Life Lessons From The Dying
By Bernard LaganApril 5, 2012
A lost soul in banking, Bronnie Ware found her life’s meaning, before it was too late, when she started listening to the dying. She recorded their regrets and began living without her own.
As he neared death last year, Steve Jobs offered an answer to a question his biographer had not asked — why had the famed recluse ever agreed to allow somebody to write a book about his life?
"I had a lot of trepidation about this project," Jobs confessed to his biographer, Walter Isaacson. "I wanted my kids to know me. I wasn't always there for them and wanted them to know why and to understand what I did."
Job's co-operation with his biographer confirms a man who anticipated the regrets of the dying and one who went to great lengths to avoid them — at least the very few he might have had. He took care of one of the most common — I wish I hadn't worked so hard — not by apologizing but by explaining in his biography to his kids why he wasn't around so much.
Very few us find the ability to say at the edge of death, as Jobs did: "I've had a very lucky career, a very lucky life. I've done all I can do." Most of us are, unfortunately, lacking Jobs's death-bed contentment. Many of us will pass away holding regrets — some possibly extraordinarily painful.
Others, such as the departed Kerry Packer, just want to take the off-ramp as fast as possible — regrets or no regrets — once they know the end is at hand. Packer memorably opened his eyes upon his death bed and inquired of the phalanx of gathered medical staff in the minutes before he breathed his last: "Am I still here? How fucking long is this going to take?"
More of us, however, are at the least interested in dealing with the worst of regrets about our lives when the end approaches, judging by the international attention an obscure Australian blogger garnered when she set down the five regrets of the dying last year.
Bronnie Ware's list of the most common regrets she encountered while nursing the dying was published in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph in London, reported by the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail in the UK. Hundreds of bloggers latched onto her list and it was re-produced around the world on self-help web sites. Millions saw her list of the regrets of the dying.
She listed, in order of the most frequently mentioned by the dying:
1) I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2) I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
3) I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5) I wish that I'd let myself be happier.
Buoyed by the attention the list gained, Ware then wrote an online book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which was released internationally in soft cover by her publishers, Hay House, on March 20.
While her list has become well enough known, less obvious is the journey that Bronnie Ware's life took from her birth place 45 years ago in country northern New South Wales, through hardship, deep unhappiness, a life in Europe, self-discovery and finally a return to her birthplace and the birth of her first child eight weeks ago.
Along the way she conducted a nomadic search in her battered Jeep around Australia — often sleeping in it — for a job that would give her life the meaning and purpose she could not find in her first career as a banker. She would begin to find it first in England, paid to be companion to Agnes, the frail, elderly mother of a Surrey farmer who was stunned when his mother followed Ware and swore off the meat she'd eaten all her life. And then, back in Sydney, with Ruth, an old woman dying in a vast Bellevue Hill mansion. Alone — because she did not want her only and very close daughter to witness her death. Ruth had already said goodbye to her.
It was lesson one for Bronnie Ware and the dying; not everybody wants their family to see their death. Lesson two; Bronnie Ware had found the calling that gave her life meaning. She would be a companion to the dying. She believed she had the potential to communicate with those others find the hardest to talk to — those who are dying.
"I think a lot of old people are used to not talking about their lives," says Ware. "They ask a lot of questions to take the conversation away from themselves. But I found that as soon as I brought the conversation back to them and asked the right questions, it goes like a torrent. They are used to putting the attention on everybody else, but most of them are just starving for a conversation — a two-way, equal conversation."
The New England farm on which Ware grew up with her brothers and sisters was, for Ware at least, an often unhappy place. She describes herself as a sensitive child, a loner who was frequently criticized — although her book declares her deep love for her mother.
"I was the black sheep who really did not fit the mould that I was supposed to be shaped into. I wanted peace and I didn't find it in my upbringing. I spent a lot of time as a child just wandering paddocks and I think I was a philosopher even then," recalls Ware. She worked in a bank after leaving school, rising to a senior position. Later she sold insurance. Both were jobs that she believed her family expected of her, but Ware quietly grew to loath her banking and insurance careers.
