What to do when a loved one dies unexpectedly?

What to Do When Someone Dies: A Checklist

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Losing someone close to you can be incredibly difficult, and if you’re responsible for handling funeral arrangements and personal affairs, the experience is often overwhelming. If this applies to you, here’s a checklist of things that need to be taken care of after someone passes away. Note that some of these items can only be managed by the executor of a person’s estate, so if this isn’t you, it’s generally a good idea to work closely with the person who is.

What to do as soon as possible

1. Get a legal pronouncement of death. If your loved one died in a hospital, a doctor can take care of this for you. However, if your loved one passed at home or in another location, you’ll need to know who to call. If he or she passed away while in hospice care, call your hospice nurse. If your family member wasn’t at a hospital or in hospice, call 911.

2. Arrange for organ donation, if applicable. Check your loved one’s driver’s license and/or advance directive to see if he or she was an organ donor. If so, let hospital staff know immediately (or call a nearby hospital if your loved one died at home). Organ donation is time-sensitive, so this is one area where it’s important to act quickly.

3. Notify close friends and family. Every family is different, and there’s no one right way to do this. For some families, sharing the news in-person or over the phone is critical. For others an email or text message may be alright. If possible, split up the task between several family members.

4. Decide what you’d like to do with your loved one’s body and arrange transportation. First, check to see if your loved one expressed any wishes about final disposition or had made prepayments to a funeral home or cemetery. Ideally, there will be documentation with other medical documents. If no wishes or plans have been stated, you have three main options:

  • Call a funeral home. A funeral home can help you arrange either a burial or cremation. We recommend checking reviews and prices for a few different funeral homes before making a decision, as both can vary widely. A few minutes of research can save you thousands of dollars and reduce unwanted surprises.
  • Call a cremation company. While you can arrange a cremation through a funeral home, there are also cremation-specific companies that will work with you directly if you aren’t interested in the added services of a funeral director. A direct cremation through a cremation company can be one third of the cost of a direct cremation through a funeral home.
  • Call a full-body donation organization. Your loved one may have already registered to be a body donor, so check for paperwork. If he or she hasn’t, there are still many programs that accept donations from next of kin. Many university medical programs rely on body donations, and other for-profit companies, such as Science Care and BioGift, will cover most costs and coordinate with other research programs. Body donation is often a good option for families who want their loved one to be able to continue to help others after death or who are looking for a more economical alternative to a traditional funeral.

Find a local funeral home

5. Arrange care for any pets or dependents. If your loved one was responsible for caring for one or more people or pets, quickly find someone who can care for them temporarily while you figure out a long-term plan.

6. Secure major property. If your loved one lived on their own, make sure his or her home and any vehicles are locked up. If it will sit vacant for some time, consider notifying the landlord and/or the police, so they can help to keep an eye on it.

7. Notify the person’s employer. If the deceased was employed (or actively volunteering), call to let them know that your loved one has passed away. This is also a good time to ask about pay owed, benefits and life insurance.

What to do within a few days

8. Decide on funeral plans. If you decided to work with a funeral home, meet with the funeral director to go through your options. If you opted for an immediate burial (burial without any ceremonies), cremation or donation to science, you may also choose to hold a memorial service or celebration of life at a later date. Some people prefer this in order to give themselves more time to plan a meaningful event when they’ve had a little more time to process the death. If you’re looking for memorial event ideas, we’ve listed a few to help you get started.

9. Order a casket or urn. You may choose to purchase a casket or urn directly through the funeral home, and many people prefer this for ease of coordination. However, you can often find caskets online for hundreds (even thousands) of dollars less, and some websites even offer free overnight delivery. If you want to make sure you’re getting a good deal, it is probably worth looking online before making an order.

Browse caskets & urns

10. Ask the post office to forward mail. If the person lived alone, this will prevent mail from piling up and showing that the property is occupied. The mail may also help you identify bills that need to be paid and accounts that should be closed. You’ll need to file a request at the post office and show proof that you are an appointed executor and authorized to manage his or her mail. Read more on the USPS website.

