Tool For Tuesday: How Do You Apologize To Someone Who’s Dead?

What happens if you didn’t have the chance to say you’re sorry to someone who has died?

This happened to my friend, Lily. She never got along with her mother-in-law, Vivian. Vivian was—well, Vivian. A bit of a know-it-all, someone who always knew better than everyone around her about everything from architecture to zoology. Lily wasn’t sorry when Vivian died. But years later, upon quiet introspection, Lily realized she could have been nicer, warmer, and more accepting. Vivian was her teacher, really, because Lily began to see a little bit of Vivian in herself. Didn’t she judge other people, too? Didn’t she stray into criticism when she could be more accepting? Didn’t she offer advice when nobody had asked for it?

You know that expression: if you point your forefinger at someone else, three fingers are pointed back at you.

Lily wanted to make amends to Vivian for not treating her as respectfully as she could have. But Vivian was long gone. So here’s the question: How do you apologize to someone who is no longer around?

She asked the universe to help her find a way to make amends. Lily decided to put it out there and to be ready. She wanted to be extra nice to every Vivian she met. Not long after, Lily met a woman who lived down the street who turned out to be named…Vivian. (Don’t you love the way the cosmos arranges things?) Lily asked if Vivian needed help around the house and ended up shoveling her walkway and buying her groceries now and then.

This Vivian is not that Vivian, but Lily felt she still righted part of a wrongAnd Lily also said that from now on, she will make an effort to be less judgmental and more accepting of people who remind her of her mother-in-law. And she realized it hadn’t helped her marriage to complain to her husband about his mother. Who wants to hear it?

“I also learned not to wait to say I’m sorry or to make amends with people,” Lily told me the other day. “Because I don’t want to have to say again that I figured things out when it was too late.”

Tool For Tuesday: Unfinished business? It’s never too late to find some way to right wrongs. And don’t put off saying you’re sorry until tomorrow, because tomorrow might never come.

The spark for this post came from Marylin Warner‘s thought-provoking blog, “Things I Want to Tell My Mother,” here:


About dianabletter

Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (with photographs by Lori Grinker), shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. Her novel, A Remarkable Kindness, (HarperCollins) was published in 2015. She is the First Prize Winner of Moment Magazine's 2019 Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, tabletmag, Glamour, The Forward, The North American Review, Times of Israel, and is a reporter for Israel21C, and many other publications. She is author of Big Up Yourself: It's About Time You Like Being You and The Mom Who Took off On Her Motorcycle, a memoir of her 10,000-mile motorcycle trip to Alaska and back to New York. She lives in a small beach village in Western Galilee, Israel, with her husband and family. She is a member of the local hevra kadisha, the burial circle, and a Muslim-Jewish-Christian-Druze women's group in the nearby town of Akko. And, she likes snowboarding and climbing trees.
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8 Responses to Tool For Tuesday: How Do You Apologize To Someone Who’s Dead?

  1. juliabarrett says:

    I learned a long time ago how important it is to say you’re sorry when you have the chance. However, for all but the most heinous crimes I do believe the dead know we are remorseful and they forgive us without our asking. But if it makes us feel better to do good works in their memories, then we’ve learned something,
    As Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carole- I wear the chains I forged in life. So I’d rather not forge too many chains.

    • dianabletter says:

      Hi Julia, I love that Dickens’ quote. I like your optimism and the way you believe the dead forgive us. That says something about the power of the spiritual world!

  2. Diana, I’m so glad Marylin’s sparked your post. Lily is fortunate she got to help out “another” Vivian. A great reminder. 🙂

  3. Diana, I love how Lily’s unfinished business with Vivian was resolved.
    I had a friend who left her abusive husband but at the same time left his mother, who had been a helpful and supportive friend. When Martha died suddenly the next year, my friend was consumed with guilt that she’d never told her former mother-in-law how much she appreciated her help. Then one day she passed a shop call “Martha’s Helping Center,” with good used clothing that helped struggling women “dress for success” and get jobs. She took all the lovely jackets and scarves and shoes, etc. her Martha had given to her several years earlier and donated it. One woman who received the jacket found the gift card Martha had written to her ex-daughter-in-law, sending love and wishing her every success and great happiness. The woman left a letter with the shop owner who passed it on to my friend. The letter thanked her and “Martha” for teaming up to save her life and give her a future.
    At that moment, my friend said she felt Martha’s presence beside her, smiling, and knew that together they’d done something very good.

