7 common deathbed regrets that can teach us about living a fulfilling life

I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the company of those nearing the end of their lives.

In my role as a hospice volunteer, I have been afforded unique and intimate insights into the raw, profound final thoughts of those facing their mortality. These conversations often turn to reflections on their lives, sometimes filled with pride and joy, but more often tinged with regret.

Yet, as someone who is in the middle of their life’s journey, I find myself perpetually under scrutiny when I share these insights with others. The questions come from all corners – from friends who are too busy chasing success to consider the end, from family members who believe discussing death is morbid, and even from strangers who question my decision to spend time with the dying.

This constant questioning forces me to defend my choice and brings a few pressing thoughts to mind:

Why do we shy away from discussing death and its implications?

Why are life’s biggest lessons often learned too late, on our deathbeds?

Shouldn’t we be just as critical of our own life choices as we are quick to question others’?

I believe there’s an undue societal pressure to avoid discussing death and the lessons it can teach us about living a fulfilling life. This pressure results in many of us missing out on valuable insights that could profoundly impact our lives.

By the time you read my closing remarks, I hope to have convinced you that learning from deathbed regrets can guide us towards living more meaningful lives.

The important thing is for us to make conscious choices about how we live our lives, without being influenced by societal pressures or fears about discussing mortality.

1) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

It’s a common scene. The alarm clock rings, you rush through your morning routine, fight the traffic or squeeze into a crowded train, spend hours at your desk, and then return home too drained to do anything but eat and sleep. It’s a cycle that repeats day after day, year after year.

Life becomes a blip in the rearview mirror as you speed down the highway of professional accomplishments.

But when the end is near, many people look back and realize they were driving in the wrong direction. They regret letting their jobs consume their lives and wish they had spent more time with their loved ones or pursuing their passions.

The idea of hard work is deeply ingrained in our culture, often equated with success and achievement. But when you’re on your deathbed, will you really be proud of all those late nights at the office? Will you remember fondly the deadlines, the stress, the politics?

Or will you wish you had savored more sunsets, read more books, played more games with your children?

The pursuit of professional success often comes at the expense of personal fulfillment. It’s crucial to strike a balance between work and life, to prioritize relationships and hobbies just as much as promotions and paychecks.

Remember, no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at work. Don’t let your job steal precious moments from your life. It’s not worth it.

Following this thought, let’s discuss a second regret that I often heard from those nearing the end of their lives…

2) I wish I had allowed myself to be happier

This may sound strange, especially when everyone seems to be in a constant pursuit of happiness. We strive for it, we dream of it, we make it the ultimate goal of our lives. But when the end is near, many people realize that they had barricaded themselves against happiness.

Happiness, you see, is not something that needs to be chased or achieved. It’s not a destination at the end of a long journey. Rather, it is a state of being that exists in every moment, waiting to be acknowledged and embraced.

This idea came to me through my interactions with those on their deathbeds. Time and again, they shared how they had let societal norms, fear of judgement, or their own insecurities hinder their happiness. They realized, albeit too late, that happiness is not dependent on external circumstances but on internal acceptance.

Don’t put off your happiness,” one patient told me. “Don’t set conditions for it. Don’t tell yourself you’ll be happy when you get that promotion, or when you lose ten pounds, or when you retire. Be happy now.”

This doesn’t mean ignoring life’s problems or pretending everything is perfect. It means choosing to focus on the good in every situation, however small or insignificant it may seem. It also means accepting the things we are not so fond of. 

When you understand that your thoughts don’t define you—that they are separate from your true self—you can free yourself from the constraints that are holding back your happiness.

Remember, life is short and unpredictable. Don’t wait for happiness to come to you. Welcome it into your life right here, right now.

I mentioned that one constraint of happiness is the limitation we put on ourselves in fear of judgment. Let’s explore this thought in more depth…

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

pic1575 7 common deathbed regrets that can teach us about living a fulfilling life

Here’s something that may surprise you.

More often than not, people on their deathbeds regret not having lived their own lives. Instead, they lived the lives that were expected of them by society, by their parents, by their peers.

Consider this for a moment. Your hair grows on its own. Your heart beats on its own. Even as you read these words, you’re breathing without consciously thinking about it. In essence, your body knows how to live instinctively.

Yet, when it comes to the way we live our lives, we often ignore our instincts and instead conform to societal expectations. We choose careers that don’t fulfill us because they’re considered prestigious. We maintain relationships that drain us because we fear being alone. We hide our true selves because we’re worried about being judged.

But when the end is near, many people wish they had listened to their inner voice. They wish they had pursued their passions, followed their dreams, and lived according to their values.

If you can find the courage to tune out the noise of society’s expectations and start listening to your heart, your life could transform in ways you can’t even imagine. You wouldn’t have to try so hard to fit in or be someone you’re not.

Remember, life is too short for regrets. Don’t let fear of judgment or failure stop you from living a life that’s true to who you are.

Now, let’s shift the focus a little bit — how are you doing with your people? Are you not accidentally cooking one of the common regrets? 

4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. The work, the family responsibilities, the endless to-do lists – they can all distract us from maintaining the relationships that truly matter.

Many people on their deathbeds express regret about losing touch with old friends. They reminisce about shared laughter, shared tears, and shared memories. And they wish they had made more of an effort to keep those friendships alive.

The importance of friendships cannot be overstated. Friends provide emotional support, share in our joys, and help us through our sorrows. They remind us of our youth and help us feel connected to the world.

