Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for patients during the last 12 weeks of their lives, routinely asked her patients about “any regrets they had or anything they would do differently.”
Bronnie spoke of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people would gain at the end of their lives and the common themes that surfaced again and again during these conversations.
Eventually, in a book about the experience, she would distinctly identify “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” They are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Funerals inspire me. They always have. There’s just something in the reminder of my mortality that compels me to make the most of each day.
I have attended several significant funerals particularly meaningful to me. I can remember the details and the stories well. No doubt, you can remember some yourself.
But perhaps the most inspirational funeral in my life is one I did not attend. It hasn’t happened yet.
Years ago, my grandfather, a pastor of 70+ years, called me into his office. I knew it well. He pastored the same church in South Dakota for 53 years and the items in his office always stayed the same: the large wooden desk, the typewriter, the bookshelves, even the drawer where he hid his candy. I stop in to visit every time I am in town.
But being specifically requested to meet him in his office on a designated day at a designated time was new. I didn’t know why he had invited me. And he wouldn’t tell me until I sat down across from him at his large wooden desk.
My grandfather started our conversation like this, “Joshua, I would like you to read at my funeral. Here is the verse I would like and this is where it will take place in the service.”
As he spoke, he slid a piece of paper across his desk. It was the order of service he had prepared for his funeral. Over our next several minutes together, he shared with me his hopes and desires for his funeral.
I suppose planning out one’s own funeral is not necessarily that rare. People do it all the time. My grandfather is in his 90’s and I am not surprised he would be thinking thoughtfully about that day—death is an inevitable occurrence for all of us.
What surprised me about the conversation was not the content or the subject. What surprised me was the confident nature by which he spoke. There was no fear in his demeanor. Death did not scare him. He did not regret, in any visible way, the coming end to his days.
And let me tell you, there are few things in life more inspirational than peering into the eyes of a man who does not fear his own death.
Years later, I still think about that conversation. Often times we hear about the regrets of the dying (as outlined in the list above) and we are warned to avoid making their mistakes.
But rarely are we offered the alternative.
Rarely are we provided with an example of a man or woman who faces death with few regrets. When we do, we are wise to follow their example and make the intentional adjustments that will prepare us to face our own mortality with courage and confidence.
As I consider the character of my grandfather’s life, I can identify numerous, reproducible actions to emulate:
1. Love well. My grandfather loves people with a rich love. He loves his kids, his extended family, his friends, even his enemies. His love for my grandmother is still so great he speaks freely of his desire to join her in death. This is not a surface love just for show, but one that includes his heart, his mind, and his soul. This is the type of love that allows us to reach the end of our lives with confidence and few regrets.
2. Hold lightly. My grandfather has always dreamed bigger dreams for his life than the offerings of this world. He has held everything this world offers with an open palm: money, possessions, fame, and prestige. He rarely pursued them out of selfish gain. They were given to him at times, but he was always quick to redirect the praise. Death always involves letting go of the world. And the sooner we learn how to do it, the sooner we prepare ourselves for that day.
3. Work hard. My grandfather is 95 years and still works 50+ hours/week. Nobody has shaped my view of work more than him. In a world that can’t wait for Friday and plans exhaustively for early retirement, my grandfather has stood steadfast in his appreciation for work and the fulfillment we receive from it. When we reach the end of our lives, we ought to be able to look back knowing we offered all our talents and energy to better the world around us—not that we foolishly wasted them.
4. Give freely. My grandfather is one of the most generous men I have ever met. Even while raising a family with four kids and struggling to make ends meet, he never turned his back on a legitimate request for assistance. From cash to food to housing, my grandfather gave and gives freely. He has given to me and he has given to strangers he will never meet again—all with joy and gratitude. Generosity in life provides opportunity to look back on our days with few regrets.
5. Make peace. My grandfather has made peace with others, peace with death, and peace with God. This is a blog read by millions of people from various faith and nonfaith backgrounds and finding peace with death means different things to different people. But my grandfather will credit making peace with God as the single most important decision he ever made in life. And believe me, nobody faces death confidently without making peace with it first.
Seneca once wrote, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. When it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. Life is long if you know how to use it.”
May each of us be inspired today to make the most of our one life and live it with no regrets.