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Blog: Stories and Insight

End-of-Life Regrets

What people wish they’d done differently, and how you can help

Morrie was a retired dentist who enjoyed a good life, including a nice home and exotic vacations. But he often behaved insensitively toward his family, showing little regard for their feelings. As Morrie neared the end of life, he appreciated his loved ones more — and regretted taking them for granted in the past.

Such remorse is common toward life’s end. In fact, many people share similar end-of-life regrets. These feelings can add to a person’s stress, anxiety, and guilt as they cope with their terminal illness. Family caregivers can help their loved one and themselves by understanding these reactions are normal, and by comforting their relative with the responses described below.

Common end-of-life regrets

  1. Not spending more time with the people I love.

Looking back on their lives, one major end-of-life regret many people have is that they wish they had spent more time with loved ones – whether their family members or close friends.

Your loved one may have worked long hours that kept them away from home. They may not have realized — until it was too late — that they had other options, such as making time for shared activities or working fewer hours.

What you can do: Remind your loved one that you know they care. Tell them you appreciate all the time you did have with each other. Share your memories of good times spent together over the years. Help arrange calls or visits with other people who are important to your loved one.

  1. Not being kinder to those I love.

Another regret of the dying is wishing they had been more supportive, treated their family and friends with more kindness, and expressed more love and appreciation toward them. They may want to apologize for past behavior and fix this end-of-life regret.

What you can do: Listen and tell your loved one you understand their feelings. Tell them you love them and forgive them. (It takes strength to apologize, and even greater strength to forgive. You can free yourself from these regrets and negative feelings by forgiving.) Encourage your loved one to express their feelings to others now, through a phone call, letter or visit.

  1. Not being true to myself.

At the end of life, many people regret spending their lives trying to meet others’ expectations, at the expense of their own wishes and dreams.

What you can do: Listen sympathetically. Remind your loved one that they did their best, and made others happy along the way. Point out the accomplishments and dreams your loved one did achieve. Help them set a new goal, such as writing letters to friends and family, or going to a special place they’d like to visit.

  1. Being too afraid to express my feelings.

Another regret of the dying is being afraid to share their feelings. A lot of people repress how they feel in order to avoid conflict. That prevents them from being honest with — and closer to — their loved ones. It’s important to realize that we can’t control other people’s reactions. However, honesty can ultimately elevate a relationship to a closer, healthier level. Alternately, it can push away an unhealthy relationship – which is also beneficial.

What you can do: Encourage your loved one to be honest about their feelings. If they ask how you feel about something, be honest (in a kind way) in return.

  1. Losing touch with my friends.

It’s common for people to get caught up in their own lives and let friendships slip away over time. But at the end of life, love and relationships become the most important things. So, as your loved one nears death, they may long to see their old friends.

What you can do: Help your loved one connect with people they’re longing for, whether through a visit, phone call, or video chat. If someone can’t be reached or has passed away, try to contact a mutual friend or a family member to share recollections.

  1. Not letting myself be happier.

At the end of life, people often realize that happiness is a choice. Your loved one may wish they had lived differently – perhaps with less seriousness and more fun. They may feel they were stuck in old ways of behaving, which kept them from experiencing joy.

What you can do: Hear your loved one out. Encourage them to do what makes them happy now – whether watching a favorite show, listening to preferred music, or eating a delicious treat. Help them do something to make others laugh, so your loved one can share in that happiness.

[ How Should You Approach the End-of-Life Conversation with a loved one?
Learn more Now. ]

Remember: Everyone has regrets

We are all constantly learning and developing. Each new experience affects how we view the world and the choices we make. We may opt not to do something at age 25, and then decide to do it at age 45 — after our life experiences have provided new knowledge and perspectives.

Throughout our life, it’s important to step back regularly and make sure we’re living the way we want– so we can get the most out of life and minimize our end-of-life regrets. When we reach the end of life, we also need to forgive ourselves and one another for the missteps and mistakes we made along the way. None of us is perfect!

Moreover, we can’t know how things would have turned out if we had made different decisions. There’s no guarantee our life would have been better in the long run. But when a loved one nears the end of life, we can help them by listening to what they’ve learned – including their regrets — and showing our appreciation for them and the insights they’re sharing.

Regrets we can learn from

At the end of life, it’s too late to change the way we lived. But those who are not near death can learn from the regrets of the dying. Here are additional end-of-life regrets that many people express — and how we can avoid them.

  • Not saying “I love you” more. Many people wish they’d been more loving to their family and friends, and regret not expressing that love more often. Take a few minutes to call or write to someone you love, and let them know you care. It will mean a lot to them, and make you feel good, too. Think about the people who are there for you when you need them. Show your gratitude for them regularly.

Ira Byock writes in The Four Things that Matter Most: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you” — carry enormous power to mend and nurture our relationships and inner lives. These four phrases and the sentiments they convey can help us resolve interpersonal difficulties with integrity and grace.

  • Not resolving conflicts with others. Every relationship has disagreements that can lead to anger and hurt feelings. But don’t let a fight go unresolved. Oftentimes an argument is based simply on a misunderstanding or miscommunication! Talk things through, compromise, or agree to disagree. Really listen to one another. Choose to forgive, and correct any wrongs that you’ve inflicted. Don’t sacrifice a generally positive relationship out of pride or stubbornness.
  • Not saving more money for retirement. People who don’t plan for retirement can easily become impoverished once they’re no longer able to work. The sooner you start a retirement savings plan, the more comfortable and happy you’ll be in your golden years. But it’s also never too late to start saving, or to increase the amount you save. Many online resources, or a certified financial planner, can help you figure out how much you’ll need to save.
  • Not taking more risks. Fear of failure often causes people to take the “safer” path in life. But at the end of life, many regret they didn’t take more chances to achieve their dreams. Whether it’s starting a business or going skydiving, don’t let fear hold you back from the things you really want to do. Make a “bucket list” and get started on it, one item at a time.
  • Spending too much time worrying instead of enjoying life. Many people regret wasting time and energy worrying about things they couldn’t control. They realize, too late, that they missed opportunities for happiness and accomplishments. One antidote: Spend time each day (even just a few minutes) doing something that fulfills you. In addition, remind yourself that worrying is a choice. Try to limit your worrying to a certain time each day – such as 10 minutes in the morning.
  • Not taking better care of myself. People dying from an illness often wish they’d done more to stay healthy, from eating better and sleeping more to seeing their doctor sooner. To avoid this regret – and help stave off illness — make self-care a priority. Take time each day to unwind with a walk, nap, or meditation. Take breaks and vacations from your job. See your family doctor at least annually – and right away if you have worrisome symptoms. You’ll be doing a favor for both yourself and your loved ones.
  • Not doing more for others. Many people wish they’d made more of a difference in the world. But it’s never too late to start: Choose a cause that’s meaningful to you, and give a little of your time or money. Even people who are dying can donate to charities — and ensure their legacy of making a positive impact.

  • Not choosing work that was meaningful to me. People who didn’t enjoy their job often wish they’d pursued a different career path. This is a common regret of the dying. If you’re unhappy in your job, think about what you’d really like to do and how you can get there now.

To learn more about how Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice can help your loved one with a serious or terminal illness, please call (800) 229-8183 or fill out this online form.