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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

A Top Regret of the Dying - Wishing They Hadn't Worked So Hard



Bronnie Ware is an Australian woman who spent many years working in palliative care. Her patients were those who had returned home to die. Bronnie was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. She shared what she learned about their regrets in a 2009 blog post, which was later turned into a book.


In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie shares a very sad story about John (a workaholic) who promised his wife Margaret he would retire after their kids were grown and had children of their own. Margaret had asked John to retire since they were both healthy and had the financial resources to comfortably retire. But, he always told her that they needed more money. In response, she told him they could sell their big house, which now sat almost empty with the kids grown and gone, and to buy something smaller to free up more money. “For fifteen years this battle went on between them, while he kept working” (Ware, 2012, p. 72).


“Margaret was lonely and longed to discover their partnership again without children or work. For years she devoured travel brochures, suggesting different countries and regions to visit. John shared the desire to travel and was open to wherever Margaret suggested. Unfortunately, he also enjoyed the status his work gave him. He told [Bronnie] he didn’t particularly like the work itself, just the role it gave him in society and among his friends. The chase of closing a deal had also become a bit of an addiction for him” (Ware, 2012, p. 72-73).


“One evening with Margaret in tears, begging him to finally retire, he looked at this beautiful woman and realised that not only was she desperately lonely for his company, but they were both old people now. This wonderful woman had waited so patiently for him to retire. Looking at her, she was still as beautiful as the day he had met her. But it was the first time in his life John considered they were not going to live forever” (Ware, 2012, p. 73).


John finally agreed to retire, but added that he would do so “in one more year.” There was a new deal at work he wanted to help out with. Margaret reluctantly agreed. She started making travel plans and was on the phone with travel agents regularly. With eight months to go until John officially retires, Margaret began feeling sick. After multiple doctor visits and tests, they discovered that Margaret was dying. Tragically, she died three months before John was set to retire (although he had retired by then because of her health)(Ware, 2012). 


As he reflected on his life and career choices, John shared, “There’s nothing wrong with wanting a better life. Don’t get me wrong,’ he said. ‘It’s just that the chase for more, and the need to be recognised through our achievements and belongings, can hinder us from the real things, like time with those we love, time doing things we love ourselves, and balance” (Ware, 2012, p. 74-75).


As Bronnie writes (2012, p. 74), “We spend so much time making plans for the future, often depending on things happening at a later date to assure our happiness or assuming we have all the time in the world, when all we ever have is our life today.”

What we can learn from workaholics like John is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to improve your station in life, to provide for yourself and your family. It's actually a noble pursuit! But, we must also counterbalance our desire for financial success with time spent with those who are (or should be) more important to us — our loved ones. Which of us will say on our deathbed that we wished we had worked more? None of us. Don't get so caught up working that you miss out on actually living. 


I know I'm guilty of working too much, and I'm thankful that my wife and daughter remind me to take time off. In June 2023, my wife, daughter, and I made a weekend getaway road trip to Waco, Texas, the hometown of my alma mater, Baylor University. Truth be told, it was not something I was looking forward to because I don't like to drive long distances, even if it's only 1.5 hours away from Dallas. But it had been an extraordinarily long time since I had visited Baylor (30 years since I graduated) and my wife and daughter had never been to Waco or seen the Baylor campus. 


We spent a few hours and a small fortune buying Baylor hats and t-shirts at the Baylor bookstore. We walked on Waco's historic Suspension Bridge and around the Waco Riverwalk, toured the Dr. Pepper museum, and visited Magnolia Market at the Silos (owned by Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the Fixer Upper tv show). We also discovered a wonderful coffee shop called Bitty & Beau’s Coffee (a coffee chain originally opened in Wilmington, North Carolina; it employs mostly people with intellectual and developmental disabilities).


That Waco weekend getaway turned out to be one of the most relaxing, fun, and memorable vacations we had ever taken! In fact, my wife liked Waco so much that she wants us to retire there! You know the best part? It's now part of my little family's shared memories and experiences that, I believe, will be forever imprinted in my daughter's mind. Indeed, at the conclusion of my time on this earth, one of my wishes is for my daughter to have fond memories of the time we spent together. And this Waco experience will certainly rank at the top!


“Don't get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”― Dolly Parton

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


References


Ware, B. (2012). The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Hay House, Inc.


Wright, A., & Wright, B. (2023, May-June). The Founders of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee on Building a Business Around Employees with Disabilities. https://hbr.org/2023/05/the-founders-of-bitty-and-beaus-coffee-on-building-a-business-around-employees-with-disabilities

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