“Thank you for coming. You are the first person to sit and speak with me all day,” he said.
Abe, an unaffiliated Jewish 68-year-old man, was admitted to the hospital for severe abdominal pain whose source was still undetermined (though it seemed very probable that it was cancer), in addition to having other coexisting medical issues.
And so began Abe’s soliloquy:
“There is a lot of time to think here. One thinks about life, about death. About the purpose to existence. About the past, the present and the future. Lying here now, all I keep thinking about is what I regret from my life. My entire life I worked. I didn’t particularly enjoy my job. It was a job. It never brought any significant meaning to my life but I had to do it to support my family. Our expenses were so high and my wife never worked, which was fine by me. My job was demanding. I needed to work long hours, even on weekends. I barely had time to spend with my family. No time for friends. I never took a vacation in all those years. But I was proud of my dedication to my work. I just kept looking forward to retirement when I would be able to enjoy all the hard-earned money that I worked so hard to make! And then I finally retired, but that is when my health issues began. Not only do I have to deal with my own issues, but I have been helping my wife deal with some issues as well.
“And now, what do I have to show for it? A beautiful house that I cannot enjoy. A spacious backyard that I am never home to sit in. I have one son who does not speak to me. Another one who is always too busy for me. A wife who has both medical and emotional conditions. And then there is me.”
Abe burst out into a sob for several seconds. He continued once he regained his composure.
“I feel like my life has passed me by,” he said. “I regret that I couldn’t enjoy my life more when I was able to. And now, I just want to be able to sit in my backyard. I don’t need to travel. I don’t need to go far. I just beg God for some quiet. Quiet and calm, to sit in my backyard, look around at nature and enjoy what I do have. That’s all I want right now. That’s all I want.”
Though terribly sad, these words are not unusual for me to hear. In fact, they are way too common.
As a hospital chaplain, I have had the unique privilege of spending quality time with so many people with various illnesses of all degrees. Much of my time, however, is spent with people in their final weeks, days and moments of their lives. As people often tend to reflect on their lives with me, many of their life regrets come to the surface. Countless tears are shed as people realize what they should have done, but realize now that it is often too late...
Among the most common “regrets” I hear are: (not listed in any particular order)
- 1. I worked too hard in my job or I worked too hard in a job I always hated.
- 2. I didn’t take enough risks in my life and should have tried new things.
- 3. I wish I was able to find my purpose in life earlier and spend more time in pursuit of it.
- 4. I wish I had taken better care of myself—physically and spiritually—watching my health, exercising, taking vacations, spending quality time with family, friends, teachers, mentors and role models who are supportive.
- 5. I took too many things for granted; I didn’t appreciate my health, my family and the beauty of nature.
- 6. I focused on many negatives in my life, not allowing myself to be happy with what I do have.
- 7. I didn’t spend enough time connecting with God in the way I should have.
- 8. I was not a good parent; I was too critical, too strict..
- 9. The family disagreement we had was silly...I don’t even remember why we are not speaking. We should have resolved this sooner; arguing about it was not worth it.
- 10. I should have gone back to school to get that degree; I should have pursued another career.
Life is a balance between our body, our soul, our family and friends, our career and our community. At various points in our lives certain things consume more time than others. However, one does not want to look back at life and have regrets. Knowing that one’s precious time was utilized in an intentional way is comforting, especially at the end of life.
May we all be fortunate to reflect on our lives and make changes while we are healthy so that when the end comes near we can honestly say that we do not have many regrets.
By Debby Pfeiffer
Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, New Jersey. She resides in Bergenfield, New Jersey, with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]