11. Perform a more thorough check of the person’s home. Throw out any food that will expire, water plants, and look for anything else that may need regular care.

12. Create a memorial website. A memorial website will make it easy for you to share a death announcement and any funeral plans with a larger circle of people.

Create a free website

13. Write an obituary. Draft an obituary for your loved one and get feedback from friends and family. If you’re not sure where to start, try using an obituary template. Once it’s complete, determine whether you’d like to pay to have it published in your local newspaper. You can always publish an obituary online for free.

What to do leading up to the funeral, memorial service or celebration of life

14. Determine whether you’ll need financial assistance. The average funeral costs about $9,000 on average, which is an enormous burden on many families. While there are many ways to save money on a funeral, you may want to consider financial assistance. Crowdfunding campaigns for funerals are increasingly common, and you can set up a free funeral fundraiser on your memorial website on Ever Loved.

Set up a funeral fundraiser

15. Look into veterans’ benefits. If your loved one was a veteran, you may be able to get financial assistance with the funeral or burial. Find more information on the VA website.

16. Choose funeral participants. If you want friends or family members to give eulogies, do readings, sing, be pallbearers or participate in another fashion, reach out and discuss this with them.

17. Set the funeral schedule. Determine the time and place for any events, and for structured events (such as a formal service), write down an ordered list of everything that will happen.

18. Order printed materials and flowers. If you want programs, prayer cards, flowers or other items at the service, order them a few days in advance. You can often order them directly through the funeral home, which will minimize coordination on your part, but you’ll often be able to find a better deal by shopping around.

19. Coordinate food and drinks, if desired. It’s not uncommon to have food available at a funeral reception or celebration of life. You may choose to provide food yourself, work with a caterer, have a potluck, or hold the event at a restaurant where guests can purchase their own food and drinks. Any of these options are completely acceptable and just depend on your personal preference.

20. Spread the word. An online funeral announcement is often the easiest way to share event details with friends and family. For older folks who may not use the internet regularly, you can send a paper funeral announcement or arrange for people to call them and let them know.

Create a funeral announcement

What to do within a few weeks

21. Order a headstone. Since headstones are rarely ready in time for a burial, you can save this task until after the funeral when you have some more time. You’ll generally be able to order a headstone through the cemetery, but you’ll have more options (and often lower prices) if you look online.

22. Order several copies of the death certificate. You’ll likely need anywhere between 5 and 10 copies (but possibly more), depending on the accounts that your loved one had open. Your funeral director may be able to help you order them, or you can order them yourself from city hall or another local records office.

23. Start the probate process with the will. If the estate is relatively small, doesn’t contain unusual assets and isn’t likely to be disputed by family members you may be able to handle it on your own. However, it’s worth considering whether you should hire a probate lawyer to help. If you’re unsure, here’s some helpful information that may guide your decision.

24. Contact the Social Security office. Your funeral director may have already done this, so find out if this is the case. If you need to contact social security yourself, you can reach them by phone at 1-800-772-1213. Through Social Security you may be able to apply for survivor benefits. Visit the Social Security website to learn more about their process and find any forms that you may be required to fill out.

25. Notify any banks or mortgage companies. If you’re unsure of what accounts your loved one held, use their mail and any online accounts you have access to in order to identify what accounts may be open. Then, take copies of the death certificate to each bank and change ownership of the accounts. You may need a court order to open and inventory a safe deposit box if a key isn’t readily available.

26. Reach out to any financial advisors or brokers. Try to identify any additional financial and investment accounts that your loved one held. Work with each one to transfer ownership. You’ll likely need a death certificate for each account.

27. Contact a tax accountant. You’ll need to file a return for both the individual and the estate.

28. Notify life insurance companies. Fill out the claim form for any life insurance policies that the deceased had. Also, suggest that friends and family who may have listed your loved one on their own life insurance policies update theirs.

