Base Logo
Official U.S. Marine Corps Website
Crossroads of the Marine Corps

Regrets of the day

2 Jun 2016 | Lt. Curtiss P. Dwyer, USN, Command Chaplain The Basic School Marine Corps Base Quantico

In a 2011 book entitled Top Five Regrets of the Dying, hospice nurse Bronnie Ware reflects on themes that she heard as she cared for those about to pass from this life. Early in her career, Bronnie cared for a woman named Grace who, on her deathbed, was suffering terrible regret for not having lived a life “true to herself.” So Grace, says Bronnie, made her promise that she would live a life “true to myself.” Bronnie began listening for and noting themes of regret for other dying patients. From her book, the “Top Five” regrets are:

I wish that 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, and had mainly to do with dreams that people never pursued. She writes, “Health brings a freedom [to pursue one’s dreams] very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. She says that every man she ever cared for expressed this regret, meaning having sacrificed relationships for the sake of work. Women too, increasingly, in our modern age have this regret.

I wish that I had stayed in touch with my friends. She said that people who are dying often want to reconnect with old friends, but often there is no time, the friends cannot be tracked down, etc. Bronnie writes, “Everyone misses their friends as they are dying.”

I wish that I’d had the courage to express my feelings. People realized that they had suppressed a lot of feelings that should have been somehow heeded and expressed, and sometimes even developed illnesses related to unexpressed feelings.

I wish that I had let myself be happier. People often realized at the end that happiness is a choice, and one they did not make often enough.

Now, a couple of cautionary observations: First, our feelings and desires are indeed important, but not ALL-important; our feelings do not always make us want to do good things. Also, certain things seem missing from the list: Did she ever hear, I wonder, of someone regretful at having left a spouse or not being faithful to a life commitment? That someone wished that he or she had spoken more with God along the way or spent more time in meditation? How about feelings expressed that should have been suppressed (anger, lust, etc.)?

Our dreams and feelings need purification and wisdom if they are to bear good fruit, and we are not wise simply to give vent to everything that crosses our mind.

Still, Nurse Ware’s list is insightful food for thought. How much time (and therefore life) do we waste worrying about what other people think of us? How powerfully satisfying is it to have and cherish old friendships? How often do we think that happiness is the result of the right external circumstances, rather than a determined choice, despite circumstances? How often are we tempted to choose work over family (after all, they’ll be there anyway…)?

Regret is usually an unhelpful state of mind, unless it moves us to improve somehow, or teach someone else a lesson (like Grace). Rather than focusing on the regret itself, we ought to focus on those positive things to which it can lead us. Even the person on his deathbed can turn sterile regret to repentance. Here’s the best news: If we see any of the patterns above in our own lives, we have an opportunity to do something about it – in wisdom. I recommend starting with prayer.

Marine Corps Base Quantico