The Regrets Of the Old, Ill, and Dying – And How To Avoid Them

Some recent events have gotten me thinking about a topic I think most 37 year olds don’t contemplate (but should) – what it is people really regret when they’re ill or dying. Are you living a life where you’ll have no regrets?

This is a subject I’ve thought deeply about for years now, and I want to share some of my reflections with you today.

As the caregiver during my husbands illness, I had a first hand view of the very real possibility he would die – at the same age I am now. So giving some thought to what I would regret, and what he would, is not a new subject for me.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don't really matter.jpg

We’re all going to die one day. It could be today, tomorrow, or fifty years from now. No one really knows-there could be a car accident, a house fire, an illness, or something else. Or your health can be taken away – I’ve seen young people become paralyzed in accidents, get diagnosed with cancer, and other terrible things. I’ve seen the slow and steady, then drastic decline of elderly relatives. Suddenly, there’s no more time to make your mistakes right or to live the life you’ve always wanted.

Obviously dying, aging, and illness aren’t at top of mind every day. But every once in a while, it’s good to stop and think-am I living life in a way that I could die tomorrow with no regrets? And if I’m not, how can I change that?

In addition to my own personal reflections, I found four articles that summarized the top regrets of the sick, elderly, and dying (sources are here, here, here and here) and pulled it all together for you.

Take a look through the list and make sure you’re not living the kind of life you’re going to regret once it’s too late to change.

Top Regrets (2)

I Wish I Had

The courage to live the life I wanted, not the one others expected of me

People regret living life for other people, rather than for what they really want.  Other people may want you to get an education, become a doctor, buy a home, have kids – you name it, other people are willing to design your life for you.

But the question should be what to you want? What are your dreams – not someone elses dreams? Don’t succeed at someone elses idea of a perfect life.

The courage to express my feelings

Perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to say – a love you want to confess, a bully you want to stand up to, someone you want to defend. But you were afraid, so you said nothing. This is a top regret.

Stayed in touch with my friends

People who are ill, elderly, and dying want to be with others. One of their regrets is letting life get in the way of friendships, to the point where they drift apart and no longer stay in touch. Don’t let this be a regret – call your friends.

Let myself be happier

I get it – better than you know – sometimes it’s hard to be happy. Life is tiring. You have three kids, a demanding job, annoying co-workers, you need more money, a bigger home, a better car… why would you be happy? There’s too much to do, and too much to get. You’ll be happy later.

Later may never come, or later may look much different than you expect it will. Take time to be happy and enjoy what you have now. If you catch yourself dwelling on the things that make you unhappy, practice conscious gratitude and re-focus on the things that make you happy about your life right now. Living an unhappy life and then dying is no way to live.

Said I love you more

You’ll never regret telling people you love them. So do it! Let the people in your life know you love them all the time. I don’t let my kids go to sleep, or leave for school, without reminding them that I love them. Even if they’re in trouble for doing something wrong, even if they had a rough day, I love them.

Saved more money for retirement

I have seen, up close and personally, the huge difference in standard of care for the sick, old, and dying between those with money and those without. You don’t want to be relying on the government to pay your retirement and nursing home bills, because your quality of life will suffer. Your 50, 60, 70 year old self will thank you for foregoing something you didn’t really need at 20 to buy them a better life.

Been the bigger person and resolved my conflicts

Conflict is hard. There are hurt feelings all around. Sometimes there’s a good reason for a conflict, and it’s not your fault – it’s theirs! But unresolved conflicts are a top regret of the dying. So ask yourself, are there conflicts in your life that you should resolve, so you have nothing to regret?

More confidence in myself

Women especially suffer from imposter syndrome. We think we’re not good enough, smart enough, talented enough – and we may not try something, for fear we’ll fail. This lack of confidence is a top regret. When you find yourself doubting yourself, take a deep breath and ask what a confident person would do. Then do that.

Taken more trips

I’ve taken enough trips in my life to understand why people would regret not taking more of them. Traveling, seeing new sights, and exploring new places is exciting, interesting, and fun. But it’s also something that you don’t want to – or can’t do – while sick, elderly, or dying. So take those trips before it’s too late.

Buried the hatchet with a family member or old friend

This goes right back to resolving conflicts, but specifically asks you to reflect on your family and friends.

Gone for that dream job-or relationship

Just go for it! Not pursuing a dream job, or relationship – or likely any big goal – is a huge regret. You never know what might have been. So why not go for it? If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll have tried, and you’ll have no regrets later on.

Spent more time with kids

You know that saying how no one says on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time at work? People will often regret not spending more time with their kids. Whenever I see people with kids get so caught up with their work, or side jobs, that they miss their kids growing up I feel sad for them. I try myself to have a good balance of work and spending plenty of time with my kids, and at their events. Kids want your time – they don’t want stuff. So give them the gift of your time, even if it means somewhat less money.

