Lessons From The Dying: Make Meaningful Amends

In honor of International Forgiveness Day, this blog post is about the importance of making meaningful amends. Apologizing in a way that’s heartfelt. Typically, the benefits of forgiveness are felt by the person doing the forgiving. As a death doula, I’m seeing those benefits in a new and powerful way.

If there are any commonalities among people at the end of their lives, perhaps it’s this:

1. The harm we do to others comes back to us.

2. The kindness we do to others comes back, too.

3. Harmful actions seem to weigh more.

Will we pay, for who we’ve been?

Many people struggle with unresolved issues as they get older. One doesn’t have to be actively dying to want to right their wrongs. Feeling a responsibility to atone for sins can happen anytime, dying just adds a level of urgency to it.

If I’m talking to someone struggling with the past, and they wonder out loud about therapy, I often gently encourage it. When we’re younger and healthy, we think trauma will resolve itself. This doesn’t always happen. I watch dying people struggle with something they haven’t resolved along with half a dozen other end-of-life issues.

This can be sad to watch.

Our final days are easier if we’ve done the work before an illness takes hold. Resolved mistakes when we had the energy and time to devote to them.

Because if we don’t deal with what we’ve done to others…it’ll come back for us.

What exactly comes back? Some say they’re most haunted by the times they were cruel to people who did not deserve it. They’ve let someone special slip away or didn’t spend enough time with them when they could. These regrets appear to hurt the most.

Acts of lovingkindness are a relief.

I often encourage clients to write down all the ways they’ve shown love or compassion to others. I ask them to describe these experiences throughout the years.

For people at the end of life, remembering their good deeds brings comfort. They talk about the time they’ve spent with their family. Helping others. Forgiving loved ones also brings a great deal of joy. Times they’ve reached out to estranged friends and reconnected.

They are also visibly relieved when they’ve already made meaningful amends for a mistake.

These direct, concrete actions help people feel good about themselves. More than money they’ve given away. More than career or athletic achievements.

The people most at peace are the ones who’ve given of themselves.

Bad deeds are never erased.

Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked or interacted with some of the wealthiest people in the world. Despite enormous wealth, and professional success, there is a certain drive to so many of them. A drive…and a sadness.

Their money doesn’t bring them much happiness. And while donating money to worthy causes is noble, that doesn’t seem to help people feel better about past transgressions either.

The penance that appears to make the most difference to people as they die, are the personal connections they’ve made with people they’ve wronged. Not the money they’ve used to try to cover it up. The ones who’ve not sought absolution tend to be the most haunted, especially at night.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are some ways to rest peacefully:

Make your apology meaningful.

There is a big difference between, “I’m sorry you feel I’ve wronged you” and “I’m sorry.”

An apology means more if you explain what happened. Were you going through a tough time yourself? Talk about that.

This isn’t an excuse. Truthful explanations help people understand you better.

Most of us can empathize with a tough time that leaves someone feeling frustrated. Saying something you later wish you hadn’t – this is almost universal. Appealing to someone’s humanity is important if you want them to understand that you didn’t do it on purpose.

That’s part of the process.

Give back what you owe.

A donation somewhere else doesn’t help the person from whom you’ve taken something. It’s good to pay it forward, but first pay it back.

What the other person does with your apology is none of your business.

Let that be a relief. After all, you can only control you. If you’ve wronged someone and they aren’t ready to forgive you, that can sting. We naturally want to be met with open arms.

But we must remember that just because we are ready to say we’re sorry, doesn’t mean the other person is ready to hear it.

Be prepared that the person might not respond at all.

Maybe he has some evolving to do. Maybe she forgave you years earlier and has no desire to go back and revisit the issue. Perhaps they’ve moved on and want to keep going.

Whatever it is, you only are responsible for you. We’ve all made mistakes. If you can face up to them, and tell someone you’re sorry in a meaningful way, your work is done.

Forgive yourself and others first.

You’re not seeking forgiveness as much as you are making amends. There isn’t a goal here, beyond saying you’re sorry to someone because you must.

But if you would like to be forgiven, perhaps you should put some thought into forgiving others first.

Who has wronged you? Have you thought about them? Did they apologize? How did you respond? Did you accept their apology with grace? Or did you ignore them?

If someone has made amends to you, maybe reach out to them and respond in a way that you’d like to hear. Let them know they’ve been forgiven. That’s a powerful gift to give someone.

Be the hero of this story. Forgive others and make meaningful amends while you can.

And then rest easy.

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