Stop Waiting Until it’s Too Late

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top regrets of the dying

There was something I wanted to tell someone and I was just waiting for the right time. But then he died before I saw him again.

Message: Undelivered. Permanently. Nice work, Matt. Way to prioritize all the things.

The funeral was beautiful. As beautiful as a funeral can be, anyway.

It’s been a few years since my last funeral, I’m fortunate to report, but a couple of things stood out to me beyond the pain, grief and sadness everyone was feeling to varying degrees, and the brutal suffering of a couple of people on my personal I Love These People the Most list.

Life lessons, if you will. Obvious ones.

But despite their obviousness—and critical importance—almost everyone loses sight of, or forgets, them every day.

2 Lessons About Life & Relationships We Learn at Funerals

There are more than just two. These are simply what stood out for me while people cried in my arms or while listening while long-time friends of the departed eulogized him eloquently and tearfully.

If you think about life and death hard enough—and most of us won’t because the idea of dying or losing our loved ones makes us too uncomfortable (I’m not judging—I bury my head in the sand, too)—life kind of boils down to a contest to see who can die while feeling the most internal peace.

The contest “winners” are everyone who faces their impending death with total peace, having lived a regret-free life where they did all they could, gave all they could, and that their family and friends will remember them fondly because the way that they lived made them a great family member or great friend.

Like, I totally need to get my shit together. But I’m really good at waiting until it’s too late.

It’s probably not accurate to categorize these things as lessons. They’re observations that will surprise approximately zero people, but there’s a good chance you’re not remembering them during everyday life.

We’ll call these observations “sub-lessons” that live under the umbrella of the primary lesson no one ever remembers: Everyone Dies, and We Usually Don’t Know When.

1. We Treat the Dead, Terminally Ill, and Grieving Differently

I’m sure the terminally sick, handicapped, and people grieving the deaths of those closest to them resent being pitied and treated like fragile victims once the initial shock wears off.

But that doesn’t stop us. We typically treat people MUCH differently when we learn they’re dying, that they might die, or that someone very close to them just passed.

I’m not the kind of person who verbally berates strangers (not counting all of the things I mutter toward shitty drivers that would probably make Jesus and my grandma really sad), but sometimes I see people get pissed and say mean stuff to the restaurant wait staff, or hear them dress down some customer-service rep on the phone who’s probably making less than $10 per hour to field complaint calls from strangers all day, every day.

Maybe some of the people getting their ears chewed off deserve it. Probably a few. I just think if they had a sign hanging around their neck announcing that their mom died a few days ago, or that they had a terminal illness that would kill them in the next few weeks, that most people would treat them with a certain amount of kindness and patience.

Which begs the question: If our spouses/romantic partners, our children, siblings, friends, co-workers, etc. are all going to die, and that will be among the worst things that ever happen to us, changing our behavior toward them and enhancing our feelings about them… then why are we sometimes or currently being stupid assholes to them about things that don’t really matter?

Taking it a step further—so many men report the same experience I did at the end of my marriage—that we didn’t see it coming, or that we didn’t know that certain things were causing her so much pain.

We say that if we HAD known, we’d have made better choices.

But if something is legitimately the most important thing in your life, why would you EVER show enough neglect to jeopardize it? How could that even be possible?

But we do. So many of us do. For the same reasons we forget that we, and everyone we know and love, are going to die.

2. It’s Difficult to Leave Something Behind, But We Should Make it Count When We Do

The man who died was a musician. A talented one. Even better than I’d realized when he was still alive and I could have shared my admiration and appreciation.

His nephew, a doctor and pastor, was the primary officiant at the funeral, and he talked about two things in particular that affected me.

The first was his encouragement to the rest of us to live our best lives (which, HINT: is the entire point of this article as well), in which he shared author Bronnie Ware’s five biggest regrets expressed by the terminally ill from her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Because those are good reminders of things most of us are probably getting wrong to some degree.

And the second thing that stood out to me during the pastor’s eulogy was his observation of how rare it is for most people to leave something behind for people to remember them by after our deaths.

Painters leave paintings.

Actors leave films.