But friendships require effort. They require us to reach out, to communicate, to make time amidst our busy schedules. However, when we’re caught up in our work or focused on achieving the next milestone, we often neglect our friends.

In my case, I’ve often let my work take precedence over my friendships. My intentions were good – I was trying to build something meaningful. But in the process, I lost touch with people who mattered to me.

Reflecting on this now, I realize that no amount of professional success can make up for a lack of meaningful relationships. I now make it a point to regularly connect with my friends, to express my appreciation for them, and to be there for them just as they’ve been there for me.

Remember, at the end of your life, it won’t be your achievements or possessions that you’ll think about – it will be the relationships you’ve built and nurtured. Don’t wait until it’s too late to appreciate your friends and keep them close.

As you make efforts to connect with your friends, make sure you’re not going to regret this one thing…

5) I wish I had let myself be more open and vulnerable

Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness. We put up walls, wear masks, and hide our true feelings to protect ourselves from hurt, rejection, or embarrassment. But when facing the end of life, many people regret not allowing themselves to be more open and vulnerable.

This realization hit me personally during a conversation with a dying friend. He confessed that he wished he had let his guard down more often, expressed his feelings openly, and allowed others to see his true self – his fears, his dreams, his insecurities.

His words resonated with me deeply. I had spent most of my life portraying an image of strength and composure – always calm, always in control. I never allowed anyone to see my vulnerabilities.

But over time, I’ve come to understand that it’s in our vulnerabilities that we find our humanity. It’s when we open up about our fears and insecurities that we form deep connections with others. It’s when we expose our flaws that we become truly authentic.

I’ve started practicing vulnerability in my own life. I’ve learned to express my feelings openly and honestly instead of keeping them bottled up. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong or when I don’t know something. I allow myself to cry when I’m upset and laugh heartily when I’m happy.

And the result has been transformative. My relationships are deeper and more meaningful. I feel lighter and freer without the weight of pretense.

So let this serve as a reminder: Don’t be afraid of vulnerability. Embrace it. It might just lead you to a richer, more fulfilling life.

It won’t happen, though, if you are constantly distracted…

6) I wish I had been more present

pic1576 7 common deathbed regrets that can teach us about living a fulfilling life

In our hyper-connected, fast-paced world, it’s easy to lose sight of the here and now. We’re constantly planning for the future or dwelling on the past, and as a result, we miss out on the richness of the present moment.

What’s interesting is that mindfulness, or the practice of being fully present, dates back thousands of years and forms the cornerstone of many spiritual practices. Ancient Buddhist texts, for instance, emphasize the power of mindfulness in cultivating a deep sense of peace and contentment.

The key point here is this: By striving to be present, we can truly engage with life. We can savor each moment, each experience, each interaction.

Many people on their deathbeds express regret about not being more present in their lives. They recall being physically present but mentally elsewhere – planning their next move, worrying about what might happen, or reminiscing about what has been.

Yet, life unfolds in the present. The past is gone and the future is uncertain. The only time we truly have is now.

So next time you find yourself drifting into the past or future, gently bring yourself back to the present. Notice your surroundings, tune into your senses, and connect with your own inner experience.

Remember, every moment is precious and irreplaceable. Don’t let life pass you by while you’re lost in thought. Be here now.

And lastly, something most of us avoid at all costs…

7) I wish I had allowed myself to make more mistakes

Now, this may come as a surprise. After all, aren’t we supposed to strive for perfection and avoid mistakes at all costs? But the truth is, many people on their deathbeds express regret over not making more mistakes.

You see, mistakes are often seen as failures, as signs of incompetence. We fear them, we avoid them, and when we do make them, we feel ashamed. But what if we viewed mistakes differently?

Mistakes are proof that you’re trying. They’re proof that you’re taking risks, stepping out of your comfort zone, and pushing your boundaries. They’re opportunities for growth and learning.

Moreover, our biggest mistakes often lead to our greatest growth. They push us towards introspection, force us to reassess our choices, and guide us towards a better path.

In my interactions with those nearing the end of their lives, I’ve heard many express regret over playing it too safe. They wished they had taken more risks, made more mistakes, and through them, learned more about life and about themselves.

So don’t shy away from making mistakes. Embrace them. Learn from them. And most importantly, allow them to guide you towards a life that’s true to who you are and what you desire.

Because at the end of the day, it’s not the mistakes we make that we regret the most but the opportunities we missed because we were afraid to make them.

In conclusion: It’s about perspective

The essence of human experience and our approach to life is often deeply rooted in our perspectives.

One such perspective is the wisdom we gain from those at the end of their lives. These shared regrets, prevalent in many nearing their final journey, act as a poignant reminder of the choices we make and the priorities we set.

For all of us, these deathbed regrets can be a key factor in guiding our decisions. They could potentially induce a sense of clarity and purposefulness as we navigate our own lives.

Whether it’s making time for loved ones, permitting ourselves to make more mistakes, or allowing ourselves to be happier, the underlying wisdom is there to guide us towards a fulfilling life.

At the end of the day, it’s not about fearing death or obsessing over regrets. It’s about embracing life, in all its ups and downs, with open arms and an open heart. It’s about living authentically, courageously, and wholeheartedly.

As the renowned poet Mary Oliver once asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Let these deathbed regrets serve as a reminder to live your life in a way that when you’re on your deathbed, you’ll be able to say with conviction: “I lived my life fully. I have no regrets.”

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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