Bucket Lists: do heart patients need them?

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

Since my heart attack in 2008, I’ve been asked on occasion by friends and family (and even people who barely know me) if I now have a “Bucket List” – that Hollywood invention of the wonderful list of important-sounding things we must do before we kick the bucket. Nothing like a medical crisis, it seems, to remind us that life is short, and to shock us into re-examining our priority lists before we head off to that great Coronary Care Unit in the sky.

But the answer to that Bucket List question for me personally is your basic “NO!”

In fact, I sincerely doubt that I’d actually be any happier than I am at this moment if only I could one day go bungee jumping/skydiving/Caribbean cruising/hot air ballooning/bull riding/Everest climbing. One clear reason for this doubt, of course, is that we’re approaching our shared second anniversary of living through a pandemic (which means I would have had a hellish time even getting to that Everest base camp in the first place). Globally, we’ve had to put planned events on hold, from weddings to being allowed to hold the hands of dying relatives. Many people may have already started on a new Bucket List called “When COVID Is Over. . . ” 

Pandemic restrictions aside, my own personal belief – well before becoming a heart patient – has long been that I always have enough time, money and energy to do what I really, really want to do.

I’ve believed this instinctively for decades, but the concept was cemented for me back in January 1983, when my late Auntie Mary organized a big family reunion weekend in Vancouver. She had invited her six brothers and sisters and dozens of our assorted relatives from across the country to attend this long-planned reunion. The excuses started arriving as soon as the invitations were sent out: Can’t afford to fly, too far to drive, kids will be back in school, can’t take time off work, the usual culprits.  Some of our relatives did make it that weekend, but the majority, much to Auntie Mary’s great disappointment, did not show up for our family reunion.

But just three months after that Vancouver reunion, my Dad (a lifelong non-smoker) died suddenly of metastatic lung cancer at the age of 62. It was a terrible shock to all of us.

And those family members who couldn’t come to Auntie Mary’s family reunion three months earlier? Ironically, they all managed to arrive at my father’s funeral. Somehow, they found the money to book flights. Some drove hundreds of miles. They swiftly pulled their kids out of school, and told their bosses they’d need to take time off work. They all came to see a dead man they could have spent time with three months earlier while he was still very much alive (and having a great time with my mother at the Vancouver reunion!) After it was too late, seeing my Dad in his coffin was suddenly important to them.

How we spend our days is in fact how we spend our lives. Today, right this moment – not some day, one day, maybe, down the road, just in time before we kick the bucket. If something hasn’t yet been checked off your Bucket List, is it because it’s not actually important enough right now?

Perhaps the most important reason I don’t want a Bucket List:

I hate making To Do lists and don’t want to add anything more onto any of them.

A Bucket List is merely a fancy-schmancy To Do list with major deadline pressure, created by people who probably had good reasons for not already doing what they say they wanted to.

What about everybody’s favourite Bucket List goal:  a fabulous vacation?

I once heard the American author PJ O’Rourke interviewed on BBC‘s World Book Club, in which he stated that he doesn’t actually get much pleasure out of traveling for pleasure anymore.  He says, for example, that when on vacation, he inevitably ends up uttering inane sightseeing responses like:

“Well! This is beautiful! Isn’t this beautiful? So beautiful. Is it time for lunch yet?”

Vacation travel is simply not on any of my To Do lists any longer. After too many years spent traveling on business during my corporate PR career, I’ve already expended my lifetime quota of time wasted on waiting for delayed flights and car rentals, fretting over lost luggage, impossibly shrinking legroom, drinking bad coffee, trying in vain to get a good night’s sleep in too many strange beds, standing in endlessly long lines, making exhausting small talk with strangers I’ll never see again, and then recuperating from jet lag.  Consider the last time you had to catch a late night flight. I don’t ever want to look (or feel) as bad as those waiting passengers in the Departure Lounge do.

If I never again see the inside of another airport, that would be just dandy with me. *   Besides, I live in Lotus Land here on the magnificent West Coast of Canada, arguably the most gorgeous spot on earth. People from around the world save up their money all year long just to be able to travel here. Why would I ever want to leave?