29. Cancel insurance policies. This could include health insurance, car insurance, homeowner’s insurance or anything else. Depending on the policy, reach out to either the insurance company or your loved one’s employer to stop coverage. If the deceased was on Medicare, the Social Security office will inform them of the death, but if your loved one had Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D), a Medicare Advantage plan and/or a Medigap policy, you need to call each yourself to cancel.

30. Determine any employment benefits. If your loved one was working at the time of their death, contact his or her employer to find out about union death benefits, pension plans and credit unions.

31. Identify and pay important bills. Make a list of bills that are likely to be due (e.g. mortgage, car payments, electricity), and do your best to track them down via the person’s mail and online accounts. Set up a plan to ensure these bills continue to be paid on time.

32. Close credit card accounts. Leverage your loved one’s mail, wallet and any online accounts you have access to in order to identify open credit card accounts. For each one, you’ll likely need to call customer service and then email or mail a copy of the death certificate.

33. Notify credit reporting agencies. Provide copies of the death certificate to Experian, Equifax and TransUnion in order to minimize the chances of identity theft. It’s also a good idea to check your loved one’s credit history in another month or two to confirm that no new accounts have been opened.

34. Cancel the person’s driver’s license. This will also help to prevent identity theft. Go online or call your state’s DMV for instructions. Have a copy of the death certificate ready. Notify the local election board. This helps reduce the risk of voter fraud in your area.

35. Memorialize your loved one’s Facebook account. If your loved one was on Facebook, you can memorialize their account. This will let current friends continue to post and share memories but will keep anyone from logging into it in the future.

36. Close email accounts. Once you feel confident that you have necessary information on other accounts, it’s a good idea to permanently close your loved one’s email accounts as an additional step to prevent fraud and identity theft. Every email provider has their own process, so do a quick online search to figure out the steps you need to take.

April 2018

5 things to do immediately after a loved one dies

    When a loved one passes away, there are many issues the survivors need to navigate during an already extremely difficult time. Having to make funeral plans, notify friends and family and start the grieving process can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are also several critical financial items that need your attention.

    1. Request death certificates

    The very first step is to contact the Vital Statistics office in the state in which the death occurred and obtain several certified copies of the death certificate. You also may be able to request it through the funeral home. You will need to order enough copies for each of the entities listed below. Some of the recipients may accept a faxed copy, but most will require an original certified document. There may be a charge for each copy requested.

    2. Probate the estate

    If the decedent had a will, it probably named an executor who is in charge of carrying out final wishes and distributing property. If the person died without a will (also known as “intestacy”), state law typically provides a list of those who could serve in this capacity. It is important to note that since property transferred at death is governed by state law, the details will differ from state to state. If you are named executor, you should obtain letters testamentary, which provide proof that you have a right to handle the deceased’s financial affairs during probate. You may want to consult an estate attorney to help you through the probate process.

    3. Notify financial institutions

    Once you receive the death certificates and the letters testamentary, you should contact any insurance company where the decedent had a policy. This may include employer-sponsored plans, individually owned policies, mortgage cancellation plans and policies issued by associations, banks and credit cards companies. Some of these policies, especially the last three, may only provide benefits if the death resulted from an accident. Other policies may provide an additional benefit for accidental death.

    You will need to notify all savings and investment companies where the decedent had an account. This includes both individually owned accounts and joint accounts. It is critical to understand that the account will most likely be frozen once the company has been notified of the death, so plans should be made in advance to prevent any hardship this might cause. You will have to provide a death certificate and letters testamentary for each account and then set up new accounts in the names of the heirs in order to receive the assets. You should also contact any pension providers to determine whether the pension benefit includes survivor payments.

    Contact mortgage companies and other loan providers, including credit card companies. Since these debts are now obligations of the deceased’s estate, they will have to be paid off by the assets of the estate. One exception is if the decedent was married. In that instance, the responsibility may transfer to the spouse.

    It is also a good idea to contact the credit bureaus and report the death to prevent identity theft after their passing. The executor should also request a copy of the deceased’s credit report.

