I don't think I appreciated my life until I almost lost it. I'm sure I didn't. Everything was good on the surface. I was living overseas with my daughter. There was food on the table and a roof over our heads, but it felt as if I was drifting, waiting for my real life to start. At 37, I had an ectopic pregnancy which nearly killed me.
Ten years ago, that was the case. It should have started my second chance. The force to get me going. I'm afraid it wasn't. I was alive, but not really living. I was stuck in all the things I hadn't done over the years, rather than enjoying them. My regrets grew as the days went by.
The marriage, the family, and my list of good things weren't completely accurate. There was a lot of good in my life, but there were other things going on as well. I was heading towards 40 without a job and living in a place that didn't feel like home. I was not happy.
We drift through life planning for tomorrow but not living for today. Why do we stay in jobs that make us sad, or in relationships that no longer make us happy? Why do we allow our doubts to stop us from trying new things?
I wanted to live differently, so I wanted to find out the answers to these questions. I didn't want to be stuck again. I wanted to figure out how we could learn to regret less. We moved back to the UK and I decided to face it head on. I decided to listen to other people facing their own mortality and not look to myself for answers. People who were recovering from a near-death experience like me were not really people who were living with a terminal or life-limiting illness. People who wanted to talk about the choices they had made and the things they wanted the rest of us to know before it was too late.
I got in touch with support groups and online forums when I put up notices in libraries and community centers. The youngest was 28, and the oldest was 94, and they did from all over the world. When talking was too hard for them, we met in person, connected over the phone, and via email.
Why do we drift through life, not living for today?
The book turned into a mission for answers. A collection of 21 stories of regret from around the world, to help those of us who find ourselves at a similar crossroads in life. There are stories about love, family, and secrets. I listened to what everyone had to say, then listened to myself, and finally moved on.
Alan spent decades building a successful career, chasing promotion after promotion. It took him less than six months to realize that he had wasted most of his life and wished he had taken a different path.
When I spoke to Sid, he was 73 years old and living with a lung disease. He told me that in his early 20s, he had ended a relationship with a woman whom he regarded as the love of his life. He spent the next 50 years regretting his decision to leave.
Anthea was raised to think she wasn't enough. She had to diet and use a tanning bed. Her life was cut short because of sunbeds that lead to terminal melanoma in her mid-40s.
A year after being diagnosed with bowel cancer at 31, she died, leaving behind two young children and a loving husband.
Alan, Sid, and Anthea all told me that we shouldn't worry about things we can't control, or that we should always follow our heart. We probably took for granted all the things we had, even though we had all those years ago. She wanted to grow old with her partner and watch her kids grow up. When she realized she was running out of time, it became clear that she would treasure the little moments in life. When the reality of her situation became obvious, there was no bucket list to tick off or grand plans left to do. She just wanted to be there to see her kids enjoy Christmas, to help celebrate their birthdays, and to go to the beach and watch them play.
The everyday moments were what Katie wanted us to appreciate. She thought they were the things that we would remember and hold the closest to. When we look back, what we treasure the most is not the grand holidays, the promotions, or the adventures that I had always wanted. It's those little moments that make our lives so big.
My life is not perfect. There are still hard moments. I still worry that I'm going to fail or not be good enough because of the tricky decisions that have to be made. My regrets don't consume me anymore. They don't fill all my quiet moments because I can see them for what they are, decisions made for the right reasons at the time, and choices taken to try to rewrite history.
It feels less overwhelming when you can see the connections between your actions and the reasons for them. They feel more like a normal human reaction and less like a sign that you have failed. I listen to my gut. I no longer have to think about a long list of second-guesses. Thanks to listening to the advice of the people I spoke to, I took control of my life and started to make changes that were long overdue.
It’s the little moments we dismiss so easily that make life so big
I was estranged from my mother for a long time, but I was able to reestablish contact before it was too late. I started sending my work out instead of worrying about it being rejected. After decades of yo-yo dieting, I started practicing moderation and slowly lost more than 50lb.
The decision to end my relationship was the biggest change I made. After 18 years of marriage, it was time to call it quits. We tried to make it work, but it just didn't work anymore and neither of us was happy. After years of hesitation, we separated and became friends who co-parent. We are a family in two different ways. On what would have been our wedding anniversary, we have a day out to enjoy and celebrate all the positive things we have in common.
I finally clicked out of screensaver-mode when I heard people talk about their own regrets. It made me realize that we need to change the things that no longer make us happy, and try to fully appreciate all the things that do. If we just listen to our regrets, they can act as a reminder of all the things we want to do, and all the things we need to change.
Hearing all the amazing stories has helped me understand. I hope that reading about them will help other people to see it.
The book, Regrets of the dying: Stories and Wisdom that remind us how to live, is available in hardback at 16.99. You can buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com.