Max had been living with his son and daughter-in-law *Rachel for five years before he was diagnosed with colon cancer. After hearing the news, he requested palliative care and said he’d like to live out his final days at home instead of in a hospital. Rachel arranged for in-home care.
Max had always enjoying joking around, but if Rachel was brutally honest, his humour had strained their relationship over the years. He’d made jokes about her being pregnant when she had put on a bit of weight, about the food she served, or about her kids being strange if they spent an hour reading. There was always a level of criticism mixed in with his humour.
But age was mellowing him and Max was a favourite with the carers. They might say: “Hi Max, how do you feel today?” and he’d lift his shaky, Parkinson’s-affected hands and quip: “I feel with my hands.” Or after getting him comfortable for the day, they might say, “We have to go now,” and he’d reply, “I’ll race you,” then roll his eyes into the back of his head and let his mouth sag open. Seconds later, he’d say from the side of his mouth: “Oh, you mean you’re going home?”
One day, Rachel was talking to her father-in-law when she realised their relationship had undergone a pretty big transformation. He asked if she could do an online search for a hymn he was trying to recall. He’d heard it at a funeral when he was 19 and could only call to mind a few lines of lyric, which he whisper-sang before humming the tune: “Beyond the sunset, Oh blissful morning….” It was a special moment listening to him sing.
But she felt the final pieces of her resentment slip away in the few week before he died. Soon, Max would be requiring 24-hour nursing care, but for now, a nurse and carer still came and went a couple of times a day. He beckoned her over: “At night, I cry over the regrets in my life. I could have been a nicer person.”
Australian author and former palliative care worker Bronnie Ware writes about the phenomenal clarity that people experience towards the end of their lives in her memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She says there are certain regrets that people have in common, regrets about relationships being core to several of them:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Most of Ware’s clients had not honoured even half of their dreams. Other priorities, not being confident enough to make these things happen, or ill health got in their way. “Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” No one ever expressed satisfaction over their years on the career treadmill, says Ware, yet this was what many had put much of their life’s energy into. Instead, they spoke of missing time with partners, children and friends.
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” People regretted remaining silent instead of bringing up a sticky topic with their partner. They didn’t realise the cost of this to the relationship but thought it would keep the peace. Instead, they settled for a mediocre existence, which led to resentment.
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Ware’s clients talked about how they had let friendships slip away when their lives got busy or when they followed different paths to their friends. “Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Many of Ware’s clients came to the realisation that happiness is a choice. “The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content.”
End of life offers opportunities that are less tangible at other times in life. With the luxury of years, our perspective and insight changes. We’re no longer consumed with things we once were. We know what lasts in life, what counts in life and what remains after everything is said and done. While we may not be able to change the course of the life we’ve already lived, there’s greater urgency about repairing relationships, spending time together and reliving the stories of our shared experience. This is ageing’s greatest gift.