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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

And now about dying happy

What are your thoughts when you know you're dying? More specifically, what are your regrets? Wouldn't the answer to this question help us live more fully?

We're lucky. Someone has explored those issues for us. Her name is Bronnie Ware. She spent years working with palliative care patients and was generous enough to share her insights with the rest of us. Here are the most common regrets dying people express (the author's words in italics):

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 realise 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 honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.


It can be a challenge simply to untangle our own dreams, wishes, values, goals and priorities from other people's, especially when those people are our parents or our children. The line is usually quite blurry as parents naturally transpose their dreams onto their children, and children naturally endorse their parents' dreams (even if both parties are not fully aware of it). Not to mention the society as a whole, which further instills a certain set of accepted values in our minds without us realizing it. Those phenomena being at least partly unconscious, one really has to sit down and think hard. Is this really what I want for myself? What do I want for myself? What makes me happy? What feels right and good to ME? This applies to basically every single choice in our life, but the more important the choice, the more important the consequences. In short, you better pick your life partner and your main occupation wisely! (You'll also want to have the strength to make changes if you realize afterwards that it really isn't making you happy, after all.)


Moi-même, by le Douanier Rousseau


2. I wish I didn't work 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. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.


Time is money. But time is priceless. What are we working for, we should ask ourselves. Is that much work really necessary? And if not, is it worth it? Sometimes, happiness comes with making less money and having more free time/a more relaxed pace of life. Then again, more money can also mean more freedom. It's all in the balance. If you absolutely love your job, if your job loves you back, and if nobody's upset at you for spending so much time at it, by all means indulge!

3. 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. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.


This is so absolutely true. Speaking my mind is something I have worked on a lot. It's really an art, because as much as you want to be heard, you do not want to startle/offend either. There is a way to speak your mind so that the message will be understood (being too subtle and indirect is still one of the challenges I have to work on) without being unnecessarily harsh or coming on too hard.

Speaking your mind, be it to say "I don't like the way you're acting" or to say "I love you" can be equally hard. You need a lot of courage. Saying that you don't like the way things are going can have a tremendous impact on a relationship, and not always for the better, especially if the person has a controlling, manipulative or narcissistic kind of personality. But in the end, what you're doing by speaking your mind is showing respect... to yourself. On the other hand, saying that you love someone can have no impact at all, at least no visible impact, which is just as difficult to handle. Loving someone who does not love you back, or who does not love you the way you'd want him/her to love you is one of the cruel things life has in store for us.

I do believe, however, that even if it leads to a clash or to disappointment, speaking your mind is always worth it. Because it's one of two things: either the person will not react the way you were hoping, which at least provides you with clear feedback on his/her intentions, respect and feelings (or lack thereof) for you... or the person WILL in fact respond in a satisfying way (even if it might not happen right away... be patient!), in which case you will be rewarded with an improved relationship... and that's worth all the gold in the world!

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

Often they would not truly realise 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. It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.


It may sound a little bit cliché, but yes, at the end of the day (or, in this case, at the end of the life), all that really remains and matters is love and relationships. I have found that you can face pretty much anything in life when you are well-surrounded (ah! the legendary social network!) On the other hand, unhealthy or nonexistent relationships can ruin it all. The nicest life situation is worth nothing without fulfilling relationships. If being around certain people makes you feel good, try and frequent them often. If you feel lonely, go out and find ways to meet people. And if you already have long-lasting happy relationships, make sure to nurture them. I once heard an elderly man give the following advice: "marriage is like a plant; if you stop watering it regularly, it will not show right away, and you might think all is fine... but slowly and surely, it will fade away. So make sure you water the plant often." (I sometimes wonder if there was more than one interpretation to this advice... but let's not digress.)

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

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise 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. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying. Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.



La balançoire, by Fragonard


Life is not only a choice. Life is a present. As the French author Bernard Pivot puts it, the years that we have remaining on earth should not be considered as capital, but as usufruct.

Life is long enough (and easy enough for the privileged) that we tend to forget it will be over some day. To help me remember that life is to be enjoyed now, I compare it to going on a holiday in a lovely destination: knowing it will have an end makes you appreciate it and helps you savour it fully.

Last but not least. The examples abound: some people who have an "easy" life are unhappy, whereas some people who have been through all kinds of predicaments are happy. What else is there to add? Happiness is a choice. Happiness comes from inside. Be happy. Make it happen. NOW.


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