Death—our inevitable destiny—is unavoidable, no matter how hard we try to evade it. However, ensuring that we reach the end with minimal regrets (or better yet, none at all) is something that we can do something about.
Maryanne O’Hara, an end-of-life doula and the author of Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark, shares the top regrets people have when they’re dying so that we can learn what kind of shifts we should make now before our time is up.
What’s an end-of-life doula?
An end-of-life doula, or a death doula, is a guide that provides emotional, spiritual, practical, and physical (in a non-medical way) support for those living with terminal illnesses and their loved ones.
They can help sit vigil, run errands, do household chores, make funeral arrangements, and most importantly, help people navigate the pain that comes with the loss of life. They are often the person who is there when the dying reflects back on their lives.
The most common regrets from those nearing death
O’Hara notes that the most common regret of her clients as they near the end of their life are variations of the same overarching regret: “We always think we have more time,” she says.
People often get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day and put off doing the things they think will be truly meaningful to them. “When you take the future for granted, it’s easy to lose sight of larger questions of meaning and purpose and respond to what’s demanding your attention at the moment,” O’Hara explains.
One woman that O’Hara remembers said that her biggest regret was not enjoying life’s little pleasures. Instead, she was always focused on daily stresses and chores and used these things as an excuse to not take better care of herself and spend more time with her family and loved ones.
“The woman said: ‘If I could go back and relive it all, knowing just how quickly it was going to pass, I would savor it all more. I would savor every delicious bit.’ She emphasized the word savor,” O’Hara says.
The most common realization from those nearing death
On top of what people regret doing, those nearing death often also come to one common realization: that love is all that truly matters.
O’Hara recounts the story of one client who said to her: “You have to tell the people you love that you love them. It can be hard, and you might say to yourself, ‘oh, she knows,’ but people need to hear it.”
This sentiment is all too familiar for O’Hara, who has lost her daughter. “We didn’t know it was going to be the last thing she ever said to me,” she recalls, “but in the ICU, as I was trying very hard to be strong for her, she said, ‘It’s okay to cry, mummy.”
O’Hara continues, saying that her daughter “began crying too, and she said, ‘I love you so much. I’ve never loved anyone as much as you.’”
“That’s the most cherished, painful memory of my life,” says O’Hara. “Ask anyone who’s ever sat vigil beside a loved one in an ICU. It’s a heightened time of connectedness when everything else falls away, and for me, nothing ever mattered or will matter as much as the eternal love I have for my child and the love she had for me.”
So, in an era that is full of uncertainty and fear, let your actions and reactions be guided by the lessons learned by those nearing death. Savor the little pleasures of life, and share your love with those around you. The world, and your heart, will be a little lighter for it.