Defeating the Regrets of Dying Through Psychotherapy

By Carol Goh  |  Published on 23 May 2021


Do you think about dying, such as how it would look when you are approaching the final days of your life? Have you put some thoughts into this final destination? Or are you all too busy with lives’ pursuits that dying often seems so distant? Or do you choose to deny the finality of your mortal lives?

In Bronnie Ware’s book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she shared with readers her experiences when taking care of those who were in the final days of their lives. One thing she did was to ask these people what their major regrets are. The top 5 regrets were:

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life that others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish I had let myself be happier

If death is swift, there will be no chance to mule over such regrets. However, if death takes a slow dance, you will have a lot of time to think while you lie helplessly on your bed. This is the time when you might be haunted by your past which slowly unfolds before you. What you could have done or should not have done. What you could have spent your time and resources on.

You begin to understand what is important to you at this final moment. The sad truth is that for most people, this moment will give rise to much sighing. You will wonder “how nice if I had….” This is also the time when most people can be overwhelmed with emotions such as anger, sadness, resignation, or bitterness. Since you cannot turn the clock back, what can you do to manage such overwhelming emotions while lying on your bed?

This article is split into 2 sections. The first section is for those who are facing some life-threatening illness or are in the final days of their lives. The other for those who are still young and are not facing life and death issues.

1. For those facing life-threatening illness or are in the final days of their lives

During this moment, you have come to face the reality of death, and also hopefully to accept this fact. You might seek medical treatment or solutions to improve your condition to prolong your life. Go ahead and do what you can. After all, life is precious and we need to do what we can to preserve it. At the same time, also be prepared that you might have to face death earlier than expected. No one can predict the exact time when we will be taken away. Do what you need as you await that day.

Reflections of Your Past

What about those overwhelming emotions and regrets? To manage them, first, you need to be brave enough to take a back seat. Take a deep breath, relax and allow these memories to float into your mind. Gather all your courage to face your past failures and setbacks. Allow your heart to race when unpleasant thoughts dash in.

These may be thoughts that will appear crystal clear in your mind as they have been etched somewhere within you where it is indelible. This is probably your last chance to face them to find closure. Your dear ones might have offered you advice not to think so much, and to cherish this final moment. However, it is near impossible to keep such thoughts at bay. The more you fight them, the more you are entertaining these thoughts in your mind. They will become even harder to control.

For true healing, you have to face the Goliath head on, no point dodging. Prepare your sling bag and stones. Acknowledge your pain, hurt and suffering. See this as the last opportunity for healing and fight to regain the strength to soar. Yes, you can still soar at this point.

You must face your past and find relief from the very deepest levels within you. As you walk down the memory lane, each day you will encounter different emotions depending on what you will recall. Some days can be full of darkness, tears, heartbreak, and anger. Some days can be full of joy, fun, and love.

If you are still mobile, find a quiet and peaceful place to aid your recollection. Take a notebook along to jot down key points and do mind mapping to give yourself a clearer picture of the situation. Enjoy nature or your surroundings and breathe in its sounds and sights.

As your mind is processing these past events, allow the higher power to guide you in unfolding your past. Now, looking back, what sense do you make of your encounter? If you can, find someone such as a therapist who can listen attentively to you without judgement to help you make sense of your ordeal.

"You must face your past and find relief from the very deepest levels within you."

Questions to aid reflections

Here are some questions you can use to reflect on.

First, are you the victim of any situation? If so, what lessons have you learnt and what lessons do you want to impart to younger generations? Acknowledge the hurt that you have experienced. Allow a Higher Power to reveal how the unpleasant situation has strengthened you and assess the outcome of the hurt. You need at this point to gain revelation that in life, we will go through difficulties. These are parts of our upward trot towards a greater understanding of the meaning of life and the lessons that it brings us. Heave a sigh of release, then exercise forgiveness and let go. If you cannot exercise forgiveness, consult your therapist if possible. Using psychotherapeutic tools, the therapist can assist you to better exercise forgiveness by working on the emotions that have hindered your healing process.

Next, have you made someone the victim of your actions? If so, do you understand why you committed that act then? After which, allow yourself to feel sorry for your actions, then learn the art of forgiving yourself. Forgiving yourself does not mean that you can undo the situation or that the victim is no longer affected by your actions. What is done cannot be undone, but that’s when faith comes in.

Have faith that the victim will find his or her way out and emerge stronger. Allow nature to help the victim grow through this setback and restore the person you have hurt.

It is important to know that we are responsible for our lives and that we too, cannot hold another person accountable for our fate. We have to rely on whatever resilience that is left to bounce back. Have an understanding that life is such that we will hurt and be hurt. Learn to let go.

