Spending time with people whose end is imminent is a haunting experience that represents an entangled symphony of emotions. Conversations with the dying are never easy, partly because you see yourself in their position, and partly because they tend to veer into the illusive realm of what could have been. In a previous article, I listed six things we will probably regret while lying on our deathbed. Sadly, there are more items in the average person’s hollow bucket list.
As we face inexorable death we will not agonise over losing money. Rather, we will mourn the erosion of more precious capital like our youth or good health, or squandered chances to affect positive change. No doubt, these will leave a bitter taste of sorrow. Opportunities are like slow moving clouds; they seem stationary, yet just look away for a few seconds and they’re gone! What difference will it make if we opted for a less rewarding job, or lost a little money we loaned to a sibling?
So in order to alleviate the pain of irreversible remorse, based on my experience with the dying I compiled this list of the most likely final thoughts when common errors turn into mountains of bitter penitence. As author Richard Carlson says, “imagining yourself at your own funeral allows you to look back at your life while you still have the chance to make some important changes.” In his magnum opus The Peak of Eloquence, Imam Ali elucidates this concept even more eloquently: “Die before you die”. So think of this list as rehearsal before the big play and see if you fit into any of these characters.
1. The Narcissist
When all is said and done, it won’t matter how many fine dining experiences you’ve had or how many nice pair of shoes you bought or where you’ve travelled. What gives us the most satisfaction is the feeling of having left the world better than we found it. Sadly, most people will have done very little by way of positively affecting the lives of those less fortunate than them. Caring for people when it serves no personal interest or agenda, beneficence, charity, and kindness - or lack thereof - are things that will take centerstage when dying.
2. The Vain
The correlation between looking good and feeling good is undeniable, and if not for our own sake, then for the sake of those around us we should try to appear presentable. But modern culture has produced a morbid obsession with self-image and outer appearance which is sure to be a source of remorse at the point of departure. The one thing that strikes me about the hugely popular makeup videos and the massive fame of their creators is how much time and money is spent on cosmetics in the real world. What’s worse, is our celebrity culture, which produces an obsession with the physical appearance of other people! One thing is for sure; we won’t care how we look on our hospital bed, and will regret every second spent trying desperately to please others at the expense of refining our character. Our beautiful, silky smooth skin will perish. Only the beauty of our actions and legacy will last.
3. The Sadist
We all know that whenever we hurt someone, we bring torment into our own lives, but when we look back at a dilapidated life marred by the pain we have caused others, this torment acquires a visceral meaning. Acts of malevolence and knowing we’ve hurt people and cannot fix our mistakes any longer will bring us actual, physical pain. Whether we hurt people by deed, speech, tweet, or even an emoji, it will come back to haunt us. American satirist Christopher Buckley says, “I hope when I’m on my deathbed, people forgive me, because there is a lot to forgive.” If we have nothing in the way of good deeds or charity, at the very least we should try to be unburdened by the pain inflicted on others.
4. The Oppressor
Here’s a simple moral guide: do whatever you believe, in the deep recesses of your soul, to be good, and refrain from that which you know to be evil. This transcends religion. It involves a primordial nature quintessentially human and universally applicable. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is a good place to start, but it’s not just about reciprocity. Be the kind of husband to your wife that you would want for your own daughter. Be the kind of parent you would want for yourself if you were the child, ditto.
Imam Ali once came by a dead body about to be buried. He told his disciples that if the deceased came back to life, having experienced all the regrets of a dying man, would he live in the same manner as he did the first time? “Of course not!”, the disciples said. “So be like the one who has returned from the dead”, he advised. Seeing life from the lens of one who only has one chance to make it right, will help us ensure it is not another missed opportunity.