“No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,” the saying goes. … I have my doubts. (more)
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work 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.
For ten years my wife has been a hospice social worker, supporting ten dying patients a week. And she can’t recall any of those 5000 patients ever spontaneously expressing a general life regret. She usually gives open-ended questions like “tell us about your life” and sometimes dying folk express apologies to particular people, or regret that a surprise early death prevents particular plans like visiting Europe. Sometimes patients say what they are proud of about their lives, or how they’d like to be remembered. But they just never give general regrets about their lives. Who would?
Ms. Ware said regrets are expressed “when questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently”; my wife isn’t thrilled about this as a care technique.
Deathbed folks are usually far from their analytical peak – they are often in great pain, and rather muddle-headed. So why would we think their comments especially insightful? I suspect we attach unrealistic significance to deathbed words because we are terrified to think about death, and eager to show our devotion to the dead and dying.
But if deathbed regrets are less than reliable descriptions of reality, where might they come from? One theory is that they are like the famous interview question “What is your main fault?”, which evoke answers like “I work too hard” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These are obviously attempts to brag about a good feature, but call it a “fault.” All but regret #4 above fit this directly – they basically say “I sacrificed so much for you people.” Regret #4 similarly declares how much the dying cares about others.
Another theory is that deathbed regrets arise from taking a far view of our lives. The far mental mode is more happy, social, and idealistic, and the above regrets express a commitment to the ideals of happiness, friend and family, and resistance to conformity pressures.
It may be good to take stock of your life and consider your basic priorities. And you might do well to listen to spontaneous comments by those experienced in life on the mistakes they’ve made. But what pain-pinned muddle-headed dying folks say when pushed to express regrets seems unlikely to be especially informative.
Added 9a: Stephen Smith suggests these regrets are the predictable result of opiate pain medication.
Added 24Nov: Andy McKenzie points to studies showing “as time since a decision grows, people tend to shift their regrets towards not making the hedonistic decision.”