And yet many of us seem to exist for those expensive far-off vacation dreams – and more of PJ O’Rourke’s inane sightseeing responses. Pre-COVID, for example, there were about 2 million of us Canadians traveling outside of Canada – and far more during major holidays. Many of us just can’t wait to get away from here.  But remember:

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

And then, of course, there’s always the debilitating post-vacation “Oh No It’s Over!” reality hangover slump that hits just before you realize you need to go back to your real life tomorrow morning – and again after you open the credit card bills.

It’s mostly about expectations. In his Psychology Today essay, Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work, offers some tips on managing these expectations. Instead of making a Bucket List, perhaps we could, as Dr. Rock suggests:

  • live a life with a good amount of novelty
  • create opportunities for unexpected rewards
  • believe that things are always going to get slightly better

Maintaining low expectations seems to be good practice for those of you deciding on your own Bucket Lists.  Just imagine how horrible you’d feel, for example, if you actually did accomplish one of your ultimate Bucket List goals – let’s say, completing a triathlon – and it turned out to be an even uglier experience than a triathlon normally is!

Speaking of keeping our expectations in check, consider the wise counsel of Chicago physician Dr. David Lickerman, who blogs at Happiness In This World: Reflections Of A Buddhist Physician.  Here’s his take on four distinct possible outcomes of our expectations:

  1. Low expectations and a poor experience, where our low expectations can mute the disappointment or even the discomfort we feel at actually having a poor experience
  2. Low expectations but a good experience, leading to a pleasant surprise
  3. High expectations and good experience, in which we get to enjoy not only the anticipation of looking forward to something fabulous but an experience that actually lives up to our expectations and therefore feels thoroughly satisfying
  4. High expectations but a poor experience, in which we often emerge bitterly disappointed or even traumatized

Another Buddhist health professional, Pennsylvania’s Michael Formica, is the editor and project coordinator for the non-profit organization, Living Beyond Breast Cancer.  He may be on to something when he writes:

“Just as soon as humans cross the boundary from basic survival needs to social needs, we are inevitably doomed to foster a sense of our own perpetual dissatisfaction.  This is a conflict that’s at the core of the human condition.

“Basically, this is a conversation about stuff. Not just material stuff, but all sorts of stuff – intellectual, emotional, social – all of our human stuff.  When we collect some stuff, we, quite naturally, want more stuff. It is this desire for more that traps us in our own dissatisfaction, because we are always grasping for more.”

Bucket Lists by definition represent “more” of what we don’t have now, while somehow believing that if only we could have it/buy it/do it/eat it/climb it/see it/photograph it/experience it, we would really, finally, truly be happy at last.

Thus “more” becomes the fantasy cure for whatever dissatisfaction we feel for not having quite enough yet.

For me, it seems that the most likely road to feeling better might well start off with being content with the small pleasures of day-to-day moments, and by keeping expectations low.

And meanwhile, I’m going outside for a nice walk in the sun. . . ♥

* Update:   I experienced two cardiac events on a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver in 2008. And speaking of airports that I hope to never set foot in ever again: my experience in San Francisco’s SFO after attending Stanford University’s Medicine X conference in 2012 takes the cake.  Not only was the temperature a sizzling 100+ degrees F. all day, leaving me feeling limp as a damp rag, but the airport and United Airlines staff I encountered at SFO appeared intent on directing me (on more than one occasion) on a Three Stooges tour of not one but two major terminals over two frustrating hours in a fruitless game called “Where’s Gate 38?” – as it appears that knowing basic geography (such as: “Canada is not an American destination and thus does not belong in United’s DOMESTIC terminal”) doesn’t seem to be in the job description of the staff I encountered there. Never, ever again!

©Carolyn Thomas   ♥   www.myheartsisters.org

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about how heart patients’ plans can suddenly change in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease.  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

Q:  What’s on your own Bucket List?

