The death-bed blues

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THERE are two things certain in life so it is said; death and taxes.

To this might be added regrets and who better to ask what these might be than nurses in palliative care.

What are deathbed laments of regret?

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A gentle nurse says, “my patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to 12 weeks of their lives. People grow a lot when faced with their own mortality.”

My mother’s regret was she was far too focused on political activism when we were young.


It changed nothing but denied her much of the joys of motherhood. The nurse describes how, facing the hereafter, people go through a wide range of emotions.

As with my mother there is regret.


There is also denial, fear, anger, and eventual acceptance. It is interesting that she adds that in every single case her patients found deep inner peace before departing.

When asked if there was anything they would have done differently there was a common theme.

“I wish I’d had the courage to be myself rather than what others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret. They wished they had lived life as they imagined it would be best lived.

The lesson here is to do as Mark Twain suggested: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.

So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour.”

Every single man she nursed said they missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. This was high among the regrets of women patients too.

Older generation men had of course most likely been breadwinners, but that did little to allay their feelings of regret.

The third most expressed regret was; “I wish I’d had the courage to express my true feelings.”

Often life is spent in bitterness when a simple handshake, expression of regret and earnest invitation to make up would make all the difference. The nurse advises; speaking openly raises a relationship to a new and healthier level.

It renews friendship or disposes of it; a win-win situation.

Getting out of touch with friends was regretted. By the time palliative care is needed it is too late to renew friendships or make the peace.

When the time comes, money and status no longer matter. Love and relationships are uppermost in minds.

The final regret was they hadn’t gone through life ‘dancing like no one was watching.’ The numbness of routine and familiarity offered only mediocrity.

They longed for the childish ways of easy to laugh and to not take life too seriously. The nurse says: “When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind.”




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