"Have an understanding that life is such that we will hurt and be hurt. Learn to let go."

Making peace with yourself and others

The next step is to make peace with your significant ones. Start with your closed ones, your own family such as your spouse and your children. If you are a husband, have you ever told your wife how much you love her? Have you told her how much you appreciate her for who she is and for what she has done for you? Are you too shy to say such mushy mushy things? This may be your final chance to say something that could bless your loved ones forever.

Forget your shyness and drop your ego. Look into her eyes and tell her how much you have appreciated her all these years. Tear all you like, there’s no need to hold back. Such tears are tears of joy, of heartfelt appreciation that tug deep at your heart.

Be generous. Allow yourself to feel the love that tugs right at the innermost recesses of your heart. Have you felt that before? If you have not, open your heart and receive this gift of love even as you love. You will receive as you give her all the compliments and affirmation that she has been waiting for. You will experience the magical moment that whatever love expressed will be reflected to you in return.

For those with children, the next step is to repeat the previous step with your children. Have you ever told your children of your love? All children, irrespective how old they are, yearn to hear from their parents that they are accepted and loved unconditionally, in spite of their flaws and shortcomings.

In our high-strung society with such an emphasis on academic results, your children might be trying to prove their worth to you by striving to ace academically or in their career. Whether they succeed or fail, they will need to hear from you personally that you are always proud of them for who they are. In fact, it will be good for you to reassure them that they need not prove their worth. You can assure them they are worth more than the world no matter what. They are priceless gems to you to behold and treasure forever.

After making peace with your close-knitted family, extend the same to your larger family, your parents if they are still around and your siblings and nephews or nieces. It is time to make peace with apologies and extend your forgiveness. Follow this with words of appreciation and affirmation.

Repeat this process with your close friends. This includes those whom you are still in contact with and even those whom you have lost contact with. There might be friends whom you have drifted away from because of misunderstandings. Get help to locate them wherever they are and see if they could visit you. If not, have a phone conversation with them.

Savour the peace after finding closure

Lastly, you need to find peace with yourself. Congratulate yourself on significant achievements and see your past failures or setbacks as a necessary process to attain such achievements. Reconcile every bit of your life. Trust that a higher power will take care of those parts that you cannot make sense of. After all, you are only human and you can only do so much with your limited knowledge of this world.

Let go of what you cannot fix and entrust it to your higher power above. Fix what you can and at the end of the day, feel the peace and joy that comes from having done what you could have done. Let go and be ready to face your Maker.

The darkest hour always comes before the dawn. Once the hardest part of the work is done, the pain will give way to hope, peace and kindness. Allow the natural goodness to flow in you once again.

"Congratulate yourself on significant achievements and see your past failures or setbacks as a necessary process to attain such achievements. Reconcile every bit of your life."

2. For the young and vibrant

The fact that you are reading this article means you are starting to give some thought to the finitude of life. You are doing your best not to go down this road with regrets. You want to take charge now and not regret later.

It’s good to know what happens to people who are dying, to consider their thoughts, advice and regrets, in order not to make the same mistakes that they have made. Knowledge is power. By reading the previous section, you can start doing what you can to your significant ones. Be conscious of possible pit holes that you might step into in your life. Learn and educate yourself on how to live your life with meaning and fulfilment to both yourself and to your society. Know what you desire and decide if they are worth your pursuit.

If you are ready to face the eventual day with resolve and not live in regret, you have shifted your priorities well before it is too late. This gives you the opportunity to direct your time, resources and energy into streams that have both value and positive impact.

You will also not want to live up to people’s expectations. You would want to live a life of your own, one that you can direct and live by, guided by your heart. You will press on to find greater purpose and fulfilment as you take this journey. You persevere to live the life that is true to yourself. 

When you have prepared yourself what to expect for the road ahead, you will not be caught off-guard when the time comes, throwing you into confusion with many unknowns to grapple with. You will see the importance to find time and peace to reconcile with the many aspects and people in your life prior to your last weeks or days. There will not be a need to live in denial and fear about your approaching death as is often the case.

If you are young and vibrant, at this point in your life when you are still in control of your own destiny, pursue to live a meaningful life for yourself instead of someone’s expectation. Craft out your path and know what will give you meaning and fulfilment at the end of your journey. Have the courage to be yourself and love yourself today. You can live a life without regrets.

Your life can be renewed.

Book recommendations

1. Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications With the Dying by Maggie Callanan & Patricia Kelley

2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

3. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware

4. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

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