"I continued to give my working week to a job that did nothing for my soul," she writes in her book. There was also an early marriage, a home, a mortgage, but no children before the marriage ended.
A peripatetic life followed as Ware travelled Australia in her old Jeep, experimenting with life that embraced art, her passion for swimming and a more remote existence that included a lengthy stay on an island.
Music and performance would eventually become central to Ware's more settled life. She does not hide the occasional drug use of her youth, nor a period of numbing depression — a crisis of self-worth, a welling-up of what she saw as injustices and sadness in her early life. She writes wrenchingly in her book of the period, which prompts the question of whether such a crisis of soul is necessary before one can take action to avoid the most often expressed regret of the dying; I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"I don't think it has to go to the depths of being suicidal and depressed, but at the same time I think there does need to be a really huge upheaval to give people the courage to be who they were meant to be," says Ware. " I think, if you don't, you will be always shaped by your past and perhaps hindered by it. I once read that we do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. I think that's true," says Ware.
Though frequently described as a nurse by those who've written about her five regrets of the dying, Ware did not train or qualify as a nurse and has not held herself out to have done so — although she did some training in palliative care after she began to work with the dying.
Ware recounts that, at the urging of her then-employer, she lied to the family of one of her very early patients when they asked her about her experience with the dying. The woman was Ware's second terminally ill patient. Ware writes in her book: "When questions came up from the family about my experience I found myself lying, all because I needed the work. New laws were also coming in about staff qualifications of which I had none… so I went along with the lies, saying I had nursed more people than I had."
It would be the last time. The patient's name was Stella, and Ware often recounts her death as among the most peaceful she ever witnessed and vowed to never again lie again about her experience. Stella had long practiced and instructed in yoga and meditated daily. When she discovered Ware also meditated, she exclaimed: "Oh, thank God. I have been waiting for you for ages. I can now die."
Most of us will not have practiced yoga for years, nor frequently meditated when we reach our end. So how might we ease our passage?
"The smoothest departures, the actual transition of dying, were those who had worked on themselves," says Ware. "They were people who had already contemplated death or who were quite philosophical about life. Those who had not thought about death a lot or who were in denial up until quite late or who wanted to hold onto their spirit — they had a rougher extraction. But Stella just died smiling and looking at the ceiling. I didn't even know she had died."
Another question begs, perhaps the most profound of all: Is a belief in God or a higher power necessary for a calm death? "I think if people reach the end of their life and don't have a regret, then it wouldn't really matter," says Ware. "But I think it does make a huge difference to our lack of fear of death to have faith in God or a higher power."
Ware decided to write out her regrets list and place it on her blog after completing her first writing project — an account of her experiences conducting songwriting classes for women prisoners. She based the list on the diaries she kept whilst caring for scores of dying people. Most of Ware's caring was done in the homes of the terminally ill at the request of their families. Once the list of regrets appeared, Ware began to receive floods of email from all over the world.
"I knew it had an effect on people because basically my blog went crazy. The statistics went crazy," she says.
Ware has returned to New England, close to where she grew up on the family farm. Her parents sold the property but it has since been purchased by one of her brothers.
When she reached her late 30s she accepted that she would never have a child, but she became pregnant shortly after she turned 44. Her daughter was born eight weeks ago.
Does she share the fears common to many older parents that they will not live to see their children grow into adults? "I can't help but embrace death to a degree," says Ware.
"Even before I became a mother, I was not scared of death because I have had the courage to get through what I've got through. If I was to die tomorrow, I know that I have lived a life true to myself. From a parent's perspective that sounds quite impersonal, but it's not intended that way. I absolutely adore my darling little girl … so if I were to die before she reaches adulthood my heart would ache for her suffering. But I also have enough faith to know that life itself is the best teacher and that it's (my death) is going to shape her soul in the way it is meant to be."
And there is another aid for her daughter's living that she will leave behind. Ware has recently released a new album of her music. It is called Songs for the Soul.