What Happens After a Loved One Dies in Their Sleep?

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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When someone dies in their sleep, their death may be expected or completely unexpected. Either way, the experience can be quite traumatic. If someone is quite old, has multiple medical conditions, or Alzheimer’s disease, their death may not come as quite a shock. However, there have been cases of otherwise healthy people dying in their sleep for various reasons.

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If you think about the fact that we spend roughly one-third of our lives asleep, then the chances of a medical event causing death don’t seem that farfetched. Some of the more common reasons are cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, or stroke.

At the time of death of a loved one, you may not know what the cause is and can only ascertain that later upon autopsy if you so choose. The most urgent thing on your mind will be what to do next.

What Are Families or Next-of-Kin Responsible For After a Loved One Dies in Their Sleep?

The answer to this question depends on whether the person that died was on hospice care or whether the death occurred without any support services in the home. We will take each scenario separately so you can be confident about what to do. You may also have questions about what happens when someone dies.

How prepared your loved one was also makes a difference in working your way through the tasks.

On hospice

If you discover that a loved one has died in their sleep and are on hospice, call the on-call hospice nurse immediately. Someone has to certify that the person is deceased, and with hospice, that is the nurse. The nurse will notify the medical director, and they will fill out all of the necessary paperwork to obtain death certificates. 

At that point, you and your family have time to remain with the body for several days if necessary. When you are ready, you can contact the mortuary to get the body for earth burial or cremation.

A death at home or other senior living facility without hospice

If your loved one is not under hospice care, there are some necessary steps to take. When someone dies at home, the process is a bit more complicated because no one has the authority or responsibility to certify the death.

Call 911 

You must call 911 because you want to make sure that the person is deceased. EMT professionals must resuscitate unless you have a Do Not Resuscitate order, POLST or MOLST form that you can show them.

If you do, the paramedics will certify that the person is deceased. There are cases where in the event that you do not have a DNR order, the person will be transported to a hospital for certification that they have died. If your loved one is in assisted living or some other senior living facility, the staff will handle calling the authorities and notify next of kin immediately. 

Be prepared for law enforcement

An “unattended death” will likely mean that law enforcement will arrive to make sure there was no foul play. Even if the death was expected, they would investigate unless hospice or a physician is present.

Notify family

Depending on who was present at the time of death, you will want to reach out immediately to family members to let them know. If the death was unexpected, be prepared for emotional responses to the news. As a person who discovered the death, you have your own feelings to deal with, so you might consider keeping the conversation brief. Let them know that you will call back at a later time with more details.

Call the mortuary

If the death is so unexpected that you have not made any arrangements, the body may be moved to the morgue. If you have made preplanning arrangements, you can call the mortuary. However, if you don’t have the authority to call the mortuary, you will need to call the authorized family member who does. 

In most states, you can remain with the body (assuming it has not been taken to the morgue) until you are ready to move it. This allows time for other family members or friends to spend time with the body and prepare for any religious rituals.

Notify the person’s doctor

Notify the person’s doctor as soon as you can. The doctor may ask you if you would like an autopsy performed to ascertain the cause of death. If your loved one had Alzheimer’s, you may be asked for an autopsy to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease research. 

Attend to dependents and pets

Sometimes in the chaos and confusion around a loved one’s death, you may forget to take care of other people and pets in the household. You may need to call other relatives or friends to help. Ask someone to look after the home while you attend to additional duties and responsibilities. 

In the days after death

After the emotional impact of sudden death, things may get complicated. Hopefully your loved one may have done some long-term planning that involves advance directives giving you the authority to decide about the estate. Here are some tasks to be aware of:

  • Funeral arrangements, if any, and write an obituary.
  • Official death certificates are necessary to make any financial decisions for the deceased. A good rule of thumb is to request 10.
  • You may want to consider contacting an estate attorney (your loved one may already have one) to walk you through the probate process.
  • Contact all financial institutions.
  • Contact the social security office and any retirement entities.
  • Contact the insurance company for any death claims.

Take care of yourself and your family

In the swirl of details, feelings can be pushed aside. At some point, the grief may come crashing down on top of the fatigue that has been building. Taking care of your health and the health of your family is essential. Get enough rest, delegate tasks, and take the time to process your emotions with your partner, spouse, friends, and family members.

ยป MORE: Experiencing loss? You're not alone. This poss-loss checklist is designed for you.

 

Who Are the Professionals Responsible For After Your Loved One Dies in Their Sleep?

After your loved one dies in their sleep, the professionals involved depend to some extent on how involved they were before the death. For example, if an estate attorney set up a trust before death, that person will be very involved afterward. The same holds true of hospice. Having completed pre and long-term care planning in advance of someone’s death is always preferable. That way, many of the decisions have already been made.

Hospice team

If there is one, the hospice team will assume many of the immediate responsibilities after someone dies. They are experienced in this area and know exactly what to do. When someone dies in their sleep, the on-call hospice nurse is notified who comes to the home to verify that they have died. 

The nurse will notify the physician and fill out the paperwork to obtain the death certificates. If you would like them to, they will also inform the mortuary and make those arrangements. The hospice chaplain and social worker can help the family work through the emotional impact of losing a loved one.

Physician

Notify your family member’s physician upon death. This is the person who managed your loved one’s healthcare, and they will want to know. As mentioned before, the physician will also talk to you about an autopsy. 

Mortuary

If you haven’t already identified a mortuary to handle the body and burial or cremation, you can pick one on the spot. Once the mortuary picks up the body, it is their responsibility to manage the body in the terms that were agreed upon.

Things may get complicated if someone who has died has not indicated whether they want an earth burial or cremation. Family members may disagree vehemently about the decision, which is why it is so crucial for people to make their wishes known before they die. 

Estate planning attorney

If your family member worked with an estate planning attorney before death, that is a good thing. Having an estate plan is an act of kindness to those left behind.

The attorney probably helped to set up all of the advance directives, living will, perhaps a trust, and other legal documents. When someone dies at home, contact the estate planning attorney within a reasonable amount of time. The attorney can walk you through all of the legal processes necessary to handle the will, deal with probate, access financial accounts, and distribute assets.

What Happens When a Loved One Dies in Their Sleep?

When a loved one dies in their sleep it is a shock for everyone. The initial emotional impact gives way to all of the responsibilities of dealing with the person, their belongings, and the estate. Permit yourself to take the time you need to deal with your feelings and obligations.

If you're looking for more on how to tie up loose ends after a death, read our guides on how to get a death certificate and how to write a death notification letter to friends.


Sources

  1. “Autopsy, Brain and Body Donation and Low-Cost Funeral and Burial Options.” Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org/media/greatermissouri/autopsy_brain_and_body_donation_low-cost_funeral_and_burial_options.pdf 
  2. “What to do When a Loved One Dies.”  Consumer Reports, October 2012, www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/10/what-to-do-when-a-loved-one-dies/index.htm 

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