Losing a loved one is always a painful experience. Dealing with feelings of grief and sorrow are only one side of the story. Unless your loved one passes away in a hospital or under a doctor’s care, the family might need to take action on behalf of a loved one.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Do Immediately After Death
- What to Do in the First Week
- What to in the First Month
- What to Do in the First Year
There are a lot of tasks family members need to take after someone dies. This isn’t something you likely realize if you’ve never personally dealt with a death in the family before. It is understandably confusing to know where to begin and what steps to take. You don’t want this painful time to become more challenging. This checklist helps you know just what to do when someone dies.
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What to Do Immediately After Death
Immediately after death is sometimes the hardest part of losing a loved one. Depending on the circumstances around the passing, you might be struggling to come to terms with what happened. How you’ll respond to the situation will mostly depend on whether your loved one passed at home or in a hospital. Let’s begin with what to do immediately after death.
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1. Look for signs of death
First, look for clear signs of death. It is understandably difficult to come to terms with a passing right away, especially if the death is sudden. Look for signs like a lack of response, no breathing, no pulse, or fixed eyes.
Remember that what you think are the signs of death might not always be the reality. Things like rigor mortis won’t set in for a few hours, so you might not see the signs. When in doubt, contact a doctor or emergency responder.
2. Call for assistance
Next, it’s time to call for help. If your loved one passed in a hospital or nursing home and you’re the first one aware, alert the staff. The doctor is the only one who can pronounce someone dead. The medical professionals take the next steps from this point.
If your loved one passed at home and the death was expected, contact your loved one’s doctor. In the case of your loved one passing in the middle of the night, it is okay to contact 911 or another emergency service. Be sure to inform the 911 operator that the death was expected.
If the death was unexpected at home or elsewhere, call 911 immediately. Both police and emergency responders will determine what steps to take next. Try to remain calm, and contact a family member for support.
3. Make arrangements for the body
Once a medical professional declares death, the body needs proper arrangements. If the body needs an autopsy, contact your county coroner for more information. Otherwise, arrange for transportation of the body to the mortuary or crematorium. These care providers give prices over the phone so there are no surprises in terms of cost.
If you haven’t already, notify the deceased person’s doctor as well as the county coroner. The latter is to ensure you get a proper death certificate. Again, it’s helpful to have someone to support you during this process, like a friend or family member.
4. Contact the family
This is often the most challenging step. Now that you’ve handled the arrangements for the body, you need to contact the family. Call family members, dependents, and friends to notify them of the passing. Don’t feel pressured to reach out to everyone.
It’s normal to ask family members to spread this news on your behalf. The word really travels fast.
5. Handle dependent and home care
If the deceased has any dependents, including pets, you’ll need to make arrangements for them. If they have pets, take them home with you or find a suitable pet sitter. For children or other dependents, contact other close family members for support.
Finally, don’t forget to contact the deceased person’s employer, if applicable. Request any information about pay that might be due or any benefits. The company might also know if the deceased had a life insurance policy.
What to Do in the First Week
After the initial adrenaline and shock wear off, it is normal to begin experiencing the real feelings of grief. Don’t feel like you need to handle these steps below alone. Accept help when you need it. Here’s what to do in the first week after losing a loved one.
6. Arrange the funeral or burial
Before planning the funeral, search for any end-of-life plans or last wishes the deceased might have on their behalf. It is common for people to save money to put towards a burial or other end-of-life plans. If not, you’ll turn to their estate to fund a burial or funeral ceremony.
A funeral home is the best resource for planning a funeral service. There are different packages and options available, so choose something that fits the budget of the estate. Consider what your loved one would have wanted. If anyone had the financial power of attorney on behalf of this individual, they would lead this process.
If your loved one was part of a local organization or was a veteran, they might qualify for burial services. Contact these organizations to see what options they have available or if they have a special protocol. For example, there are a number of veteran death benefits available through the Veteran’s Association.
7. Write an obituary
It’s common to write an obituary after the passing of a loved one. Share a brief history of the person’s life, his or her accomplishments, and the legacy they leave behind. This could be published online, on social media, or even in a local publication. Your funeral home is available to help with these arrangements as well.
8. Be mindful of the person’s personal belongings
The first few days after the death of a loved one are challenging. You’ll want to keep an eye on the person’s home, mail, and phone. These things are a part of their estate, and this will take more planning to figure out. In the meantime, keep up with these small tasks so they don’t become a problem.
What to in the First Month
After a week passed, things begin to return to normal. However, this is the time to deal with financial and legal matters for your loved one.
9. Collect the death certificate
You need the death certificate for many of the financial and legal steps after the death of a loved one. You can get this from the family doctor, county coroner, or medical examiner. This should be signed within 24-hours of the death, but it goes through several steps before it’s returned to you.
You should receive the final death certificate from the mortuary or cremated after everything is completed. Once you have it, make certified copies. You need the death certificate to finalize any estate affairs.
10. Contact an estate attorney
If your loved one already had an estate attorney, contact them to handle any final affairs. The more precise these plans are, the easier it is to handle these financial and legal terms. However, when a loved one passes without any final estate plan, things are complicated. Instead of mediating as a family, contact a qualified estate attorney.
In the case of no estate plan, probate court might be necessary. An estate attorney is a tremendous resource during these situations. And, if your loved one died with debt, you might need to deal with things like the car loan death clause or other obligations. Again, an estate attorney will be the best source of information specific to your situation.
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11. Contact a life insurance agent and the social security office
Locate any insurance policies that include death benefits. If your loved one had life insurance, you’ll need to file a claim with the provider. This usually requires the death certificate and other information about the policy.
Also, contact your local Social Security office to see if you’re eligible for any lump-sum benefits. If your loved one receives Social Security, you might qualify. Realize these are not automatic, so you will need to apply with the right steps.
12. Alert banks and payment services
Your loved one likely had bank accounts or other services in his or her name. You’ll need to contact these companies to let them know a death occurred. If they don’t already have a beneficiary for these accounts, you will need to complete an affidavit with the bank to access these funds. Discontinue any services that are no longer required.
What to Do in the First Year
Just because you’ve handled all the legal and financial steps doesn’t mean things become easy. The most challenging part of moving on after a passing is dealing with your own emotions. These steps help you heal from a loss.
13. Connect with family members
Lean on your family and friends during this difficult time. They’re likely experiencing many of the same feelings, so take some time to grieve together. Processing the death of a loved one is a challenge. You don’t have to face these things alone.
14. Talk to a grief counselor or therapist
It is normal to struggle with feelings of grief, sadness, and even guilt after losing a loved one. If you were the one to discover the body, these feelings are often even more challenging.
If you’re still struggling weeks or months after the death, it’s time to talk to a grief counselor or therapist. These professionals know what to say when someone dies, and they’re here to help.
Handling the Death of a Loved One
Now you know exactly what to do if a loved one dies. Being there in those initial hours after death is something nobody wants to think about. However, it’s better to be prepared and ready for anything. These steps above outline everything from making funeral arrangements to finalizing the estate.
Remember that the legal steps are only one side of the story. Don’t neglect your own feelings or needs during this time. When in doubt, reach for help when you need it. Nobody should go through these steps alone. Save this checklist somewhere safe and accessible just in case.
- “When Death Occurs: What to Do When a Loved One Dies.” The University of Hawaii. Hawaii.edu.