A “rich” life looks different for everyone: lessons from my own near deathbed regrets

During my last inpatient admission one month before medical school graduation, an attending told me, “You talk about yourself like it’s one of your patients.” That’s exactly how it often felt (and still feels) to my brain. “This story is not me … not mine … I’m not sick,” my brain would offer me.

The brain does fascinating things to help us survive. Dissociating from my illness was likely supportive of helping me to keep going. I talk about my journey a lot more now, but to my brain, it still often feels like a character in a story that I know a lot about.

One of the most challenging questions that I have learned to ask myself these past few years as my brain learns to accept that this patient’s story is mine is: “What do I want to do about it?”

What got me to that hospital bed, prolonged inpatient stay, and near deathbed was grit, self-sacrifice, never feeling enough, prioritizing societal values, low self-worth, and people-pleasing (to name a few). On paper, I was successful. In reality, the drivers that made me “successful” by societal standards nearly cost me my life… more than once.

It took me multiple rock bottoms and close calls to change the narrative in my head about what it means to have a rich life and learn to question the status quo. As recently as 2020-2021 (just three years ago from this writing!), I was so exhausted from it all that I sold most of what I owned and poured out tears as I made plans to rehome my incredible dog, who all who know me know is the center of my world.

I didn’t see a future for me after years of hustling for what I thought would bring me a sense of enoughness while constantly coming up empty – but I held on to a sliver of hope (sometimes borrowed from others).

That sliver of hope and asking, “What if things don’t have to be this way?” inched me back to life and led me onto an incredible path full of deep pain and also love, support, meaning, and purpose.

Initially, things felt worse. Realizing so much of the BS you thought was true is actually garbage. All the time spent in self-hate was unnecessary. All the time sacrificing your peace wasn’t leading you to happiness? Ugh. I am nauseous thinking about it now. Eventually, changing the narrative of who I must be and how I must live led to freedom, lightness, and a newfound desire to truly live in accordance with my own values, not society’s (when they don’t align).

Step by step, layer by layer, I have released so much of the weight of this world that often leads us to desire things that don’t actually matter.

I learned the lessons deeply as I reflected on regrets while surviving nights on what I thought could be my deathbed. I am reminded of these nights every time I go to bed as my body remembers what my brain did not want to accept as my life. My brain did not want to accept that my own beliefs and actions dedicated to being who I thought I needed to be were killing me. Why would I want to accept that? But to commit to change, I have needed to face the facts.

I asked myself this question, which I am posing to you here: Accepting that this is your life, you are in the driver’s seat, and you have choices, “What do you want to do about it?”

Learning the lessons from those nights and grounding myself in the present has been essential to bring peace into my mind, body, and spirit.

Sharing the lessons with you creates meaning from this life experience and a purpose. I no longer ask, “Why did I survive?” as I see so many others compromising their inner peace and well-being for values that don’t align with their own (some don’t know what their values are after years of being who others need them to be).

Now, I believe I survived to ask us all these challenging questions before we end up on our deathbeds and don’t get more time to change the narrative, change our thoughts and actions, reclaim our lives, and prioritize what truly matters to us.

The world is full of so much suffering – much of which our societal values create by leading us away from what truly brings us peace, fulfillment, happiness, and contentment.

Today, a rich life for me is found in inner peace, simplicity, and authentic connection. It’s not the rich life I believed could make me happy. Those titles, accolades, and material goods don’t matter when you die. Worse, much of our material goods become a burden for others to clean up after we depart this world and in a landfill polluting this beautiful planet.

Thus, I invite you to pause and ask yourself these questions:

What do you really want in life?

What does a “rich” life truly mean for you?

I encourage you to challenge the societal values that are keeping you from your inner peace, happiness, and contentment.

Lastly (for now), one of the deepest pains I experienced while states away from loved ones in a hospital inpatient unit, being told I may not survive, was loneliness.

I compromised so many relationships in the name of achievement, and at the (potential) end – all I wanted was to be with those I loved.

What may you do today to connect with those who matter most to you? Please show them that you love them, appreciate them, and that they matter. Don’t assume they know. Assume they don’t and remind them every chance you get.

I hope you may learn from my story and apply the lessons to your own life. Ask, “If I died today … what would I regret (doing or not doing)?” and commit to taking actions to reduce the likelihood of regrets on your deathbed today. Tomorrow is never promised.

Jillian Rigert is an oral medicine specialist and radiation oncology research fellow.


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