4 Lessons on Living I Learned from Dying Heroes

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As a former hospice social worker, I had the privilege of working with our nation’s heroes — many of whom served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. These brave men lived through wartime and beyond, but terminal illness was what brought them to the veteran inpatient hospice unit where I worked. It was truly a gift to experience with these brave men the final days and weeks of their lives.

I sat at the bedsides of veterans as they humbly prepared themselves for the imminence of death, contemplating how they had lived their lives. Most of these men expressed disappointment, and some even shed tears while looking back over their lives. Not a single veteran expressed regret for having served his country; however, many had deep regrets over the lives they lived and the missed opportunities they wish they had seized, but didn’t. Each veteran had a different life story, but their stories held common threads and strikingly similar regrets, not just because they were veterans but because they were human.

These missed opportunities expressed by veterans at the end of life can teach us how to start living a better life right now while we have the chance.

By far, the biggest regret was having not expressed more love to the people that mattered.

They wish they had been better fathers, husbands, and sons. They wish they had said “I love you” more often. Many expressed that they had taken their families for granted and wished they would have been more kind, caring, and understanding to the ones they loved most. Some veterans were estranged from their families for years and died without getting the chance to make amends.

We all have at least one important relationship that, if we allowed ourselves to be more caring and understanding, could be strengthened and transformed. When you freely share your feelings and your love with your family, they have no doubt as to their importance to you. A hug, loving gesture, or telling a loved one you care can make all the difference in the world to them.

They regretted spending so much time working.

They wish they had not worked so hard all of their lives, so they could have been around to experience important times in the lives of their children. They regretted not being present for their wives when they were needed. Many experienced a deep sadness for the family time they lost that they can never get back.

Certainly work is important. We all have to earn a living, but we can also be mindful of other areas of our life that are just as important. Having a good work-life balance will not only benefit our lives, but also the ones who love and depend on us the most.

They regretted not taking more risks.

They wish they had not played it so safe and had taken more chances along the way. Many acknowledged that the fear of failing kept them from stepping out and trying anything new. As a result, many regretted knowing they could have lived more purposeful, fulfilling lives had they taken a few risks.

Playing it safe will keep us living a mediocre, ordinary life. Finding ways to move beyond our familiar comfort zone every day will stretch us, helping us to move forward. Although success is never guaranteed, failure is certain if you don’t try. If you never take a chance, you can never fill the longings of your heart.

They regretted taking life so seriously.

They wish they had allowed themselves to be happier, have more fun, and enjoy life more. Many shared that they had spent their time being angry over things that were unimportant, worrying about things beyond their control, and taking life too seriously.

Life is way too short to spend it filled with worry and resentment. We get only one chance to make this the best life we possibly can. Having fun and not taking it too seriously is key to living a healthy, happy life.

The most important lessons about living, I learned from dying heroes — not because they were heroes, but because they were human.

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This article originally appeared on Good Men Project.

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