The dying have a lot to teach the living.
I’ve often mentioned that I’ve come to discover the deepest truths about life, God, and the spiritual life from the lives and insights of those who have suffered much, and those who have chosen the religious, viz the monastic, life. Perhaps one could add to those categories the insights of the dying.
Bonnie Ware worked as a hospice nurse in Australia for twelve years, holding the hands of those on their imminent way to their next life and has done us the great favor of distilling their themes of thought and insight for our own learning, particularly their regrets on their deathbed. I’m quoting her directly from here, but then Tim Brister from the States has added a reflection/prayer to each of the five deep truths. So I’ve put them together for the sake of our own lives lived well looking forward into 2013 and in the rearview mirror at the end.
The very first one has a lot to say to us about our vocations. As Parker Palmer says to us in Let Your Life Speak, “We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are…the deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elementary and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?’”
1. I wish 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 of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honored at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
Reflection: Father, allow me to experience the freedom that comes from your unconditional acceptance of me through the finished work of your Son. Give me grace to live out courageously the true life I have in him, not a life dictated by the approval of others. Help me to see the most useful allocation of this life comes when I have nothing to gain or lose from others because all that I have or ever will need rests securely and satisfyingly in You.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
Reflection: Father, deliver me from the idolatry of performance from the need to treat what I do as a functional savior and god-replacement as self-salvation projects of which I am tempted to create. Help me to give my loved ones undistracted devotion with a passion for being present–mind, heart, and will. Give me an eternal perspective to prioritize what matters most, and pattern my life accordingly. Let my enjoyment of those I love be the horizontal outworking of my enjoyment of You.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
Reflection: Father, you have loved me with an everlasting, undying love – a love demonstrated and displayed with magnificence and might. I ask for the strength of Your love to be shed in my heart through the Holy Spirit so that my affections may run deep and wide without the handicap of indifference or ambivalence. Oh that I may have a pathos that burns with holy fire and melts all bitterness and breaks down every barrier to loving well. Make me a peacemaker, pursuing forgiveness as You have forgiven me.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
Reflection: Triune God, You have forever dwelt in community, and yet because of sin, so many times I am content to live with superficial if not severed relationships. You have redeemed me that I would commune with You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that my communion would overflow in the communion of the saints. Deepen my investment in gospel partnerships with perseverance in prayer and supplication for others you have placed in my life. Let the bonds you have formed be strengthened through encouragement, prayer, and the effectual sharing of everything good thing we experience together in Christ so that the community we enjoy here will be a foretaste of what we will experience in heaven.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.
Reflection: In your presence, Father, there is fullness of joy. You are the fountain of delights. No one is more dedicated to my happiness than you. And my heart is so prone to broken cisterns to find the satisfaction. Throughout my days, I long to turn from fleeting pleasures of this world to embrace the infinite treasure in Your Son. May the joy of my salvation be the aroma of Christ so that others would find their true happiness in You. Never let my shout be louder or song be sweeter than Jesus, the lover of my soul.