The Fetishization of the Dying

Bronnie Ware was a palliative care nurse who decided to blog about her patients’ dying thoughts and regrets. The blog became a book, and now it is being advertised on the Guardian’s website as an odd list of desert island favorites: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Perhaps this is supposed to inspire the fear of death and the passion for life in us, but consider:

  1. Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life? A regret is just an act of hypocrisy, a wish to have had our cake and eaten it, too. Because we don’t really know what regrets we would have had in the counterfactual, regret is largely a fantasy of another, unknown life, more desirable because it is foreign, its pleasures more easily imagined than its pains. There’s no particularly good reason to believe we are wiser when faced with imminent death, chronic pain, and possibly clouded by drugs.
  2. Indeed, you rarely hear “In Morphine, Veritas.” If they died with a palliative care nurse like Ware, these patients were likely in pain, on pain killers, and not thinking particularly clearly. Chronic pain leads to depression. Narcotics like codeine have side effects that include mood swings and extremes of euphoria and sadness. While depressed people tend to be more realistic, I’m not sure this extends to drug- and pain-induced depression, especially when the brief insights are likely to be prompted by narcotic euphoria.
  3. Ware is trying to sell a book and cash in on the demand for maudlin reminders of mortality. What she writes is more likely to be guided by what sells than what’s true.
  4. In selling their stories, she’s also profiting from the private confessions of her patients. If she sought permission from their estates, that’s only ghoulish. If she’s not sharing the profits, it’s exploitative as well. The best scenario would be if she had simply made the confessions up, but then the lessons would be even more likely to be deceptive or to reinforce stereotypes.
  5. It is, however, quite useful to confront the fact that you will die someday. Your own reflections on that fact can likely help you to prioritize, because it is your death and thus your life. That’s why there’s a market for reminders of mortality. But if you substitute Ware’s or her patients’ reflections for your own, you’re not really confronting the possibility of your own death: you’re fetishizing the reflections of somebody else. No one can die your death for you, or explain what it should mean. And really: how boring and inauthentic do you have to be in order to hire out your reflections on mortality to someone else?

I guess I won’t have to regret leaving my feelings unexpressed!






4 responses to “The Fetishization of the Dying”

  1. Ben Avatar

    Very interesting. I had heard about the book but never thought of it as being exploitative. Perhaps the book capitalizes on of our fear of dying insofar as it implicitly promises the reader a degree of lucidity and unobstructed perspective close to death. Perhaps to some that is somehow comforting? I'm neither dead nor dying so I suppose I'll have to wait and see.

  2. […] short, we probably shouldn’t ignore Ware’s advice, all we need to do is reverse […]

  3. […] headline and blurb. A friend and former colleague, Joshua Miller, commented by sharing his piece, The Fetishizing of the Dying, in which he calls out Ware on a number of points. I’m grateful that he […]

  4. George Wrisley Avatar

    Joshua, thank you for calling my attention to this. On top of your giving me more to think about, you’ve unintentionally encouraged me to finally write something down about hindsight judgments. Here it is:

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