Palliative caregiver Bronnie Ware spent many years taking care of people from 30 to 80 years old who were all in their final moments of life. During that time, she had countless conversations reflecting on the biggest regrets of their lives — and what they would change, if they could change anything.
The one truth we all have in common is that we will die, yet we tend to avoid the conversation. But discussing death can teach us so many lessons about life. That’s why Bronnie’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying shot to international attention. She wants people to live more fully, in this moment, because now is all we have.
I had the honor of interviewing Bronnie, I hope you’ll find this as fascinating and thought-provoking as I did. Enjoy!
Christina Pascucci: Why is death such a taboo topic? What’s the advantage of talking about it, and what should we be contemplating?
Bronnie Ware: We have created a society of denial. We subdue vulnerability and pretend everything is OK when everyone is suffering from the unrealistic expectation of perfection. We deny the state of our planet, the whole state of everything! So, of course we deny death, as it is the scariest thought of all. But it doesn’t have to be. Death is a guarantee and when you face that honestly you realize the sacredness of your time and find the courage to make loving, positive changes to your heart. Time is an undervalued but sacred resource. It cannot be replaced.
You say after talking to countless patients on their death beds, the greatest regret of the dying is they wish they lived a life true to themselves, rather than what others expected of them. Can you talk more about this, and how do we do this?
This subject came up time and again. People realized they had not brought enough consciousness and presence into the choices they made.
Since your life is created by the decisions you make, this can result in dreams remaining unfulfilled and deep regret about not choosing differently.
We are all individuals with unique yearnings and strengths. We are not meant to be alike but to encourage those unique strengths.
You didn’t really have experience as a caregiver when you were essentially thrown into it. Many people might think they’re not qualified or good enough, or think to themselves they’ll try later when they have more experience. What would you say to that?
Everyone has to start somewhere. We are all beginners at one time or another. But the only way to go from being a beginner to an experienced person is by having a go. It may mean you have to be vulnerable. You may even be judged as a fool for a while. But your life is your own. You either give people power through their judgments of you or you give yourself power by ignoring them and honoring your own heart and hunches.
When you trust in life’s possibilities rather than human-made rules, there really are very few limitations.
In your book, you talk extensively about kindness, forgiveness, and empathy. You also say you made excuses for people’s bad behavior. How do you show empathy and still hold people accountable for their actions?
It’s not up to any of us to hold anyone accountable. Life is the best teacher. No one knows what the other is here to learn or heal.
If you use their behavior as a teaching tool, and dissolve your ego and its need to be right or try to make someone feel guilty, you actually set yourself free. It really does not matter who is right or wrong in the end. What matters is how many choices you made in kindness. The less energy wasted on un-forgiveness, the more energy you create for joy.
You fell in love and became pregnant later in life. Many young professional women are choosing their careers over marrying and starting a family earlier on in life. How old were you when you became pregnant, and what’s your advice to those in their thirties and forties who might be feeling the societal pressure?
I fell pregnant naturally and intentionally at 44, becoming a first-time mother at 45. We conceived the second month we tried. While many women are not blessed with such ease, many stop themselves even trying once they reach a certain age.
It is true that our bodies are healthier for pregnancy at a younger age. There is no denying that. My pregnancy triggered disease immediately following. Whether that would have happened anyway, years earlier, I cannot say. But my pregnancy was healthy and my baby born very healthy. So while I don’t encourage leaving it too late, I do say to follow your heart on it. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t know the love I now do for my gorgeous little girl!
Many women, specially as mothers, give so much. However, it can be tough for them to receive. You wrote: ‘Then not only are you blocking the natural flow of things to you and creating an imbalance, you are robbing someone else of the pleasure of giving.’ Talk more about that and how we can be better receivers?
By not receiving, you close yourself to life’s blessings, which are so often to be delivered through others. It also creates unbalance and is a way of trying to control life. That is one of the worst things you can do: to shut yourself off to life’s amazing and generous creativity because you don’t have the courage to receive.
To live a full life means to allow others in, to celebrate connection, and be open to the flow of giving and receiving.
After helping so many, you went through your own depression in your 40s. You felt trapped and seriously contemplated suicide. What would have been a helpful approach from friends? How’d you get out of that rock bottom?
Loving patience and trust that I would work it out. An ear when I needed one but no lecturing when I didn’t.
I came back from rock bottom one step at a time. There is often a crucial turning point, sometimes obvious, sometimes not, where a glimpse of hope, light or strength feels different to the dark heaviness depression delivers. You hold onto that and every little blessing and insight that comes, and step-by-step it loses its power. It takes commitment, though, and a massive trust in life that such a time is a blessing in disguise. It certainly was for me. It helped me let go of so much of what was holding me back.
Many people reading this, myself included, have a loved one who is an addict. One of your patients, an alcoholic until her final moments, told you this:
“Not everyone wants to get well either Bronnie. And for a long time I didn’t. The role of the sick person gave me an identity. Obviously I was holding myself back from being a better person this way. But I was getting attention, and trying to fool myself into thinking this made me happier than being courageous and well.”
If we are struggling with addiction, or know someone who is, what’s the best way to react and foster positive change?
Gentleness, acceptance, non-judgmental kindness. Addiction is usually created from a lack of wholesome connections. That’s not a reflection of people who love someone with addiction. It’s a reflection of the addict’s ability to receive that connection.
Positive connection and shared wholesome experiences can help immensely at times.
In your twenties you quit your banking job to work at a pub abroad. Do you think taking risks like that is critical to maximizing this thing called life?
Yes, absolutely. Staying in your comfort zone is avoiding reaching your full potential. Risks and contrast are both essential to show us what we’re really capable of. And while it can be terrifying sometimes, it also brings new levels of joy beyond it.
Describe what it’s like to see someone’s spirit leave their body. What do you think happens in that moment of death?
From my experience, I believe the spirit is extracted from the body and called home. I have seen people smile with the most incredible joy just before their body died. So I have no doubt there is somewhere to go to or more likely, somewhere to return to. With the spirit taking the breath with it, the organs surrender and the body then dies, having played its role to the fullest.
Your aim is to live regret free. Do you have any regrets?
None. Not one. I’ve made a stack of mistakes and if I could go back and do it all again there are definitely things I would change. There are things I would have done differently. But I did the best I could as who I was at the time. So I look back to old parts of myself with compassion rather than judgment. This allows me to forgive my mistakes rather than give them the power of regret.
Having faced death and realized the sacredness of my time, I live a courageous life now, completely true to my heart regardless of how I am perceived by others or society. By bringing as much consciousness as possible to the decisions I make, I avoid regret because I am not living blindly. I am living with my eyes and heart wide open.
You’ve shared some of your biggest life lessons. What matters most?
Our lessons are given to us from a place of love, to bring us into our best self. Courage is always rewarded. The greatest appreciation we can show for our life is to enjoy it as fully as possible.
Bronnie Ware is best known as the author of the international bestselling memoir, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, read by over a million people in 32 languages and with a movie in the pipeline. Bronnie is also an inspirational speaker. She lives in northern New South Wales, Australia, and is a passionate advocate for simplicity and leaving space to breathe.