Astute learners will tell you that often life's best lessons are learned outside of the classroom. While this is usually based on learning that comes from our own successes and failures, watching how other people live their lives, make choices, and then deal with the rewards or consequences can save us a plethora of hardships.
Every day I encounter incredible teachers, the wisest of these tend to be my hospice patients. The end of life offers a unique perspective, allowing the patients who are willing and able, to look back and reflect on their decisions, thus offering those listening a chance to learn from their insights.
Of course, at the end of life, most people deal with grieving and questioning the whys. But there are other topics that come up so frequently, it's as if life is shouting 'pay attention to this, this is important'. The most common of these, is in the area of regrets.
While many of us regret things every day, like saying the wrong thing, or eating too many calories, or putting off something we should have done, these are not the type of regrets that people who are dying talk about. They mention things like regretting being at work so much, being away from their families too much, being too hard on their children, not taking more vacations, not being more generous, or holding a grudge too long. Though sometimes people will regret that one wrong decision, most regrets are built more on life values and the sum of their time.
What I have learned at these bedside classrooms comes also from what is not said. Never once have I heard someone say they think they hugged their children too much, or took too many trips to the park. No one laments that they said I love you too often, or wasted too many meals with friends. I haven't heard proclamations of donating too much money or laments of volunteering too many hours.
I can tell you not one person has uttered a regret of forgiving someone, or wished they would have cared more about what other people thought of them.
This doesn't surprise us, does it? When people who are nearing the end of their life look back, they begin to reevaluate what really matters. Over and over again this boils down to very simple things; loving the people in our lives really well by being intentional, compassionate, generous, forgiving, available, trustworthy, and kind. It's about where we put our focus, our time, our resources, our energy, and ultimately ourselves.
While it's universal for these truths to become crystal clear when the reality of time running out is before us, we don't have to wait that long. By sharing their regrets, those who are dying are trying to save us from their mistakes.
Will we listen to what is said, and what is unsaid? If we do, we can become wise to the important things of life; making decisions about how and where we spend our time and energy, keeping in mind that one day we'll look back on our lives, and hopefully we'll have no regrets.
Dr. Amy Clarkson is the medical director for South Wind Hospice.