    4. Contact service providers

    Contact utility companies and other service providers to change or discontinue service. Some services like cable television, Internet, and telephone lines can be cancelled immediately, while it may make sense to delay others like electric, water, gas, and lawn care so that the home can be properly maintained. It might be helpful to look over bank and credit card statements to identify other less obvious monthly recurring charges, like gym memberships, home security systems and club membership dues.

    5. Notify government agencies

    Finally, notify appropriate government agencies to start and/or end benefits. The surviving spouse or children may qualify to receive a one-time $255 death benefit from the Social Security Administration. Additionally, survivor benefits may be available for children under age 16 (or disabled children of any age) and to spouses or ex-spouses (if they were married to the deceased for at least 10 years). Interestingly, both a spouse and an ex-spouse may be able to qualify for unreduced survivor benefits at the same time.

    If the deceased served in the armed forces, there may be Veteran’s Administration survivor benefits payable to the spouse and/or the children of the deceased veteran. While some benefits require that the death occur while on active duty, others just require service. Since these benefits are fairly complicated, you should contact the VA to determine if you qualify.

    Facing the death of a loved one can be a daunting journey. Knowing what to do with your finances when it happens can at least bring some comfort and order to the survivors.

    More from Credit.com

    What happens to your credit when you get divorced?
    What’s a good credit score?
    Estate planning: A simple guide

    Credit.com is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

    Coming to Terms with Unexpected Death

    Death is never easy, but for families and friends affected by a sudden death of a loved one, grief is especially traumatic. Deaths caused by accidents, homicide and suicide typically seem premature, unjust, and wrong. Completely wrong.
    It’s common to have obsessive thoughts and feelings about what the death must have been like for the person who died, and what might have been done to prevent it.
    Strong feelings of anger and regret are also common. Understanding and expressing these feelings helps survivors, over time and with the support of others, come to reconcile their loss.

    What is Sudden Death?

    Sudden, unexpected death is just that: death came without warning. It may happen in a few seconds or minutes, such as in an accident or from a heart attack, or a random, seemingly senseless act of violence.
    Sudden unexpected deaths also happen when the person is not expected to die in a certain way or place. He or she may not even be expected to die at all.
    Some people, not knowing the person was ill, may think of their death as sudden and unexpected. A person who was expected to take many months to die may also die a death that is seen as sudden. They may be expected to get worse slowly but then die in a short period of time. Death may also seem sudden when people are expecting a different outcome. The person may die in a few weeks when they were expected to live for months or even years.

    What Thoughts Arise in Those Left Behind?

    The sudden loss and death of a person may cause shock and confusion at first. They may have more need to go over and over the events around the death. They may think that mistakes were made, and feel guilty or angry.
    The police, courts, media, and insurance companies may get involved with the death. People may feel they need to help resolve the practical issues involved in the situation, instead of facing their grief, and moving through it.
    The following may be some of a survivor’s feelings or actions after the sudden unexpected death of a loved one:

    • They may tire easily and be physically inactive
    • They may instead become manic and way-too-busy
    • They may tenaciously hang on to clothing or other belongings.
    • They may have really poor concentration, not able to think clearly, or have trouble making decisions.
    • They may have no appetite at all, or eat too much…or any combination of the two.
    • They may sleep too much or not get enough sleep.

    Grief is a cycling process, and all of these symptoms may wax and wane, come and go, with the “seasons” of grieving.

    If You Lost Someone You Love Suddenly

    The following may help you cope with the sudden unexpected death of a loved one:

    • Rest is important. Do not try to do everything all at the same time. Do only what is needed and let other things wait until later. Ask your family, friends, or caregivers for help.
    • Share your feelings. Try saying what you really feel or share stories of the one who just passed away. Often just talking things out with someone you trust is a big help.
    • Take good care of yourself. Do not forget to look after yourself and other family members or friends. You should eat healthy food and keep yourself healthy.
    • When the time is right, try to get out of the house a little each day. Go for a walk or meet with a friend. Be sure to spend time with your family or friends. But, remember, it is also important that you have time to yourself each day.