15 thoughts on “Bucket Lists: do heart patients need them?

  1. Great article – I always appreciate opinions and insights backed by research, so thanks for sharing.

    This is my reply to the person who commented about loving to fly: I agree with the lady whose loves to travel and fly! I have always loved flying and the whole airport experience.

    I’ve had my share of awful ones, but now they rank at the top of the list of “family stories” with humor and wiser insight. I believe it’s one’s tolerance and ability to be in that “moment” wherever you are and whatever you are doing that makes staying or going the best experience.

    I had to halt my retirement dreams because of COVID, and since then family health issues and the loss of two family members, along with the loss of my 14 year old dog made me yearn for happy days away in far off lands.

    Thank goodness I was here “stuck” at home – a surprise 100% LAD block happened at the right time in the right place, and I’m alive! I guess it’s all about understanding the importance of being “grounded” 😉

    Anne Thorne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Anne – love the way even your ‘awful’ trips have morphed into great family stories!

      What a sad list of tragic events you’ve gone through lately. I’m so sorry. . . No wonder you fondly yearned for those far off lands. And ironically, such good timing that you WERE “stuck at home” during that sudden surprise! Score one for the pandemic. . .

      Speaking of timing, I met a woman on Friday who had hiked a famous trail along the Pacific coast several hours from our city (a 3-4 day very challenging trek). On the drive back home, she began to feel “weird” as she got into town, and decided to stop at the Walk-In-Clinic, just in case. The doctor there immediately referred her to Emergency – where she was admitted for quadruple bypass surgery! She told me she’s often wondered what would have happened had those cardiac symptoms started while they were isolated hundreds of miles from home in the wilderness… and marveled at her perfect timing. Like you, she was in the right place at the right time!

      Take care, stay safe. . . . ♥


  2. What an interesting topic, and amazing thoughts about it. Years ago, when it seemed like making a bucket list was all the rage, I realized that I had already done the important things I wanted to do in life — namely, raising my children, building a strong relationship with my husband, have wonderful and deep relationships with friends and family, and a chance to enjoy my career (teaching 1st graders). Anything else would be icing on the cake. And it has been!

    However, something else is happening to me these days. My health is declining at such a warp speed that I see the window of opportunity to do things is closing –fast. I find myself thinking about what do I want to do before I can’t do it anymore.

    One is that I want to go to Hawaii one more time. Not to be a tourist, not to drink lovely cocktails while watching the sunset. I just found the climate such a relief in what are the grey and dreary days of winter. The colors are bright, the fresh fruit is unmatchable. Currently, the plan is in the works to go in a few weeks, and I’m desperately hoping that nothing gets in our way of going.

    But, I wouldn’t qualify this trip as a bucket list item, although it certainly resembles one. If I die without going, my life will still have been fulfilled. I truly am happy and satisfied with how it has unfolded.

    But, I want to live what’s left of my life doing things I truly enjoy, and not spend it just waiting to die.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Charlotte! First, I’m sorry to learn that your health is declining “at warp speed”. That’s a scary prospect… Your planned trip to Hawaii seems like a practical assessment that if you don’t go soon, your health may not allow you to go at all. I sure hope all goes well and that you’ll be there in a few weeks (and that you’ll also enjoy those lovely sunsets while you’re there!) I know what you mean about their remarkable climate – Hawaii’s one of the few places I’ve been to where as soon as the doors of the plane open after landing there, the gorgeous rush of fragrant breeze on your face feels completely overwhelming! I know you will indeed truly enjoy the days you spend there.

      Take care, stay safe – and Aloha! ♥


  3. Ahhhh! Your blog made me so happy! Just thinking how many people’s lives you will touch with your message on living in the present moment, gives me great joy!

    Decades ago I read my first book on this subject. It focused on the importance of “process” over “product”. How the way we live the moments in between life’s projects is so much more important than the projects themselves.

    Many many books, studies and travels to sacred places later… Living in the present moment has become the mantra of each day for me.

