Latter-day Saint Book Review: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Regrets of the Dying

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying was a bestselling book by a palliative care nurse who spent a lot of time with patients as they were passing away. I’m not going to recommend it as a book; the writing isn’t the best and it gets kind of repetitious, but the idea sparked an interest in me on taking an end-of-life perspective, which seems like one of the more accurate lenses through which to view things big picture. Here I’ll go through each regret with commentary on how it interrelates with the gospel and gospel living.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This one is common in leaving Mormonism narratives, and it definitely has something to it. I’m an orthodox member, but for adults who simply don’t believe but are ensconced in heavily Latter-day Saint circles I totally get it. I do feel like the pressures are much less now with the great opening up of the world with the Internet. Patent non-believers typically don’t go on missions anymore, for example, when that wasn’t unheard of, say, 20 years ago. For believers, a purely distilled deathbed faith, stripped of any concern whatsoever of what Bishop, President, or Elder so and so thinks of us seems like the ideal to strive for in our day to day walk with God. However, the single-minded focus on pursuing a life “true to one’s self,” consequences be damned, can also cause a lot of pain. One of the icons of 2nd wave feminism, Alice Walker, had a stormy relationship with her icon-of-3rd-wave-feminism daughter because she neglected her as a child during Alice Walker’s obsessive (ultimately successful) quest to become known as a world-class thought leader. The famous 19th-century artist Paul Gaugin left his family in dire straits because he felt his muse was calling him to go be an artist in Tahiti. Karl Marx’s family literally died from neglect because he refused to get an actual job. And those were the thinkers that were successful. I imagine the vast majority of these cases lead to a few forgotten intellectual productions and destroyed lives. (The movie The Meyerowitz Stories is a good example of this.) In some cases your Muse can take a hike; living a self-centered life clashes with the Savior’s simple truth that he that will lose himself will find himself.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I suspect this will be less of a deathbed regret for my generation. I have many issues with millennials, but maybe it’s not so much that we’re lazy, but rather that we’ve figured this one out? (As long as we don’t expect the benefits of working hard, feeling entitled to those while not actually putting in the work drives me bonkers).

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I guess this one kind of depends on what those feelings are. Absolute honesty is one of those things that sounds nice on paper, but I have an acquaintance that doesn’t seem to have a filter and his relationships are awkward since everybody walks on pins and needles around him. (Also, nobody can accuse our immediate former US President of not having the “courage’ to express his feelings, with arguable results).

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Facebook, for all its criticisms, is a game changer here. I have meaningfully substantive “Facebook relationships” with people I’ve only met once or twice in real time, and birthdays and other occasions are often nice excuses to reach out and touch bases for relationships that would otherwise have withered on the vine of geographic distance and time.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This one is also qualified. I liked President Hinckley’s emphasis on life being meant to be enjoyed and Uchtdorf’s emphasis on the meaningfulness of his non-religion related pursuits. Still, I also take C.S. Lewis’ point (I can’t remember where exactly) that some wicked, manipulative people do sincerely have fun and enjoyment in life. We like to tell ourselves that they just need a big hug and are really hurting inside, but some people really are wicked and evil and enjoy themselves. Of course, what I suspect she means here is to let go of anxieties and status competitions that get in the way of just enjoying life, and in that sense I can unreservedly endorse this.

2 comments for “Latter-day Saint Book Review: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

  1. The work experience of a palliative care nurse would likely weigh more toward time with very old people. I am thinking about how that compares with those who die young such as my mother (38), wife (48), and a sister-in-law (52). My sister-in-law died suddenly from accidental trauma, and when my wife went to hospice for her last ten days, she was heavily sedated from the pain, so in neither case would a nurse know what they regretted. My late wife’s top regret is very easy to predict: She regretted leaving her children early.

    On evening in the months she was dying, my wife and I had a funny conversation. She was glad that she had worked as tirelessly as she had and got as much as she had out of a life that would end decades shorter than once anticipated. This connected to a long-running difference between her and me, with me desiring less crammed-full plans and days and more leisurely relish of fewer experiences and accomplishments. We laughed together, and I conceded defeat that she had been right.

    Around that time she studied her patriarchal blessing and found it fulfilled. The only thing she felt from that she should give more attention was temple work for the dead. From the time we married she told me of a high school friend who had died. My wife wrote to her friend’s mother, and asked for permission to perform ordinances in the temple on behalf of the friend. The mother wrote back her permission and gratitude for one still remembering her daughter.

  2. Thank you for your touching note and unique perspective John. We hear the “I regret working so hard” idea a lot, but how much of that stems from the stage of life they’re in? I remember an anecdote from Isaac Asimov’s autobiography when people asked him whether he’d keep writing all day if it was his last day on earth, and he said that he’d “type faster.” I can see how one’s life being truncated prematurely would make one want to live life on fast forward, as it were.

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