    The Essential Lesson Within

    Here’s the truth of things: if your loved one died from a sudden death, you have been brought face-to-face with the realization that tomorrow is promised to no one. This awareness can help you keep in mind what is important in life, so you don’t get lost in trivial matters and lose sight of those things that are most important to you.
    It is an ironic but one consequence of sudden death is that it can make you appreciate life more than you ever would have if you had not undergone such a traumatic experience.
    Now we know that no one in their right mind would seek out such a loss in order to teach themselves a lasting life lesson, but it does let you pull something meaningful out of such a tragedy.

    Coping with the unexpected death of a loved one

    It was over 30 years ago when the telephone rang. My stepfather’s voice was flat and hollow. “Your brother is dead. He was jogging. A car hit him. The driver was drunk.”

    I heard his words, but I felt numb. Driving that night to my parents’ house, I kept repeating to my wife, “I can’t believe it…It can’t be true”. But it was, and will always be so. He was 32 years old. I was 28.

    Most of us feel shock and disbelief when we hear about the unexpected death of a loved one. While all of us ponder the subject of death from time to time, we are unprepared for its arrival. We assume that our family and friends will reach old age. Yet, it is not uncommon for death to come earlier, unexpectedly, through accident or illness. The initial disbelief and numbness we experience gives us time to focus our energies, and to prepare for the deep feelings which will follow.

    It was not until the funeral, two days later that the numbness turned into grief. When I saw his body, I knew he was really gone. At that moment, I felt a pain that blasted through my body. Feeling as if my heart had been torn from my chest, I thought I would never stop crying…

    When we realize that our loved one is gone, the currents of feeling can be very intense. For each of us, they ebb and flow with our own natural rhythms. It is natural to find ourselves unable to sleep, crying at the drop of a hat, feeling angry or numb. We ask the question, “Why did this happen?” We search for the answer.

    Funerals and memorial services are very important. Steeped in ancient ceremony and ritual, they perform a rite of passage. Together, we mark the movement of our loved one from life to death. We celebrate their life and evaluate its impact on us. It is especially important for children to participate. Sparing them pain now will only make it worse later.

    I stood on the hillside with my family. We were to spread Joey’s ashes on the countryside he loved. My usually rational scientist brother wailed in rage, as I stood helplessly by.

    Unexpected loss can bring out anger and helpless fury. Often, we feel angry at the deceased for leaving us, as irrational as that emotion may be. This anger needs to be accepted and acknowledge when it arises, without judgment. Sometimes, we look for something or someone to blame, to hold responsible for this catastrophe. Frequently, we turn towards our religious beliefs to find comfort and meaning. We turn toward familiar ground.

    Abrupt death can also bring up intense feelings of guilt. We may feel bad that we had not communicated important feelings to our relative or friend when they were alive. We forget that a relationship is measured through its entire life and not just by its ending.

    Mourning is a healing process that moves us through many stops, like a train traversing varied terrain. On this journey, we have many moments in which our everyday lives cover over our grief. Other times we feel various mixtures of sadness, anger, emptiness, fear and loneliness. We need to respect these emotions, and allow them to run their course.

    If you have an unexpected loss:

    • Give yourself time. It takes awhile to integrate this loss into the fabric of your life.
    • Be prepared for a wide range of emotions. Let yourself feel whatever arises.
    • Talk to friends, family or clergy about your experience. Don’t keep your feelings inside.
    • After unexpected loss, you may find yourself having irrational fears. These fears will lessen over time.
    • Take time to consider what is important in your life. Celebrate all of the moments of closeness you do have with the people you love.

