Je ne regrette rien – reflections on mortality

A random click this weekend directed me towards this article about unfulfilled wishes of the dying.  It immediately sparked off a whole train of thought and reflection about regret.

Something I discovered early on about cancer is that it caused me to reflect on my mortality. Reflect being a euphemism for lying sleepless, with my mind racing into the most extreme scenarios. Being confronted head on with our mortality is really scary and the thoughts can be dark. That does not necessarily mean it is a bad thing though to reflect, and to be reminded of our transience.

I can clearly remember when I was first diagnosed, in that difficult space when you know you have cancer, but not any of the fine details. Before those critical pathology results such as the strain and aggressiveness of the cancer, the dimensions and characteristics of tumours, lymph node involvement, whether or not the cancer appears to have metastised…….. In other words, the vital clues about our stage and prognosis and what on earth the future might or might not hold.

I will never forget those thought paths. My mind would propel me into uncharted waters, places I realised that I had never ventured, and places that I had avoided visiting. I know I am not the only one who has spent time funeral planning in those early, frightening days.

When I read this article about regrets and unfulfilled wishes of the dying, it resonated with my own reflections when I was first diagnosed. I spent many night-time hour or so, unable to sleep, playing through the many possible different scenarios. I clearly remember talking with family at that time, alluding to the possibility of a stage 4 diagnosis. I remember trying to convey my belief that if my prognosis was indeed short, I wanted my loved ones to know that I had no regrets. This was understandably upsetting for family as they felt that it meant that I was “giving up” and would just sit back and let cancer take me away.

But that was not what I was trying to express. What I was trying to say was that, I truly and honestly say that I can look back over my past years with enormous gratitude for what the life I have lived. Don’t get me wrong, I have a HEAP of things on my wish list to do and see, in the decreasing amount of time available to us all, and as long as I am fit and able I intend to work my way through my wish list. But even if things changed tomorrow, and I had a recurrence, there is not really anything on that list that I would feel compelled to rush out and tick off.

I don’t intend for this to sound morbid, as it must have done to my family at diagnosis time. Not at all – it is a celebration and recognition that I have no significant regrets or unfulfilled wishes. And that’s not the same as having an empty set of plans and dreams.

It does not of course mean that I would not do or say some things differently if I had the chance again. Of course I have the benefit of maturity, experience, hindsight and a heck of a lot of learning the hard way to make me wise after the event. Facing my mortality, however, prompted and nudged me to share these thoughts with my nearest and dearest, so that they know that I can recognise that I have not always done what I would believe now would be best, and that I would trust that I would do things differently with the benefit of this experience. This has been very healing and brought resolution to matters which I probably would not otherwise have addressed. I have even found that incidents or actions which played large in my mind and conscience were not always as troubling to others as I believed they would be.

Reading the list of unfulfilled wishes has been another prompt, and a reminder to take opportunities when they appear – fulfilment, peace of mind and resolution are all the sweeter if we have longer to cherish them.

11 thoughts on “Je ne regrette rien – reflections on mortality

  1. Thank you for this. I love your writing. I don’t see this as morbid at all. Quite the opposite — I see it was full of joy.


    • Thank you so much for your comment and lovely words. I really thought twice about posting this one……… It is hard to judge. I am so glad you saw it how I intended it 🙂

  2. Not morbid but very true. I didn’t want anything special, no round-the-World trip or swims with dolphins, just the happy, simple life we already had.

    • Oh yes, what you say is so true. Those simple, yet often intangible things. Thanks and warm wishes P

  3. Yes me too Philippa… didn’t see this as morbid either. A very accurate reflection of what looking at your mortality forces you to do… if you want to of course. For me, thinking about death and dying has been very important, I even went on a retreat about it. I enjoyed reading this, thank you.

    • Thanks for your helpful comment, Sarah. It reassures me that this is a useful and healthy process. Thanks, P

  4. No – it was not ‘morbid’ in my mind.

    I have had to do the same in my own life and when I realized that I had regrets – I moved towards making sure that they would not define who I was.

    *something someone said ‘when’…*

    “Expect the best and prepare for the worst”

    I HATED hearing that when I was struggling to get better but it did get into my head enough that I was actually doing it.

    I still am but with a more positive outlook.

    Be well,

    • Thanks so much for your comment, it is good to hear your experience and reflection. How helpful to face those regrets and put them in a manageable place. Yes, I have also heard that expression though interestingly, not in connection with cancer yet now you mention it, it seems obvious!

      Sending warm wishes to you too for your health and happiness. P 🙂

  5. Philippa,
    This is a very honest and heart felt post that I don’t find morbid either. I faced my mortality seriously for the first time after my cancer diagnosis too. And sleepness nights, I still have them. Actually, a short time ago I attended my first funeral since diagnosis and found myself sitting there wondering about mine. Now is that morbid? I wondered who would show up and what would be said. Pretty weird, but that’s where my mind was at. Cancer changes how you look at things and life in general. It just does. So I appreciate this post and your writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  6. I immensely enjoyed this post, too, Philippa. Like so many other readers, I did not take this as morbid at all. Just realistic. I remember those sleepless nights and those post-diagnosis talks with loved ones who got upset when I mentioned the word “hospice.” I could only talk with certain people about my deepest distressing thoughts, and that itself was isolating. Like you, I have no regrets, and if I am diagnosed as terminal tomorrow, I will face the future as I always have…full steam ahead. Like all those whose past has been riddled with cancer, I’ve learned to adapt to change. It’s part of life. Thanks so much.

  7. Thanks N and J for your comments. Do you know, I have really come to learn that it is indeed actually quite a healthy thing. I saw somewhere (perhaps a tweet) that we avoid everything to do with death, and particularly don’t talk about it in many of our cultures. When we hear those life-changing “you have cancer” words, everything shifts and our relationship with our own mortality becomes real and there are positive things in that. This will really help me be more balanced about the way I think about my mortality. After all, the only certainty we have in this life is death!

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