    • dianabletter says:

      Marylin, thank you. What an incredible inspiring story about Martha and her daughter-in-law. It reminds me that it’s never too late to make amends!

  4. Kanoelani Park says:

    Dear Diane, are you still there?

    If so, my earnest desire is to apologize to my father for the worry I created before he passed away. I was his caregiver under a lot of stress after he and I shared caregiving responsibilities together when my mother passed in 2007 and as my father passed away last year, two weeks after Easter in April, I was the only caregiver sibling available. It was a difficult passage as I wrestled with grief and denial while fully assuming the responsibility for his care, passing, funeral, and liquidating a 42 year old rental singlehandedly; all in a matter of four months, while in my sixties.

    I have to tell him I’m okay and that I’m very sorry to have caused him extra worry and fear for me, financial in nature, while separated from work during the time of his care and the months following his death.

    I feel that some days I am paralyzed with grief and although I have returned to work, some days are harder to motivate myself as I miss my father so much, and feel remorse and regret that while he lay dying, rather than sharing my distresses, should have relieved him from my selfish intent to worry him with my distresses and fears for which he could do nothing about. In my grief, I’m thinking that I caused him to die because he loved me (and all my siblings who were not present) and he did not want me to struggle alone with the responsibility of fretting over him further. I am thinking that he’s not resting peacefully and I guess, on some level, I feel guilty for that, and want to tell him that I’m so terribly sorry. That I miss him, and love him very much, and although a difficult passage for me and still feel very burnt out after he departed, I am more sorry for not relieving his angst and pain or managing his end of life a little better – with more peaceful, worry free, states of mind, sensitive to suffering, and end of life sub consciousness and remaining consciousness.

    I say I’m sorry when I think of those times at the end of his life for which I was present, but the quality of my mind for his peaceful passing, I have to admit, I lacked. Less than kind. I realize how much he taught me about myself. I realize too, how stress contributes to your well being and non-wellbeing, and how it changes one negatively and how it detrimentally affects others. I am able to recognize its blunders and energetic affectations on myself and those I care about and am keeping myself in check even during my bouts of grief, and new stresses or distress for which as I mentioned before, I am less inclined to move anywhere forward some days.

    It’s as if, I need to make things right with my dad. But he’s gone, and I don’t know how to correct it to free myself and free my father… if say, his unfinished business, was me, and so he’s caught between heaven and earth. Clinging or stuck in worry as his last thoughts on earth.

    Truly, asking forgiveness of his soul, and forgiving myself…………..not sure if it’s working.

    Having God carry my prayers to my father is somewhat a comfort but I have yet to receive confirmation that it is done via some sign or message or dream. Without controlling, and letting go, I do feel a little better, but it is taking conscientious daily applications of just “living” sorry and I wonder if there is another way? Can you enlighten me Miss Diane?

    Thank you so much for reading and I really appreciate this blog being available.

    I hope that you are well. I enjoyed reading about you and I know that your readers are learning from you and are encouraged in positive, healthy, soulful ways. Thank you so much for your presence.

    • dianabletter says:

      Hello, thank you for writing. It seems like you are doing all the right things and working out your grief.
      Your father finished his task on earth; he went because it was time for him to go. He gave you everything he had, and you gave him everything he needed, and then he left his physical body.
      But love never dies…and he already has forgiven you…I believe that with all my heart.
      I hope you find ways to comfort yourself and to remember his spirit by doing positive things.
      Maybe you can find another older person who has his name, or figure out another way to be with someone else who needs you.
      I wish you luck and remember this is a life-long journey. Grief takes time…
      All the best, Diana

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