Regrets, I have a few

by The Listener / 18 February, 2013
The only thing Paul Holmes would have regretted about his funeral was that he could not have been there in more animate form.
Job jog cartoon by Steve Bolton
The little jog people do when they’ve just left an interview that they think went really well / cartoon by Steve Bolton.


Along with a thousand or so other people, I went to Paul Holmes’s funeral. The High Anglican service in the cathedral was, I’m sure, everything he would have wanted. It was tasteful, with the right sense of ritual, beautiful music, meaningful and often funny eulogies and his stoic and brave family together in the front rows.

At a function afterwards
– you could call it a wake
– hundreds of his former colleagues and friends shared a drink, swapped stories and settled old grievances with each other and the deceased. The only thing Paul would have regretted was that he could not have been there for the day in more animate form.

I read a fascinating story in the Guardian about Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, who had worked for years in palliative care. She discovered common themes of regret expressed by her patients and compiled them in a book that, as the paper put it, lists the top five regrets of the dying.

The most common, Ware found, was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Personally, I would have expected the top regret to be that they were dying, but no. People regretted the missed opportunities, the time wasted doing what others thought they should be doing, instead of following their dreams while they were healthy enough to do so.

Funerals always make me introspective and acutely aware of my own mortality, so I ruminated long and hard over that one, resolving to start a bucket list of things I must do before I depart the planet.

The second top regret proved an obvious one: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” I’ve managed to miss that regret, thanks to being bone idle much of the time, but I know there are legions of men who, because of heavy work commitments, must bitterly regret missing so much of those years when their children were growing up. It is, according to Ware, the commonest complaint from male patients.

In third place came “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” I suspect I express my true feelings rather too often and life might have been easier if I’d just shut the hell up, but I know many keep their emotions and opinions to themselves out of a sense of diplomacy and a desire for a quiet life. Frankly, if that is you, I recommend you blow your stack more often and tell people what you really think, otherwise you could end your life really hosed off.

Another regret is “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” In my case, that’s unlikely, as most of them are at our house regularly, having a quiet drink or two and browsing through the fridge. Yet I can see how it can happen. You get so caught up with your own domestic life and nuclear family that you become time-poor and fail to keep up the regular contact and maintenance true friendship requires.

The final regret of the dying was the quite surprising “I wish I had let myself be happier.” Ware makes the point that happiness is a choice and often people don’t realise that until near the end of their lives. It is a good point and I have resolved to get up in the morning and spend a while dwelling on all the good things that are happening so I put myself in a happy mood. With that in mind, I have turned off RNZ National’s Morning Report, as it appeared to be having the opposite effect.

I also now just flick over the newspaper headlines until I find one that doesn’t depress me. It certainly saves a lot of time reading in the morning.
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