Life's regrets

Regrets are never so poignant as they are when it’s too late, and for most of our life we celebrate the fact that it’s not too late. We do that on New Year’s Eve, with New Year resolutions that make us feel better for a few days. We’ll be upbeat that we’ve vowed to spend more time with the children, and a week later we’ll comfort ourselves with the promise of a better shot at it next year.

But at some point it is too late to put things right. And just as our children grow up in the blink of an eye, so, I suspect, will that point of irredeemable regret arrive for all of us, that we’ll be old in the blink of an eye.

I have read that the most common regret of men in the twilight of life is that they didn’t spend more time with their children, and for most that will lead to regretting having spent so much time working. As the father of grown children I regret not having spent more time with them, but I don’t regret having provided them with a financially secure home and upbringing.

And so I was interested in a book about late-life regrets by a woman who worked in palliative care for many years, Bronnie Ware. In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (, Ms Ware is hoping to help not only those who are dying but those who may be able to avoid the regret later.

The most common regret of the dying, Ms Ware found, was that he or she had not lived a life of their own design, rather that they had lived a life to meet others’ expectations. From the moment we lose our health, she writes, it is too late for dreams of a different life. ‘‘Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.’’

The most common regret among men, in fact a regret held by every dying man she’d nursed, was that they’d spent so much time working. The men deeply regretted devoting much of their life to the treadmill, and while some women had had the same regret most of the women Ms Ware nursed were of a generation when few were breadwinners. The men felt they’d missed their children’s childhood and youth, and that they’d shared too little time with their wife.

Many people in the twilight regretted that they’d suppressed their feelings in order to keep the peace, not a regret likely to afflict me. In failing to speak up, or to act on their emotions, many believed they had settled for a less satisfying life.

Letting friendships slip is fourth on the list, and it has seemed to me over the years that ageing people do lose contact with their friends. An old neighbour told me a few years before he died that in the previous 10 years he and his wife had gone from having many active friendships to having just one friend who called in every few months, and that was sad.

Fifth most common regret was that he or she had settled for familiarity and succumbed to fear of change rather than seeking happiness. Many people had not seemed to realise until they’d looked back that happiness was a choice.

I’m interested in how, and whether, our regrets change at different stages of our life.

At age 30 did we, or will we, regret giving priority to meeting others’ expectations, working so hard, suppressing emotions, losing touch with friends and not actively chasing happiness? At age 40? No. But in the second half of our working life, and when our children are no longer children, these may be common regrets.

I am more sure of what we won’t regret in later life. I doubt that anyone would wish they’d been less fit and healthy, had fewer children, spent more on cars, gambled more, had a bigger mortgage for a bigger house, spent less time with their family, consumed more alcohol, worked longer hours.

But there’s too much of me in that. There may be people who’ll regret not relaxing more, not having a few drinks more often, not spending their money on cars and whatever else when they could enjoy those things, not having spent more time pursuing a life away from family, not having had the opportunity to work more.

We can be too hard on ourselves, I suspect. We made decisions and set courses according to the pressures of the day, with the information we had then, not later. And simply because a choice didn’t live up to our hopes does not mean it was not the wisest.

What regrets do you anticipate in your twilight? Why don't you tackle those now?

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