For most people, it’s not until they reach the end of their lives that they start to come to terms with how they’ve lived or perhaps how they haven’t. Patients in hospice are being forced to face one of the hardest parts of living—dying. As a hospice volunteer, we bear witness to not only a patients’ last days and hours but we also end up bearing witness to our own feelings of grief and regrets. It takes courage to live but it takes just as much courage to die. Coming to terms with acceptance of our lives and surrendering to it, is for the living as much as it is for the dying—the hospice patient and the hospice volunteer.
When patients are faced with their own mortality, it’s common to go through stages of revisiting what they have and haven’t done in their lives and notice any regrets they may be carrying. This is not for the fainthearted. It takes courage to come face to face with the decisions that were made. As a hospice volunteer, we may not be facing our own mortality as imminently, but it’s a gift to witness and recognize that it’s never too late to live as if we had one year left.
Many studies and reports on patients in hospice note that the top 5 most common regrets of patients are wishing:
- their lives were lived more for themselves and not what others expected of them;
- they hadn’t worked so hard;
- they had the courage to express their feelings;
- they had stayed in touch with their friends;
- they had let themselves be happier.
These are not easy realizations to make and for some people, they’re even harder to face. To take that hard look takes courage as you surrender to your life experiences and choices and accept them. So often, we go through our lives promising a bunch of “next times” and “one days” but we’ll never know when there are no more chances left. As hospice patients face the end of their lives, they come up against the fact that their “next time” and “one day” is now and today.
As a hospice volunteer, this can be an opportunity to view our own life plans and experiences and make any necessary changes so we aren’t faced with a a lifetime of regrets and can enjoy our lives by making conscious decisions on recognizing the importance of what matters most to us.
Here are some suggestions for how we can change our attention and focus before they become regrets.
- It’s never too late to start having more courage to live your life for yourself rather than others’ expectations. Being true to yourself and honoring your own values, ethics, strengths, and even weaknesses actually makes you a stronger person for those around you and opens the availability to live your life to the fullest of your gifts and capabilities instead of what’s expected of you. People tend to have the most regrets with this realization.
- Making a conscious choice to not work so hard is a big one. Finding the balance between job, self, and family is a common struggle. Most people put their focus on work, however, it’s important to remember that there will always be a deadline, families grow up, and friends can drift. At the end of life, a scrapbook filled with photos of celebrations and family events is a lot happier and fulfilling to look back on than a day planner filled with meeting reminders.
- Expressing how you feel about someone can be difficult for some people. Sometimes there’s a very real fear of unrequitedness or many make the assumption that someone already knows how they feel about them so they don’t have to articulate it (“I already show them, why do I have to tell them?”). People don’t know and unless something is said, sometimes actions can be misconstrued. This recognition is not just about telling someone you love them or even like them. It’s about speaking up when you’ve been hurt. There is no shame is expressing how and what we feel.
- As we get older, we tend to look back and find people we knew in our youth. Facebook is great for that and rekindling friendships. We keep ourselves so busy with to-do lists and commitments we often let our family and friendships fall to the side, thinking that you can meet for lunch or dinner next week. Living our lives on the assumption that there is always time; there is always the future. The trick is, the future gets here before we know it. How often, even now, do you look back and wonder where has the time gone? Don’t wait to keep friendships and companionships current and fresh.
- Oftentimes people think that they’re happy with their lives but it’s really contentment that they’re feeling. It’s so easy to get caught up in the comfort of schedules and the lives we built for ourselves we misconstrue that contentment for happiness. At the end of people’s lives, there is a surprising number of them who wish they laughed more and enjoyed their lives more. It can be hard when you’re going through things and don’t have the ability of perspective but it’s not impossible.
The end of life can teach us a lot about living. As a hospice volunteer, it’s an incredible opportunity to learn and observe and help hospice patients in their transitions find peace by offering companionship and listening to their final thoughts. Being present for them as a listener and providing the patient and family emotional and spiritual support, in the end, is also being there for yourself. There are reminders and take aways for the hospice volunteer that run deep and adversely affect our lives.
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