What to Do When Someone Dies

An Unexpected Death: What to do in the First Few Hours
Sometimes death comes without warning. The most common causes are heart attacks, and accidents. But sometimes, people just die without warning—in their sleep. We are going about our lives and suddenly, with the unexpected loss of a loved one, everything has changed for us. Our first reactions may be a mix of shock, anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and disbelief. As the reality of the situation sinks in, we wonder what to do next. Here is a step by step guide to follow during those first difficult hours.

Step One: Take a Step Back
Although there are many decisions that must be made regarding arrangements, and certain legalities that must be observed, remember that your emotional needs and those of your family are more important than anything else. Here are key points to consider:

  • Don’t rush yourself through decisions and procedures or miss out on your opportunities to say your goodbyes.
  • Nearly every decision can wait for a few hours, so be sure to take care of yourself and your family first.
  • Do you have a clergy person available for support? If so, you may want to call them – they have been through this before, and their calming counsel at this time can be invaluable.
  • Are there family members who will need to come right away?
  • Would the support of a friend help you get through this? If you feel it would help, make those calls whenever you are ready to do so.

Step Two: Legalities
A sudden or unexpected death often takes place outside of a hospital, hospice, or the care of a physician. The death will have to be pronounced by an authorized heath care professional, county medical examiner, or Coroner. If you are the one to discover your deceased loved one, you will need to contact the appropriate authority. In some parts of the country, the Coroner or Medical Examiner’s office can be notified of a death directly. In others, emergency services must be called first. The best way to address this is to call 911, and let them know that a death has occurred, and that you need their help. Also ask them to not turn on sirens or flashing lights, and they will be very responsive to this request. In addition, your funeral home will complete and file the death certificate and notify Social Security of the passing.

Step Three: Notify Your Funeral Service Provider—Helping with Funeral Emergencies is Something They Do Best
Once the death has been pronounced, you will need to arrange for your funeral service provider to take your loved one into their care. Many families have entrusted the care of their loved ones to the same funeral home for generations.

Hospital staff may pressure you to select a funeral home right away, but please keep step one in mind. This is your decision and you are in control. If you are having trouble deciding on your funeral service provider, don’t rush to call the first firm you find in the book, or the one with the biggest ad. If you feel that you need more time with your loved one, simply call your funeral home when you are ready. Similarly, if you find, after the funeral director arrives, that you need more time, take that time. You have only one chance to do this, so do not feel rushed, the timetable here is the one that makes you and your family most comfortable.

Step Four: Ways of Saying Goodbye
Again, every decision you’ll need to make does not have to be rushed, so if you are really unsure about what kind of ceremony would be appropriate, or whether you would prefer burial or cremation, explore your options. The funeral home will need to know whether you want them to prepare your loved one for a family and friends goodbye. In this case, they will need your permission before beginning embalming preparations. But with that said, if you are unsure about your choices, you can wait until the next day to make your decision.

Your funeral home will make an appointment to meet with you and explain your options. Years ago, most services were very similar. Today, it is customary for services to be adapted and arranged to fit your specific needs and wishes. There are many choices for services such as a private family memorial service, a memorial service for friends and family, or a community wide memorial service, whether burial or cremation. There are also highly personal choices for a permanent remembrance, which many families find extremely comforting. Give serious thought to what you need from the service, and to what other family members, friends and members of the community need to say goodbye to your loved one.

You may be surprised to learn all that is possible and all the different ways that these aspects of funeral ceremonies can be made more meaningful through planning and family participation. And in most cases, your friends and family will want to help. At this time, and in years to come, memories of the support family and friends provided will be a key part of moving to remembrance of the loved one.

Step Five: Moving from Grief to Remembrance
We have learned from the experience of thousands of families that working through the time-tested steps in the Remembrance Process® helps in moving from grieving to remembrance. Saying Goodbye to Your Loved One with the support of your friends and family can be a huge part of this process, and we strongly suggest that you and your family explore the choices that most appeal to you. The memories shared, the stories told at these “goodbye” services will be remembered and valued forever. What many families don’t realize is how personal and creative saying goodbye can be.

Eulogies and obituaries can also be a key part of remembering your loved ones, and this website can give you the information you need on how to write a eulogy or how to write an obituary so they can be most meaningful. Friends and family are often eager to help here, and often some of the most memorable parts of the service are the words said about the loved one.

Lastly, many families find that permanent remembrances like cemetery monuments and headstones and grave markers can be especially valuable for now and for decades to come, but many families don’t know that they can have these remembrances even when they choose cremation. Having a permanent place to remember your loved ones is another time-tested way of helping move through grief. For families who choose traditional burial, a cemetery is the clear choice.

But many families who choose cremation don’t realize they have even broader choices for permanent remembrance. These choices can include special sections in cemeteries, cremation gardens, cremation niches, columabaria, and even highly personal locations. All of these choices allow a family to choose a headstone, monument or grave. We know that the loss of a loved one is not a one week, or one year event. Our goal is to help you deal with the fact that your loved one is gone, but still with us in our memories. Remembrance is an on-going state that is positive and life-affirming. And unlike the concept of “closure,” it doesn’t imply that somehow we are closing a chapter on a life. Instead, remembrance is an on-going collection of images, words, and memories that we will never forget. One way to help you with this process is to listen to how others have dealt with the loss of a loved one. Listening to grief counselors, clergy and other families at this time is like learning from a best friend who has been through it.