Making Amends to the Dead

By Angus Thomas 02/26/15

My sister died in a car crash when she was 18. I owed her a 9th step amends. It wasn't until I visited her grave, that I understood what was happening to me.


Making amends is one of the cornerstones of the AA recovery program. In my experience, it was the step that really accelerated my journey and the first tangible sign for those that loved me that things really had changed for the better. As it says in the Big Book, “We will be amazed before we are half way through,” and I actually was amazed from the outset—making amends was truly life changing.

My initial direct amends were to the key people around me: my ex-wife, my children, my parents and my brother. Next, I contacted the people closest to me and then the various others that I had harmed or resented. I set up meetings to return stolen property and made direct and indirect financial amends as agreed with my sponsor. 

The nature of each amend was agreed with my sponsor. My worst fear was that he would force me to do something horrendously and cringingly intimate. Certainly, my amends to my parents was the hardest. In order to make the physical journey of walking a few paces to hug my father at the end, it felt like I had to break though some invisible emotional brick wall armed only with an ineffectual toothpick—it was excruciatingly painful.   

My sponsor offered me a biblical standpoint: “For where two or three have gathered together, God is there in their midst.” We discussed what form the amends might take together and out of that would come the plan for the amend. It was actually a great way to do it—no finger-wagging, no musts and no imposition of a dictate from on high.

The range of my amends varied a lot. Those closest to me got a direct amend comprised of an apology with an explanation of my situation and an offer from me of an opportunity for them to tell me how they felt and how I had affected them. I always finished with an invitation for them to tell me what more I might do to set things straight. Some amends required that I just be civil to them the next time we met—civil with the knowledge that this was the amend, so not just a passive “Hello, how are you?” And some amends were to stay the hell away—ex-girlfriends and people on my sexual conduct list.

In many ways I found the amends process easy—I was propelled with enthusiasm for AA with a sense of purpose I don't think I had ever felt before. I might even say, with a little embarrassment now, that I felt like I was on a mission from God. The advantage of this was that it took the “I” out of the process and enabled me to be humble—it was ordained that I do this, therefore there is no "me" attached to it. 

My sponsor was always fond of reminding me who my “employer” was (he meant the employer it talks about in Step 3). When I remember that, generally it enables me to set aside my ego and become an agent for that employer—it's no longer personal. 

He also reminded me that the amend was for me; I needed to get free of the past; I needed to sweep my side of the street clean first before I could pick the leaves up on a daily basis in Step 10. I needed to find the humility that had eluded me in the past and blocked me off from my fellow man.

The process of change that was set in motion by my amends was amazing. My relationships were set on new paths. The relationship with my parents was the most dramatic, and having derided them in a cruel and slow torture that only kids can inflict on their parents, I am now extremely close to them. l know that not only do I love them very much, but I emphatically know that they love me and always have. I likened the change to seeing a slowed down movie of a snowflake forming. The amend started in the middle with a grain but radiated out. My amend to my father, not only changed our relationship for the better, but it changed his relationship to my wife, between him and her parents, between him and my children, and so on. Amazingly, that one amend unblocked so many relationships—it was quite an amazing process, but at the center of it all was me and the damage I had done in my selfishness.

The one amend that eluded me though was the amend to my sister.  She was killed in a car crash in 1981 at the age of 18. She was away working in Scotland and one morning having taken our parents to their flight after a visit to see her, she was killed on the drive back from the airport. I was in Australia traveling at the time and came home the day before the funeral unaware of her demise to be greeted like a hero. My family had placed radio and newspaper ads in Australia in an attempt to contact me. Meanwhile, I was in Indonesia planning a surprise return having left Australia some weeks before.

At the time, I didn’t feel anything other than relief to be home, but I spent the next 20 years searching for her in the face of every crowd, in the windows of buses and in the faces of kids on the street. I had bouts of severe depression triggered by her loss, which I self-medicated with alcohol and valium. I felt guilty about not having been there to save her, but truthfully I felt no more than that. I didn't celebrate her birthday and/or the anniversary of her death—she was lost to me emotionally, but I was desperately searching for her. I don't suppose I ever believed she was gone. To this day, I am not sentimental about death, although I speak from the safety of having two parents still alive and very much kicking. I can't tell whether this matter of fact attitude about death predated my sisters death—I suspect not.

My sponsor and I had long discussions about how it might be appropriate to make amends to her and we agreed that a letter would be best. I have to be honest, I couldn't see what good writing a pointless letter to a dead sister could achieve. It seemed to be such a vacuous and self-indulgent act. She was dead, her ashes burned and her energy now present in some other form. He suggested that I read the letter at her graveside, but I resisted this, as to me, it was a piece of rock lying in a cemetery that had nothing to do with her.

Even though I had experienced a revolution in my life from my amends, I couldn’t find the energy to make this one amend. I couldn't connect with it, and I guess with hindsight, her loss had identified me for so long that I didn’t want to let go of it. I started many letters and finished none.

Nearly four years into recovery, and long after my first amends, my sponsor asked me to try praying for the willingness to be willing to make this outstanding amend. And so in my morning prayers I would ask my Higher Power to set aside what I knew about amends and my sister ,and my part in her demise, and give me an open mind for a new experience. I am not sure how long after, only a few days probably, but one day I just knew today was the day.

I took myself to my desk after lunch with the kids and got out an A4 pad of paper and prayed. And then I just picked up my pen and I wrote. And I wrote and I wrote—page after page of how much I missed her, of my regrets, of my love for her, of my hopes and my apologies for not appreciating her. I wrote my regrets for not being a better brother, for not saving her, and about my anger at whoever had taken her away. From time-to-time I wept, but I wrote in one long stream of love, sentimental self-pity and sadness. And then I stopped.

I realized it was already dark and I had written pages and pages. I put the pen down and simply said the Serenity Prayer under my breath. 

There was a soft knock at the door and my 8-year-old son came in and said softly “Dad, supper's ready,” closed the door and left. And I knew it was done. I had finally said goodbye to my sister and my own, new family had come to claim me back. It was over, I was released, and I immediately felt at peace. It was done. The date of that amend was October 1, 2004, her birthday and 20 years since she died. I never actually realized that till some weeks after.

I look back now and wonder why it took me so long to make, what was in many ways, one of the simplest amends I had to make. And yet like the brick wall I had to climb through to hug my father, it was one of the hardest. It was also the one I hung onto for the longest as it so defined me, my pain, my using and acting out. It was my “if your sister had died like mine in your absence abroad you would be like me too,” excuse. But it was also what was holding me back in the present, corroding my relationships, angrily brooding and divisively secretive. 

The amend freed me. It was made for my benefit—not for hers. We need to get free, drop the bundle of crap from the past and bring ourselves into the present. To be reborn into a new life so that our families and friends can claim us back and we can have the best chance of making a new life with them with a fresh and newly invigorated vista.  We turn our bodies into the light and step forward in the knowledge that the dark shadows behind us hold no power, no fear.

Angus Thomas is a London-based portrait photographer, wellness advocate & athlete using #plantpower to fuel his journey. He last wrote about the influence of Emmet Fox on AA and about gratitude as an action.

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