    No bucket lists. No expectations. No Hurry. No worry. Just “Be Here Now”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jill – I’m happy that reading this made YOU happy this morning!

      It struck me while editing this post yesterday that last week’s theme (#JOMO: the JOY of missing out) covers much the same ground, which requires a shift in how we view the passage of time and how we fill that time every day.

      On Friday, for example, while I was visiting my darling 10 month old grandbaby Zachary, his Mum asked if I’d like to rock him to sleep for his naptime. WOULD I!?!?! I snuggled in with him in the rocking chair in his room, sang him my quiet little made-up lullaby and within a minute or so his little eyes began to close. It was an indescribably happy experience… Before I had grandbabies, I never could have imagined that such a small “Be Here Now” experience with a sweet baby could possibly mean such pure and simple joy. . .

      Take care, and stay safe . . . ♥


      1. We miss so many of these beautiful opportunities when we have a mind crowded with the proverbial “To Do” list…take out the trash, go to the doctor, pay the bills, call the repairman. Maybe we need a “To Be” list instead … Look out the window, feel the breeze, smell the bread toasting … sit in a chair for 30 mins thinking no thoughts but “I Am”.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “Smell the bread toasting” – how often do we actually do that?

          Yet sometimes we DO have to take out the trash.

          Just last week I also had to call the repairman – and his visit turned out to be one of the highlights of my day! He was so helpful and knowledgeable, explained clearly what our options were, and as he was leaving, he thanked me for “being such a good host”! In the end, I felt relieved (repair was promptly completed for a reasonable price!) – and I also felt fortunate: that I was able to financially support a local tradesman whose skills are important in our neighbourhood, that my problem was promptly solved, and that the call had resulted in such a good experience for both of us!


  4. Thanks. I appreciated your perspective in all aspects of this.

    I’ve loved travel to Spanish speaking countries both alone and with family or friends. Just before the pandemic, I flew alone to Mexico for 10 days on Isla Mujeres. I loved my time there, walking, writing in my tiny apartment, finding restaurants, speaking Spanish.

    Managing microvascular angina was a challenge. I asked for wheelchair support in airports, wanting to hold a sign saying, “This isn’t really me”. Every day I got more edema, finally realizing the food was too salty. Episodes of angina increased. A voice in my head said, “You aren’t doing this again. No more international travel.”

    And that feels just fine now. I can savor the adventures I’ve had. Maybe I need a sign for myself that says, “This really is you now!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sara – interesting observation about holding up a sign. I’ve often had that thought too especially when I’m having a bad day. It seems important at the time to know that others are not judging me as a feeble old lady – but really, why do I even CARE what those who don’t know me or love me think? I suspect that for most of us, if the perceived pros of international travel outweigh all the perceived cons, people will continue to get onto planes for long flights. These were the ones who during the height of the pandemic complained bitterly about not being able to spend their annual winters in (pick one): Florida, Arizona, Palm Springs, Mexico….

      Take care, stay safe out there – and watch that salt! ♥


      1. The beauty of airports is in the eye of the beholder. My Dad worked for the airlines so I grew up flying around the country for free. I remember being awakened at 4 in the morning to catch an early flight to some “far off” place like New York or Los Angeles. So I have always had a sense of joy and anticipation around flying, though I understand doing it as a job rather than a choice could make a BIG difference.

        I traveled to India with friends over 13 times and my best friend could not understand how I could smile at facing 2 flights totaling 24 hrs of travel time, LOL.
        It’s probably because I allowed the Joy I connected with flying at an early age to overshadow the pain of my rapidly swelling legs. But it definitely took focus and practice to stay in that space!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So true, Jill. Everybody has different perspectives, many influenced of course by those happy childhood memories. There’s also the decision that arriving at the destination is worth those 24 hours of travel time (and ‘rapidly swelling legs’) to get there.

          I don’t doubt the beauty of some airports (the Arrivals level of the Vancouver International airport (#YVR), for example, is absolutely breathtaking) but for me, the experiences of navigating an oddly unnavigable airport (plus heart attacks on a plane) were the last straw!


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