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Interview: End-Of-Life Caregiver Reflects On Regrets Of The Dying

The most common wish among the dying is that they had lived a life true to themselves.
The most common wish among the dying is that they had lived a life true to themselves.
Bronnie Ware is a writer, songwriter, and lecturer in Sydney, Australia. She spent eight years as a caregiver to the ill and dying, attending during that span to the needs of several dozen dying people. She has written a book titled "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing." She is also the author of the popular blog "Inspiration And Chai."

Ware spoke recently with RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson about her book and how her close experience with the dying has changed her life.

RFE/RL: Could we begin with you telling us a little bit about the experience that led to your writing this book? You were a nurse, is that right?

Bronnie Ware:
I wasn't qualified as a nurse. I've been called a nurse and a doctor and a lot of things on the Internet, but, no, I was just a caregiver. I was an unqualified caregiver. I took a job as a live-in caregiver, or a live-in companion, for a lady just to avoid having to pay rent or a mortgage so that I could spend some time on my songwriting and other creative endeavors. And this lady who I looked after became terminally ill and so I looked after her right up to her death.

Then the agency that had employed me as her companion then said I'd handled it well and did I want to go down that road. So I said "yes." It just felt like such a calling and such a life-transforming moment, so I did. And I ended up working in the field for eight years.

Bronnie Ware
Bronnie Ware
RFE/RL: Now, getting right to the point – what were the top five regrets that people had as they were dying?

The most common that I came across was people wishing that they had lived a life true to themselves, not the life that other people expected of them -- whether that is family, friends, or society. Wishing they hadn't worked so hard. And that's more about balance, just maintaining balance all the way through instead of being all work and hoping to retire and live then, which didn't often happen for people.

The third one was people wishing they'd had the courage to express their feelings more. This came from different angles. Sometimes it was wishing that they'd been able to tell family members that they loved them but didn't have those communication channels open. But it also came from people wishing that they'd spoken up in their own defense and in acts of self-love, wishing that they'd expressed their feelings out of self-respect.

Another was keeping in touch with their friends, wishing that they'd kept in touch with friends, missing the lightness that friends offer towards the end. That was a very common one, as well. And then people wishing that they'd realized that happiness is a choice and that they hadn't exercised that choice.

RFE/RL: A lack of courage seems to be at the heart of many of these regrets. What is it about the way we are living our lives that takes away our courage, makes us so afraid?

I think a lot of it is other people's opinions, just not wanting to stand out and just how they may risk criticism or being condemned if they do things a little bit differently. And I think, really, some of it is just not facing death -- because if you do face the fact that you are going to die, you find your priorities shifting and you find that courage because you know that life is so short.

So I think that it is just people thinking that they've got forever to get around to things and just letting fear rule them more than facing the fact that time is limited.

RFE/RL: Looking at things from the other side, can you tell us about people who didn’t have regrets? What was it in their lives that gave them satisfaction or even contentment?

I'm glad you asked that question. Not everybody had regrets and that was lovely, to come across people who didn't. The reason I wrote about regrets was because they have had such a profound effect on me personally. But those who had no regrets, they were just more accepting of how they had lived their lives. Some of them said they would have changed things, but they could still accept the way they'd done it.

I think that in most cases, though, they were people who had good communication with their families, so perhaps that is something that hindered a lot of other people. And they were also people who could look at the light side of life a little bit and could not take everything so seriously.

RFE/RL: How has your experience as an end-of-life caregiver affected the way you live your own life? Does it make a practical difference for you?

Hugely. The book is actually a memoir of my own life and how it was changed, so it is not only about dying people. The main story line is actually how it did affect me. I was pretty closed down, just out of carrying emotional wounds and using that as a coping mechanism, I guess. And so it has taught me to express myself, to be a lot more open. It has given me courage in every way because I have had to face death over and over.

I think in realizing how quickly life if over, it just shifts your priorities completely. If I have a big decision to make now, I'll actually say to myself: "Well, if you don't do this, Bronnie, are you going to regret it?" And if the answer is "yes," then I have to find a way to do whatever it is because I know that no matter how challenging something can be in life, it is never going to be as painful as lying on your deathbed with regrets, knowing it is too late. Because I have seen that anguish that people have gone through.

So, in my case, I really don't have the luxury of such indulgence now. I appreciate how quick life is over and how quick life goes, and so as a result, I live the life that I'm here to live and I'm a much happier person than I ever was or could ever really imagine I'd be.