    Dealing with Unexpected Loss

    Source: Photo: Timothy Krause/Flickr: Memorial

    The fact that a Germanwings co-pilot sped up a plane on descent, deliberately crashing into the mountainside of the French Alps and killing all 150 people on board in an act of premeditated murder, is beyond imagining. Tragically, in a different part of the world, seven siblings from an Orthodox Jewish family recently died when a hotplate in their home caught fire and burned down the stairs, leaving the children trapped in their second floor bedrooms. In rural Southwest Florida, a church van returning from a Palm Sunday revival accidentally ran through a stop sign, resulting in the deaths of eight passengers and injuring 10 others. In all cases, the loss of life is staggering and completely senseless. Sadly, there are countless other examples of tragedies that happen every day resulting in the sudden end of lives for the victims and forever altering the lives of loved ones left behind.

    Whether we are offering support to family, friends, and coworkers who have been intimately affected, or grieving as an entire nation, there are some specific dynamics to consider when addressing loss that is so sudden:

    Shock and disbelief can initially overshadow grief: It helps to stay mindful of this, as the lack of overt sadness can seem confusing and be misinterpreted by professionals and loved ones. It makes sense that there is an initial refusal to accept a loss that is horrifying or unexpected. The fact that there is no time to “prepare” or begin to slowly grieve a loss that has been predicted leaves loved ones feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under them. Feelings of shock or disbelief can manifest as emotional shut down or numbness. This needs to be validated and never pathologized.

    The suddenness might invoke more anger or outrage that needs to be addressed. This is important to know as we need to create a safe and accepting space for anger to be fully processed. Many people believe that it’s important to “peel away” anger in order to get to the grief. But in cases of sudden, unexpected loss, anger needs to be expressed, witnessed, and soothed before grief can be accessed. The level of outrage is often in keeping with the degree of horror or the senselessness of the event and needs to be normalized. When anger is not safely expressed or goes “underground” it will inevitably manifest in other destructive ways.

    There might be a stronger need to “fill in the blanks” when the loss is unexpected. Human beings don’t like the unknown and find it almost impossible to live with not having answers for tragic life events. They either relentlessly attempt to find the answers or begin to fill in the blanks on their own. Even when their explanations cannot be proven or are obviously off the mark, it initially still feels better than having to live with “not knowing” why something awful occurred. Clinicians should pay attention to how those blanks get filled in, especially when self-blame becomes a part of the explanation.

    Sudden loss might evoke more self-blame in those left behind. In response to a completely unpredictable loss it’s not uncommon for people to believe they ‘could have done something,” “should have seen it coming,” or “want forgiveness” from those who have perished. All of these feelings imply that they are somehow to blame. This is a way to try to re-claim the feelings of power and control that get taken from them, particularly when loved ones die unexpectedly or tragically. In these cases, one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that there is nothing they could have done to prevent or change the outcome.

    When the loss makes no sense, there may be a stronger desire to find or attach meaning to the deaths. Part of why it’s so difficult to grieve sudden losses is because they are so senseless. Although it might take a long time, many people eventually find comfort in being able to attach their own personal meaning to tragic events. This can be expressed in spiritual terms, or can take the form of using the death to honor and memorialize the departed through events that educate or celebrate. Through tragedies we can heighten awareness about life threatening issues. It’s also an opportunity to be reminded about the preciousness of life and the importance of gratitude.

    Although we are faced with devastating losses that can leave behind a residue of profound trauma, these experiences can also represent the extraordinary resiliency of the human spirit and our capacity to come together in grief and assist one another in healing.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to provide grief counseling for a group of people who were grieving the loss of someone who died unexpectedly. Being with the group reminded me of how powerful and important it is for people to gather together and share their pain, feelings, and memories about the person who has died. The group energy provided a healing container for the tears and sadness, as well as a place to share memories, laughter and stories. It brought the group together and felt like a wonderful way to honor and celebrate the life that was being mourned.

    Any death can feel devastating. Especially, when the death is unexpected. When a death is sudden or unexpected, you may be left with many unanswered questions. You may be feeling guilty about things you ‘could have’, or ‘should have’ done differently. You may second guess yourself and some of your actions. You now realize there is no time to say goodbye or to let that person know one more time how much you loved and valued him/her. Maybe there was unfinished business and you are thinking, “I wish I had”, “If only I had”. Maybe your last interaction was troubling and now you have no way to repair and apologize.

