don’t focus on living longer or acquiring more at the expense of living meaningfully
  3. Be aware of the regrets that people have and regularly check-in with yourself to ensure that they won’t be your deathbed.