The Top 5 Regrets of The Dying – Don’t Make Not Hiking One of Them!

Prior to deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail I had gone through a process of rationalizing my intention. Such a mammoth task and commitment at a time when I was in a good job and settled into my “comfortable” life was daunting.  I did have some medical issues which concerned me; insomnia mainly due to stress and lack of vitamin D (I worked in an office all day without any natural sunlight), weight gain, heightened blood pressure, and acid reflex from a poor diet. Also, the thought of just quitting my job for six months and heading into the woods, not knowing what I will do once finished, was a concern. Getting older means the opportunities for employment may be getting in short supply.

However, one incident really convinced me that I needed to hike the AT. I was travelling in a car with a company Vice President to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings. During that five hour journey (I really do not like driving more than two hours as I tend to get stir crazy), we discussed a number of topics. When I mentioned my dream of hiking the AT my boss immediately jumped on the comment and went on to tell me it was his dream also. “Was” is the correct term, he explained.  Despite a true desire to hike the AT, he could never do it now.

Several years ago, he had hiked parts around Harpers Ferry as a trial and decided that he wanted to hike the AT.  When he retired from the Army Special Forces twelve years ago, he intended to take on the hike as a retirement gift to himself. However, straight from retiring he was offered a position with our current company, and deciding to work a couple of years to get settled into civilian life, he delayed his dream. But year after year passed and he kept delaying the hike, telling himself, “next year,” or “soon as I can fit it in,” which extended to “I’ll have time within five years.” Unfortunately, however, his health was not on the same page; he developed knee issues to such an extent he recently had to have double knee replacement. He was genuinely upset as he explained to me how he regrets not hiking while he had the opportunity. It is the one true regret he has in life and something he can never get back. His doctor told him he could never take on a hike of the AT. In fact, he cannot hike with any weight on his back and so his hiking days are over.

At that point I realized how important it was that, while I had the physical capability, I would hike the AT. Because carrying that regret the rest of my life, the “what if I just…” or “I wish I had…,” was not something I wanted to go through. You only get one chance on this Earth (religious beliefs respected), and I didn’t want my final memories filled with experiences from an office cubicle!

An Australian palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, wrote a blog about the top 5 regrets of people who were dying.  The blog gained such interested that it developed into a book: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Bronnie had gained insight from her counseling those people, for whom, the final sleep was close.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

We can easily fall into the trap of feeling happiness is provided through conforming to what others feel we should be, or what society expects us to be; married, employed, a home and 2.5 children. This conformation of fitting into the model of a “happy life” can be suffocating and, if it is not what you truly desire, harmful. Of course, there will always be those people for whom the expectation is rewarding, but for me it wasn’t. I didn’t want to do things people expected of me, I wanted to commit and do something true to myself. I know there were people who, upon hearing my plan to hike the AT, were dismissive that I was crazy.  In fact, one person was downright offensive in his abhorrence that I did not see work as the most important part of my life. Those that read my blog post on How To Deal With Those Who Don’t Support Your Thru-Hike may recall me talking about that individual. If in your heart you truly desire to hike the AT, then make a decision for yourself. If someone stops you from following your dreams through cohesion, bullying, guilt or any other negative trait, then you will probably have negative feelings for that person later in your life. Don’t leave room for blame unless you blame only yourself.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Bronnie writes about those who wished they hadn’t worked so hard; “this came from every male patient that I nursed.” Falling into the trap that work-is-life is dangerous. I suppose being European I have the insight into a different cultural acceptance of work and social life. Since moving to the USA, I continually see that working beyond a 40-hour week is an accepted, and in some cases expected, norm. The statement “you’re a salary employee so I expect you to work as much as needed” is something I have heard quite a lot. But what we must remember is that work is a means to gain the funds to enjoy life. A life without living is not a life! Of course, there are those people who work in a field that truly makes them happy, but the majority of us, while we enjoy some level of work, the stress and time commitment involved can be stifling. It is important to maintain a balanced life and also having a life where work isn’t the most interesting thing you can talk about in your retirement years. Imagine meeting people later in life and telling them the amazing adventure you had working in an office.  Wouldn’t it be better to say “I hiked the Appalachian Trail for six months?” I believe you’ll likely get asked to continue with the tales of your AT adventure and experiences.

“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

Bronnie reported that “many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.” This openness of feelings was something I experienced daily on the AT: people would just say how they truly feel. Tired, ready to quit, annoyed, frustrated, excited, happy, in awe.  These are all part of life, but often we don’t tell people. I saw so many hikers just being themselves while on the trail, and I found I could talk to other hikers about my feelings without the feeling that I was being judged. The trail levels us all, we hiked with a lawyer, military guys, students, graduates, a pilot, and a counselor, just to name a few; but on the trail we were all the same. Dirty, smelly, unkempt and tired, no one was above another.  The lack of society-expected structure allowed us to form bonds based on each person’s character, not their rank in society. On a basic level such as that, you are more capable of expressing yourself without fear of judgment.

“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

“Everyone misses their friends when they are dying,” Bronnie writes. It is fair to say that I am closer to more people I met briefly on the trail than the majority of people I knew prior to the adventure. The trail creates a bond which very few people experience and very few situations in life can provide. I retired from the military and of course, through military life, retain some close and important friends, but I have a lot more trail friends I consider just as close. This joint experience of the trials and tribulations of hiking a long-trail provide a bond that is difficult to replicate in the “real” world. Of course, we live in an age where the advent of social media makes it easier to connect, but I still look forward to opportunities to see my trail family as much as seeing any other people in my life. Those people that I shared my trail experience with will always be close because they truly understand what it was like.

“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Never forget that happiness is a choice. You can change things to make yourself happy and accepting anything less is not being true to yourself. If you are not happy in a situation then change it. Making the choice to hike the AT was one of the best of my life, I regret nothing! I have gained happiness in my life that was missing for so many reasons. I see no need to strive for the biggest house, the nicest car, designer label clothes, or the latest phone. In fact, post trail I have been downsizing, heading to a “tiny house” and knowing that I can be happy with few material goods. Happiness is the experience in life not the collection of material goods.

So it’s up to you to make the decision. What do you desire, what will make you happy and what will you regret in the future if you don’t take the chance of taking it now? For me, it was hiking the AT with my son; now the most amazing experience of my life. I will never regret doing it and I would have always regretted not doing it. When it comes time to die, I am content that it is the one regret I will never have and, in fact, the opposite – it will have meant my life had a purpose. So for those that look at the reasons why you cannot do something, perhaps you are looking at it the wrong way. Consider why you must.

Feature drawing kindly completed by my friend: Kate Anderson

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Comments 2

  • Stephen Milano : May 10th

    share the sentiment about the “bucket list” and your bio re “late start” – fired myself at 50 when the economic crash happened – traveled, drove RV around, climb some Co 14ers, sky dive, flew plane etc etc – but still dream of hiking the AT ( and running marathon) …been following the blogs of this years class – now 57 and overweight (again) and torn about the bucket list items – maybe hiking the AT will get me in shape for that marathon — on a personal note – this post came at a point when I needed it – serendipity 🙂 take care


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