Builders leave buildings.

Authors leave books.

Parents leave children.

Musicians leave music.

Some career and life paths don’t lend themselves to so easily leave something tangible behind the way artists, construction crews, and parents are able to.

What a gift, I thought. What a gift to be able to write things down that occasionally matter to people. Maybe I shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to finish a book.

What a gift, I thought. What a gift to be able to adjust our behavior toward some people who really matter to us, even if it takes a terrible loss to trigger it and help us refocus.

Maybe we shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to actually behave with the love we say we feel for those who matter most.

Because if we’re too busy putting our most critical relationships on hold in favor of stuff that won’t mean a damn thing to us during their funerals, then I think it’s fair to say we’re probably doing it wrong.

But we don’t have to keep doing so. While there’s breath in us, we can always make a better choice, no matter what life throws our way.

What a gift.

11 thoughts on “Stop Waiting Until it’s Too Late”

  1. When I was 20, I thought I was immortal.

    When I was 40, I thought I had all the time in the world

    I’m 60, and in spite of the fact that I’m very fit and very lucky, I hear very loudly the ticking of the clock that measures our days. On bad days I think I can feel the icy breath of Death from behind.

    I may be kidding myself, but – well, let’s say it this way. Far more than dying or being dead, I fear the possibility that I, or my wife, might die with me feeling that I did not really connect, did not do my best and give everything I could, to give and build love and connectedness. That is so bitter, it’s almost paralyzing. I try to keep it from paralyzing me, though, because that would just keep me from moving toward what I want.

    By the way, I think #5 above is so important. In my own life, so much (maybe all) of the unhappiness I feel comes from the meanings I have attached to things. It really is possible to change that, and that can make all the difference in how we treat those we love and ourselves.

  2. I wish I could repost this one trillion times. Thank you so much for sharing your personal account of the situation, and most importantly, the message behind it all.

  3. Yep, Matt. Sorry about your friend.

    Life is short. There’s no time to delay. Don’t take that as advice to dash about trying to get a million things done. I eventually decided if I had five minutes to live, I’d just spend it all drinking a cup of coffee and reading old love letters. Then I realized how much of my life has been spent dashing about trying to get things done that won’t matter anyway. So today I spend a great deal of time drinking coffee, reading things that delight my spirit, and just breathing in the good stuff.

    An author who actually wrote that book once said he wrote it for his family to leave behind a legacy. The irony being that although it sold well and strangers liked it, in 20 years, no one in his family was the least bit interested. Made me laugh. 🙂

  4. Along the lines of “if someone had a sign hanging around their neck”… I remember a particular time I needed to stop at a drugstore 11.5 years ago. As she was finishing ringing up my purchase, the clerk gave me a big, cheerful smile and offered an enthusiastic “Have a great day!”

    Normally I respond back in kind, but that time, on that day, I’m sure I looked angry and unpleasant and unkind. I know I was gritting my teeth big time. Because I had to, to keep from bursting into tears.

    I felt bad that I didn’t respond back pleasantly.

    She had no way of knowing that for me, it wasn’t a great day. That day was the day after (what I hope will continue to remain) the worst day of my life. She was wishing me a good day and all I could think was “My baby is dead. How will I ever have a great day again? I want my baby back.”

    That was such a powerful lesson to me. It’s been more than a decade since those devastating days, and even to this day when I encounter someone who seems to be unexpectedly unpleasant, I think “They could have lost a baby yesterday too. Or their dog. Or are dealing with some other painful awful thing that I have no clue about.”

    We all have things happening in our lives under the surface that people passing all around us have no clue about.

  5. I’m so sorry for the loss of your loved one, Matt. Thank you for the gift of this inspirational article. It’s beautifully said.

  6. Another good reminder to live life with good intentions. It saddens me that so many people, young and old, live as though they’re immortal. I understand the importance of carpe diem or sowing one’s wild oats, so to speak. But at some point, you realize you’re not Peter Pan and the world isn’t Neverland. We have more power over our lives than we realize sometimes. We can make positive changes, even if they’re small at first.

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Matt Fray

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