Our North American culture’s fear and denial of death has many negative impacts on those of us surviving the death of a friend or family member. One of the less obvious losses that for me is one of the most expensive is the loss of unspoken life wisdom most often disguised as deathbed regrets.
When we allow our fear to run things we will almost always miss or fail to create moments that would provide a chance to share life’s wisdom with our loved ones. We often mistake our family member’s deathbed regrets as a dark or burdensome or sad moment.
Lets reframe it.
What would happen if a deathbed regret were really life wisdom turn inside out? That’s right could a deathbed regret of the one dying really be a piece of life wisdom for the ones hearing it? Absolutely, and here are several examples from my own end of life experiences.
I was sitting with a dear older woman several years ago. Her husband had left the hospice for the evening after a full day of visiting. She was anxious it seemed and her breath was both shallow and rapid. I positioned myself on her bed so she could lean against my belly and chest. I gently wrapped my arms around her and used my own slow and deep breathing so she could align her breathing with mine. When she settled and calmed a little I lay her back down on the bed and we simply held hands for a while.
She opened her eyes, looked at me and asked, “Can I tell you something?”
I replied “Absolutely!”
She took a deep breath, slowly exhaled and said, “You know I loved my husband deeply but I always held 5% back just in case. I am not sure why but I am really sad I did that.”
“Thank you.” I said acknowledging her sharing.
She died two hours later.
On my drive home from my shift at the hospice I was feeling exceedingly grateful for her sharing such a personal and intimate deathbed regret with me. I remember thinking how luck I was to hear it and wondering how I could turn it into something positive for me, a kind of unexpected gift. I recall thinking that I would not want to died with this kind of regret so I set out to make a list of people I could love 5% more. Unknowingly I was turned her deathbed regret into a life lesson for myself.
When my dear late brother Peter was lying on his deathbed I had a similar and different experience. We were alone in the Butterfly Room in the Creston General Hospital enjoying some quiet time together. I asked Peter why he had chosen to do so many rounds of radiation and five rounds of chemotherapy. We sat in silence for several minutes, and then he responded. “Stephen, I am sixty-one years old and I know I didn’t live my life as fully and passionately as I could have. I wanted five more years to live my ass off.”
There was nothing to say and nothing to do.
We cried and hugged each other. I was so thankful for Peter’s honesty. He passed one short day later.
On the drive home from Creston on the day of his death I remember reflecting on this precious moment we two brothers shared. I made a personal commitment to live each of my remaining days on this planet more fully. I didn’t want to feel that deep sense of regret my dear brother had felt when he reviewed his life on his deathbed. Peter’s regret was a gift of wisdom for me.
In my heart I promised ‘to live my ass off’ as best I could each and every day until my own death in honor of his courageous sharing of his deeply personal deathbed regret.
The chance we can offer friends or family to review their life with us is an important gift we can give our dying loved one. Here are a few questions to get those all-important wisdom chats going. Followed by a few ways we can turn a somber deathbed regret into the gift of life’s wisdom.
Some Questions to Begin With
- What are some of your favorite memories?
- What is something you are most proud of in your family life?
- What is a work accomplishment you are proud of?
- What do you want to be remembered most for?
- Is there anything you wished you had of done?
- Is there you did do that you wished you hadn’t done?
Tips to Turn a Regret to a Gift
- When a family member or loved one is regretful it will most often be framed in a negative way. “I didn’t love my husband as fully as I could have.” Simply reframe the regret by dropping the negative “I loved my husband as fully as I could have.” And then take that as encouragement setting out to follow their advice.
- Sometimes a family member will lament not doing something they wished they had of done. “Oh I wish I had of followed my heart and travelled more.” They might say something like, “I wished I had of learned to fly a plane.” Or “I wish I had of changed my career before I retired.” Each of these wished can also be turned into a positive instruction for living.
“Follow your heart and travel.”
“Trust your gut and take a risk.”
“Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.”
Turning regrets to gifts is this simple and when you do this little practice you may have more positive memories about your deceased loved one and your own life may become even more full, alive, and passionate.