    The manner of death may add additional complexities, as in cases of suicide or if the person was young, as in the case of children/teens. Children, young adults and people in mid-life are expected to live long healthy lives and when that doesn’t happen, it can add layers to the grief. Whatever the cause of death or age, an unexpected death alters your life.

    Grieving is a complex process, with many twists and turns, and it can be helpful to understand the common feelings and reactions that accompany this emotional process. It won’t take the pain away, but it can help to know that your reactions are normal. It’s also helpful to know that while your reactions are normal, there are things you can do to aid in the healing process. We will talk about ways to cope and find your way through the grief.

    Everyone will grieve in their own individual way. There is no right or wrong. Some people may not experience any or all of these reactions. Some people may feel so disconnected from their feelings they won’t feel anything, for a long time. Give yourself time and permission to grieve in the way that is right for you.

    Common Grief Reactions

    Shock and Denial

    Shock is a very common reaction when learning about an unexpected death. It can be very traumatic to hear; it can shake your whole being. It can feel as if your whole body is hit with a frozen, paralyzed feeling. Everything is altered. You may feel completely separate or far away from your body. It may seem like you are living a dream. You may have a sense that the World around you isn’t real. You may have flashbacks of the person or have distressing dreams. Your vision may be altered and you may feel numb. All of these reactions are completely normal. Hearing about a death is a traumatic experience. It’s hard to wrap your head and heart around it. Our psyches provide us with a natural defense mechanism to protect us when something is too overwhelming. We can go into dissociation or denial and shut out the awareness that this has happened. This is the body’s natural way of helping to protect you. It is completely normal. Allow your psyche to process this in the way it does. Over time, you will slowly begin to acknowledge the loss and begin to process your feelings. It will help you move through the pain if you don’t worry too much about how you are reacting or judge yourself harshly for it.

    We feel our reactions to any experience, including grieving a death, in 5 areas of human experience: Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, Behavioral and Spiritual.

    Physical Reactions

    Our bodies hold all of our experiences. When you are grieving, your body feels it. You may notice an increase in headaches, stomachaches/IBS symptoms, heart rate, blood pressure, numbness/tingling, aches and pains, tension and fatigue. Your body is processing stress chemicals that flood you when something traumatic occurs. Your body is doing its best to deal with it. Expect for your body to have some reaction. Everyone’s reaction will be different. If you are having symptoms that are ongoing and distressing, please make sure to check in with your doctor.

    Emotional Reactions

    The top three emotional reactions to death are sadness, guilt, and anger.


    Most of us live with the assumption that we are in control of our lives. When someone dies unexpectedly, it shakes our whole World view. It breaks us out of our illusion that we are invincible. We are confronted with our own mortality. This will inevitably bring up feelings. Oftentimes, as the shock wears off and the reality sets in, you may find yourself crying ( or not ), either all throughout the day or off and on. You may feel totally consumed and overwhelmed with sadness. Accepting the loss will take time. You will be constantly reminded and triggered by things that remind you of the person who has died. Each time you are reminded, you may feel extremely sad. You may have trouble getting through the day. It may be hard to get out of bed. You may feel depressed and a loss of hope that your future can feel hopeful again. All of these reactions are normal and understandable when you are grieving of the loss of someone.


    Feelings of guilt are common. It is natural, in trying to make sense of what has happened, to question whether there was something you could have done differently. There may be an assumption that if you had done something differently, it may have changed the outcome or altered the event. This is a normal reaction, but it’s not helpful if it goes on too long. Remember that you are reinterpreting events now knowing what the outcome turned out to be. It is more helpful to remember the context of the information you had at the time. Nobody can predict the future.


    Anger is also very common. When life doesn’t go as planned, anger is a natural response. We have the illusion of control over something that we are powerless to control and that can make us angry. We may need to blame someone when we feel this way, either ourselves or other people, even the one who died. We can even blame God, if that is part of our Spiritual belief system. In the case of suicide, survivors may feel particularly conflicted in their feelings. Anger is common because the death feels so senseless.

