What Are Living Amends? And How Do You Make Them?

Updated

Making amends with the people you’ve fallen out with as you’re thinking about mortality and what happens when you die is one way of finding emotional freedom and closure. But what happens when the person you need to make amends with dies before you’re able to apologize and change your ways? Unfortunately, this scenario plays out much too often in the lives of people who didn’t get a chance to correct their mistakes and past behaviors in time. 

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Living amends can help you rid yourself of the pain of guilt and the need to constantly say “I’m sorry” to the people you’ve wronged in your life. When a person has died, you can still make amends for your actions. Although, you’ll have to find a different way to do so and in a way that makes a lasting impact on you and the people you love who are still here.

What Are Living Amends?

Living amends refers to making promises to the people in your life whom you’ve wronged or who have hurt you. These promises focus on rebuilding your relationship with a loved one and moving forward from the pain of the past.

When the person you owe reparations to has died, you can still make living amends by changing things about you and how you live your life. These changes can positively impact the people you love and care about. 

Definition

Living amends is a concept linked to addiction recovery and part of the twelve-step program for sober living. In simple terms, it means taking responsibility for the person you used to be and how you caused harm to the people in your life who care about you.

Living amends goes a bit further in how it’s described in this context. It also means deciding to change your behavior after admitting your mistakes and changing your life in ways that honor your commitment to living a better life based on your past mistakes. 

Origin

The origin of living amends in modern use relates to addiction recovery and substance abuse treatment. However, in the context of grief recovery, David Kessler, in his book Finding Meaning, talks about the importance of living amends as a tool for grief healing. In particular, he discusses how to heal when the person we need to make amends with is no longer living. 

When and Why Do People Make Living Amends?

One of the most common reasons people want to make living amends is to correct past wrongs. When dealing with the loss of a loved one and wanting to find ways of accepting their death, making living amends can help bereaved individuals find forgiveness and closure, especially when reconciliation is no longer an option. Living amends bridges the gap between living in shame and regret and finding forgiveness. 

Deathbed promises are a common way people make living amends. They want to find ways of making up for all their past wrongs, and they don't want to miss the opportunity to do so once their loved one dies. In these cases, they make promises of cleaning up their act and changing their behaviors to their loved ones just before they die. 

However, these promises are usually the result of deep feelings of shame, guilt, and regret and may not be genuine for some. Many times, these kinds of promises serve to alleviate the wrongdoer’s guilt and so that they can say they apologized before their loved one died. With these kinds of promises, there may not be enough genuine intention of changing their hurtful patterns and behaviors. 

Examples of Living Amends

Living amends often involve promises of doing things differently from now on, or changing the old ways of thinking of things to be more loving, tolerant, and accepting of people and things that go against a person’s values. Some examples of living amends include:

Promises to do things differently

One of the greatest regrets some people endure is not apologizing to a loved one for past wrongs before they die. Tragic events happen every day, and in ways we least expect. Many individuals know that they need to apologize to someone they love but fail to do so out of pride or ego. As a result, the opportunity is lost to make things right if that person dies before they can apologize.

Living amends, in this event, can include making changes to the behaviors contributing to the falling out between the survivor and the person they owed an apology to. For example, let’s say a mother didn't make an effort to escort her children to the school bus stop. One of her children is killed crossing the street on their own even after telling their mother that they were afraid to cross the busy street alone. A living amend might include a posthumous promise to the deceased child to, from now on, make it a point to walk their surviving siblings to the bus stop each day. 

Changes in personal behaviors

Another example is a substance or alcohol-addicted adult child who regularly steals money, jewelry, and other valuable items from their elderly parent’s home. However, they may suddenly feel guilty and decide to change their ways. They can make a living amend to change their lifestyle, get sober, and stop stealing from their parent.

These promises are often the most difficult to keep because addiction plays a decisive role in a person’s ability to live up to their promises. Their parent may feel more pain for their addicted child’s inability to get sober than the material items lost due to the thefts. 

Be helpful toward others

Another example would be of a person who’s been a taker all their lives suddenly decides they no longer want to be self-centered and selfish. They may choose to make living amends by promising to change their ways and become more helpful to others.

Being helpful toward others can mean lending a hand to friends and family who need help moving, checking in on elderly parents, or offering to babysit their nieces and nephews for a parent's night out. These changes in behavior help toward the goal of reestablishing relationships or making them stronger. 

Steps for Making Living Amends

Making living amends can take on many different forms depending on the relationship to those affected by the wrongdoing. In most cases, the offender owes apologies to the people closest to them, like their friends, parents, and children.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to make amends to employers or co-workers. Whatever the situation, there are a few ways to get started in the process of repairing wrongs with the people you most care about. 

Start apologizing

When you make a real effort to change your past behaviors, you need to make the initial move in repairing broken relationships. These steps mean taking ownership of the past, apologizing for wherever you made mistakes and moving forward from those missteps. 

Apologies can only go so far in repairing past pain, but it’s a place where you need to begin to heal. Make a list of everyone you’ve made promises to that you didn’t fulfill, the people you’ve lied to, stolen from, or hurt in any way because of who you used to be, and apologize sincerely. Ask for forgiveness and be genuine in your intentions. 

Stop making excuses

People get tired of broken promises, of forgiving over and over and giving second and third, fourth, or fifth chances only to get hurt again. When you’re looking to change both your behavior and your broken relationships, stop making excuses to fulfill your promises. Soon, you’ll run out of reasons to give your loved ones why you’ve failed them once again. Own up to your reality and speak your truth.

If you’re untrustworthy and unreliable, come to terms with those characteristics of yours. Figure out ways to improve upon them, and tell your loved ones what you’re working on to help you improve. People don’t expect perfection. They expect honesty. 

Show up 

For every time you said you’d be there or that you’d help someone do something and didn’t show up, you’ve left an impression upon that person that they can’t rely on you to keep your word. You can start making amends by showing up, even if it’s years later, to do the things you said you’d do.

If you promised your father to help him mow the lawn on Sundays, but years have passed, and you’ve never once shown up, start now. If you promised your son or daughter to be there to see them off to college, clean yourself up and show up. You don’t have to be the best son or daughter, and you don’t need to be an ideal parent, but you need to show up when you make promises to do so.

Prove yourself 

Prove to those who love you that you are a person of your word, and they can rely on you when things get tough. How do you prove your worth to others after so many failed chances? Start from where you are now.

Don’t focus on what’s already past. And, don’t stress over what’s to come. Stay grounded and focused on what you have right now in front of you. That’s the right here and now. No one can say what’ll happen tomorrow or the next day, so place all of your efforts and attention on today. Start by:

  • Doing the things you say you’re going to do 
  • Helping those who rely on you
  • Becoming the best version of yourself

Work on your relationships

To fix broken relationships, you have to put a lot of effort into making things work. It’s not enough to say to someone that you apologize and feel badly for how you acted in the past. It takes a certain maturity and level of respect for yourself and the person you’re hoping to reconnect with to get past any past issues.

Resolve to work at making things better between you and keeping your promises. Give each other space to figure out any new roles within your relationship and take things slowly. Don’t expect immediate forgiveness, and also, don’t pressure yourself to fix every broken relationship immediately.

Repairing Broken Relationships

Making living amends primarily benefits you and not the people you’ve wronged in the past. It’s about making positive changes within yourself so that you don’t repeat old patterns of behavior that led to your broken relationships in the first place. The changes that occur due to your efforts positively affect your commitment to becoming a better friend, child, parent, or person all around.

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