Emotional, logistical, and financial advice to help you get through this time.
Losing a loved one is never easy, even if you were anticipating the loss. During the hours and days following the death of a spouse or a close family member, you may be in shock and you will likely be disoriented, emotional, and feeling like you’re in a constant fog. Unfortunately, if you were very close to this person, you will likely have a lot to take care of during this time, on top of your mental and emotional health. In addition to grieving, you might have to do things like plan the funeral, cancel their credit cards, pay bills, and notify friends and family. It’s a lot.
It’s normal to feel like your brain short circuits each time you try to make a decision, large or small, and you’ll likely find it difficult to focus on anything. You may even find it stressful to read an email or send a text. All of this is normal. Getting through the days post-loss will be painful, but we’ve compiled a checklist of 10 things to do immediately and shortly after someone dies to make the process of grief a bit easier. All of these tips on what to do when someone dies are simple, but they are extremely important in coping with the loss of a loved one. Taken together, they will serve as a headstart as you move through a difficult time.
What to do When Someone Dies
We know, it’s a difficult and strange concept, but it can make a world of difference, allowing you time and space to grieve after the death. Tracy Jensen, formerly an estate, probate law, and elder law lawyer in Ann Arbor Michigan, says to plan in advance if at all possible. “The best advice I can give to prepare for the death of a loved one is called estate planning or sometimes pre-planning,” she says. “This involves a range of steps, from talking to your loved ones about what medical decisions they want made for themselves to actually preparing legal documents that might address who will care for their minor children.”
Jensen adds, “Pre-planning involves both talking about priorities and, ideally, checking in with an attorney. I recommend that individuals choose an attorney who has an established practice in their county and has experience specifically with probate law and decedent’s estates. Connecting with a specialist is particularly important because each estate has the potential to present new scenarios. You want an attorney who is equipped to foresee and navigate those cases and can draw on their experiences.”
Call 911 if they’re at home
To get a death certificate, first, you have to get an official declaration of death. If your loved one died in a hospital or nursing home, or under hospice care, the facility or hospice nurse will handle this. But if they died at home without a medical professional present, a medical professional must make declare them dead. So, call 911 soon after they died and have them transported to a hospital where they can be declared dead and moved to a funeral home.
Start a list of the things people are doing for you and your family so that you can easily send thank you notes at a later time. Start a separate list of the things you have questions or concerns about, such as items to give away. Get a folder to keep all the documents you’ll be given. You can organize them later, but you’ll know where to put them upon receipt.
Get the death certificate — and make copies
Without a declaration of death, you can’t get a death certificate. You also won’t be able to handle the deceased’s legal affairs. You’ll want to request several copies of the death certificate — at least five — from the funeral home. You will need these copies for things such as insurance claims, banking (closing accounts), and home/rental hospital issues. And be sure to keep a few extra copies for yourself.
Read everything carefully
What do typos have to do with death? A lot. It’s crucial to double-check the spelling in the obituary and on other legal documents. In haste and anxiety, it’s easy to overlook the spelling of a maiden name or a date. However, when it comes to things like the death certificate — which the funeral home staff often prepares based on the information you provide — the exact spelling of names matters (more on that later). But ask for help! You can email the draft of the obituary to a family member or close friend before submitting it online or to the funeral home.
Call on your support team
You might already know who these people are, but if not, figure out who you can lean on during this time and let them know you will be doing that. These are people who can help you make decisions about your work, children, and even your health. There may not be one person who can do it all, so make sure not to lean on just one person for everything. They can also offer recommendations for other needed professionals, such as a realtor or therapist.
Have someone from this support team with you as you make arrangements. For example, going to a funeral home or cemetery is an emotional experience, and having support is essential to your well-being and planning. A companion can not only support you but also listen and take notes in case you get overwhelmed and miss an important detail.
Start planning the funeral, and consider the different burial options
You may know what type of burial the deceased wanted. But if not, start looking for funeral homes, and when you find one, ask the staff at the funeral home or do some research about various choices for the burial (natural burials are becoming increasingly popular). You don’t have to decide on every detail right now. For example, if cremation is done, you can choose a container for the ashes at a different place or you can go back later and purchase one there if you can’t decide on one at that time.
Think through, or put off, financial decisions
Push “Pause” when it comes to making financial decisions. In times of distress, especially grief, your judgment may be clouded, and the item, charity donation, or investment you thought was a good idea suddenly becomes a regret. Unless a purchase is absolutely necessary for the funeral or memorial service, or the burial, you can consider pausing other financial decisions. This doesn’t mean that you’re not paying your mortgage or other bills, but give yourself permission to push off spending that can wait. You may need additional funds to cover unanticipated funeral and medical costs. Also, many times, spouses, partners, and family members aren’t fully aware of the available funds or the deceased’s financial status and all of their accounts.
One of the ways to begin to ascertain what their monthly expenses were, such as automatic withdrawals for the cable service, is to check emails and bank statements. Create a list of all automatic withdrawals from the account as well as the deposits. This will give you a starting point. Also, look at a copy of the most recent tax return. Oftentimes, bank or other financial statements are part of the return.
Record a video of the home
It’s important to document what items are in the home, such as any valuables, both of financial and sentimental value, and making a video of the house is a simple and efficient way to do that. Record each room, and every detail — be sure to open up cabinets and drawers. If there is ever a question about the person’s assets later on from family members or friends, or even the insurance company, you can show them your video.
Seek medical attention
You may be thinking the panic attacks will go away or your physical symptoms of grief are “all in your head,” but, broken heart syndrome is an actual medical condition, and needs a diagnosis and treatment. This isn’t a time to be doing guesswork with the internet. If you’ve had a history of experiencing mental health-related issues, like depression or anxiety, make an appointment with your doctor and/or mental health professional during this time, especially if you have thoughts of suicide. It’s better to get ahead of the pain than to be chasing it.
Take care of yourself and be patient with your healing
Develop small daily habits that you can count on, such as having a cup of coffee or tea at a certain time or listening to a favorite playlist before bed. This small thing will give you something to look forward to and can anchor your day. It’s one thing that you can control.
Conquering sadness accompanied by grief should be seen as a feat, similar to reaching the peak of a mountain. With enough effort and guidance, the bereaved can not only conquer the summit of loss but put a flag on it. What compliments resilience and mental wellness isn’t a stopwatch but rather an understanding that grief can’t be folded neatly into a 12-month planner and seeking professional mental health help for grief is a testament to your unconditional love.
Everyone handles grief differently, even in the same family you’ll likely see variations in how the loss is impacting one, so remember there’s no set time for healing your loss, and reaching out for professional help is a sign you’re open to guidance.
Kristin Meekhof, MSW, is the co-author of the best-selling book A Widow’s Guide to
Healing. She is also a writer, speaker, book coach, and life coach. She’s spoken at Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan Cancer Center, and as a guest on CNN.