Taken care of my health while I had the chance

No one wants their body to fall apart in their 40’s or 50’s, but if you don’t take care of your health, it just might. People regret not taking better care of themselves after they fall ill – but ignore and don’t appreciate their good health while they have it. Don’t let this be you. Take care of yourself. Also, it’s never too late – if you haven’t been taking the best care of yourself, just change that starting now. Do the best you can, and if you fall into old habits, just keep trying. Doing a few small things will be better than doing nothing at all.

I Wish I Hadn’t

Worked so hard

This is one I have to remind myself of a lot. I’m by nature a very hard worker (as evidenced by my corporate success, this site, my MBA, etc.) and not working hard is really difficult for me. But you know what? It’s OK to take some time off, relax, take it easy, and have some fun. Especially when things are hard, go easy on yourself.

Taken myself so seriously

Another struggle area of mine. Have fun! Lighten up! It’s OK to not be serious all the time.

Worried so much

You know what the terrible thing about worrying is? That it doesn’t actually do anything to help. Worrying about illness, death, your boss, the next promotion, your family, your friends, your kids – none of it does any good and it just stresses you out. Next time you find yourself worrying, ask yourself what you can do to prepare instead. It redirects the energy you were spending worrying in a more positive direction, into actually doing something to impact your situation.

Closing Thoughts

This isn’t about YOLO, or engaging in reckless behavior in the name of living fast and dying hard. People top regrets center around simple things. Telling people you love them. Spending time with your kids. Not worrying so much. Having more fun.

So I Want To Know

Are you living a life where you’ll have no regrets?

And if you’re not – what will you do today to start changing that?

After all, you never know what tomorrow will bring.

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11 thoughts on “The Regrets Of the Old, Ill, and Dying – And How To Avoid Them”

  1. DadsDollarsDebts

    I see death a lot. It’s just part of the deal as a cardiologist. Young and old. So I think of this a lot. I try and love intentionally. Focusing on family first then career. Luckily I make a good salary even as the low man on the totem pole. I also make moves when needed. We have moved across country twice…so ues. Focus on the inportant stuff. Unless you die Young no one outside of your family and close friends will really be there for you at the end.

  2. Great summary. A lot of the “wish I hads” are free too 🙂 Wealth means nothing if we don’t have health, love, connections and happiness. Used smartly though, and money can buy time to experience more of the good stuff

  3. I see those regret statements a lot but as a slightly early retired guy for the last three years I really don’t think I’d change a thing in my life. I could have moved around and made a lot more money but I have more than I need. I certainly don’t regret having worked as hard as I did because work was fun and it gave me a tremendous creative outlet I needed. My lifetime commute of eight minutes allowed me lots of family time as well. My kids love me and are doing OK as adults. My wife has put up with me for 40 years and rarely threatens me with violence. Even all those marathons I’ve run probably were worth it, maybe.

  4. Wealthy Content

    Amazing how there is some items on the list that really resonates personally and makes you stop to really think. Great summary and one worth coming back to. I really like approaching life in general this way.

  5. LOVED “Buried the hatchet with a family member or old friend.”

    It blows my mind when I hear friends/family members say they haven’t spoken to person X in years (even decades!) because of some minor issue. The issue is never as serious as the mental fatigue that you carry when holding a life long grudge. Even if you don’t want to remain in contact with person X, forgive (or accept blame) them and move on completely. It allows you to both “burry the hatchet” and also move on in your life with a clear conscience. Time is valuable, and when you waste it having ill will towards someone, you’re simply wasting your time!

    Great post!

  6. Great post, Liz. Everyday, I try to let go of fear. Working and saving like a machine is great for building wealth. It is also super important to live in the moment. I actively have to try to enjoy everyday. Retirement might never occur. It has taken me a long time to learn how to balance my future plans with daily enjoyment.

  7. My father’s death had a profound effect on me. I didn’t want to die like he did or more accurately, I didn’t want to live like he did. He was always afraid of spending a dollar and seemingly content to spend the final 20 years watching TV in living room despite being a millionaire. My father was 91 when he died; I was 47 at the time. Between his inheritance and my savings, I started to make firm plans for retirement. I’m still a little worried about stepping away from my salary with a minimum of 10+ years until Social Security and my pension but I can tell that as each day passes, I’m leaning more towards retirement. You have to get comfortable with the idea of something before you make the voluntary leap. I’ve said many times that a layoff could be just what I need – a kick in the pants (and a severance package) to force me to start my new life. Lacking that, I’ve had to spend two years convincing myself I can handle early retirement.

  8. I agree worrying about things you can not control wastes energy and decreases happiness. Once you realize this and prepare for the “worries” you can influence it allows one to work on the items in the “Wish I Had” list. I know I have! I am much more happy!

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