When we create bucket lists, we’re often thinking about mountains to climb, countries to visit, or other epic adventures to have. It makes sense that these things come up when we ask ourselves, “What do I want to make sure I do before I die?” After all – these things are exhilarating and form memories of a lifetime. Because my clients are Freedom Junkies, they want to do things like road trip for 6 months across the US, or ride motorcycles to the very tip of South America. Backpack the Dolomites and climb the tallest peak on every continent. Sky dive or bungee jump. And it makes sense.
But when we think about what people who are actually dying say they wish they did when they had more life force in them, we hear a very different story. Yes, many wish they had lived more full lives, but they way they interpret that is different than what you might think. When we look more deeply into what will truly be important for us so we can feel more free at the time of our death, we need to remember this uber -important item that needs to be on everyone’s bucketlist: forgiving. I know – it’s not as fun as paddling a Class V river in Africa, but hang in there with me.
Here’s a list of the top 5 regrets of the dying that a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, writes about in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.
The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. “This was the most common regret of all.”
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 had let myself be happier.
My coaching programs are designed to help my clients live a life with no regrets. Until my mother died in 2017, I could say I had no major regrets. I really spent most of days walking my talk and making sure I prioritized authenticity and living a full life. I wasn’t perfect, but I felt pretty good about how I was showing up in life. However, after I had my daughter in 2014, I noticed that I started to feel some deep pain from when my mother abused me as a child, and I let this affect my relationship with her in her later years of life. I thought I had forgiven her, but when I had my own daughter, it seemed to have brought up a lot of that past pain again – and a hardening of my heart.
The last year of my mom’s life was one where, because of my lack of forgiveness, there was a lot of unnecessary emotional suffering between us. I fortunately had some positive moments with her just before her death, but I deeply regret not having let go of my anger sooner. When she died, I no longer had the time to work on forgiving her and loving her more fully, like I had been telling myself to keep trying to do. She was gone. And damn, did I regret not forgiving her sooner and opening my heart to her more in the last few years of her life.
If you look at #5 of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, notice how when we don’t forgive, we are actually not letting ourselves be happier. We are choosing to carry on a level of suffering that is actually under our control. I could have been so much happier in the moments I was with my mom. So much less…angry.
When I listen to the voices of my clients on the retreats I lead, it’s pretty apparent that a lot of our suffering stems from very old pain. Similar to my relationship with my mom, I hear stories of when a parent abused them and the chasm it created in the relationship. I hear about when their spouse had sex with their best friend decades ago. When a colleague stabbed them in the back and caused them to lose their job – and their house. When an ex lied to them and broke their heart. This list can go on and on. Of course, it makes sense that our suffering stems from something that happened in the past – but what we forget is that we don’t have to keep reliving that event over and over the present.
This type of ruminating really takes hold when we don’t forgive. When we bear the burden of resentment in our hearts, we feel it physically, emotionally and psychically, and when we feel it, the painful memories come back, and we relive the painful moments over and over again. It’s so crazy that we do that to ourselves! But it makes sense: our brains are trying to protect us from the same trauma happening, and keeping us hyper vigilant. “Hey, Ana, don’t forget when that happened! It royally sucked. Don’t ever let it happen again.”
So we don’t forgive.
But the thing we tend to forget is that forgiveness is not the same as not forgetting. It’s actually not necessarily detrimental to be able to remember painful events – after all, it is good to learn from them past and avoid entering into similar situations if it won’t serve us. But by not forgiving we are perpetuating the suffering of that event because we relive it every time (vs recalling the memory without being loaded with the resentment of not forgiving).
I know that right now, my bucketlist includes a list of people I need to forgive, and I’m getting on that pronto. And I mean TRULY forgive, no matter how scary it feels to do so (and trust me, it does feel scary – I’m working on it by doing this tonglen meditation with these folks in mind). But you know what? I’m really happy I’m getting on this, because I already feel more free in my heart, and I know I won’t die regretting that I didn’t let go of the emotional chain I was creating with my inability to forgive them.
So, Freedom Junkie, what I ask of you is that on that bucket list of yours, where you have a ton of amazing adventures planned, add to it that you want to open your heart and forgive. Let yourself be more happy. It’s scary – just like climbing a big peak can be – but it’s just as awesome.