    Cognitive Reactions

    Initially, you may notice difficulty concentrating, have memory problems, slowed thinking and impaired problem solving abilities. You may feel confused and have trouble remembering how to do things you normally don’t have trouble with. You may have intrusive thoughts and memories. You may have distressing dreams or flashbacks. What is happening here is that you are trying to make sense of what has happened. Your mind is trying to understand it. It can feel fragmenting, at first, so give yourself time and be gentle with yourself as you notice these reactions. Your mind is trying to assimilate and integrate the information and it will take time.

    Behavioral Reactions

    When something traumatic happens, you may have a sense that you need to do something, but don’t know what to do, which can leave you feeling hyped up. You may find yourself pacing, feeling restless, anxious, and hypervigilant or you may feel a need to avoid people or places. You may reach for substances, drugs or alcohol, which have helped you cope in the past. Your sleep may be disturbed and you can feel exhausted. There may be an increase or decrease in appetite. You may turn to ways that helped you cope in the past, even if those coping behaviors are not as healthy as you would like. You may lash out in anger to those you love or you may withdraw and isolate.

    Spiritual Reactions

    Whatever your spiritual belief system, you may experience a crisis of faith when you experience the loss of someone unexpectedly. Everything about your World view comes into question. The injustice and unfairness of life are acutely felt. You may lash out at God, or whomever you worship. You may question how a loving God could allow something like this to happen. You may lose your belief in God entirely. You may feel a loss of security, a loss of safety in the World and you may wonder who/what you can trust in. It can bring you face to face with your own mortality and you are confronted with the fact that ‘this could happen to me’. All of these reactions are completely understandable given the loss you are feeling.

    Self Care: Ways to Cope

    As you go through your various reactions, it is important to make a self-care plan. There are things you can do to help yourself as you go through this.

    Healthy Nutrition

    The last thing someone who is grieving may want to do is worry about eating in a healthy way. It’s enough just to get through the day sometimes. It’s important to help nourish your body so it can support you in the recovery process. You will do best to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Limiting your consumption of fast food, high in carbs and sugars, will help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Drink lots of water. Hydration is essential for repairing your body on a cellular level. Limit your caffeine intake, at least initially, as caffeine adds adrenaline to your nervous system. Your system is already overloaded with stress hormones so we want to prevent any further spikes and crashes.


    Our bodies need 6-8 hours of sleep a night to help repair the normal wear and tear we experience during the day. When healing from trauma, it is particularly important to get enough rest. Your body knows how to heal itself naturally assuming the right conditions exist. One of those conditions is getting enough sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, feel free to reach out to me for help. Sleep aids are to be avoided, if at all possible, so your body can resume its natural rhythms. A word about alcohol. Try to limit the amount of alcohol you are consuming, especially at night, as alcohol interrupts your circadian rhythms which means your body won’t reach the depth of sleep needed for repair.


    We have all heard about the benefits of exercise. It can be especially helpful in releasing the stress hormones that are activated when you are going through a trauma. Our natural endorphins are the ‘feel good’ chemicals that get released when we get our heart rate up. You don’t need to go run for miles and miles to benefit. Start with a regular routine of walking, for at least 20 minutes per day. Other exercise is great too, like swimming, biking, etc. Strength training can be helpful too, as long as you make sure to get some aerobic activity. Don’t push your body to exercise too hard. You simply need to move your body for a period of time. Over time, your body will begin to stabilize and respond to the exercise. It helps flush your system of toxins and you will start feeling better.

    Pace Yourself

    Work and family obligations consume us. When someone dies, it up-ends everything. How is one to cope with the regular obligations of life when you are feeling consumed by grief and sadness? Initially, your regular routine may be altered. You may be consumed by shock, grief and sadness. Let go of the expectation that you will be able to keep up the normal pace, at least initially. Give yourself permission to let some things go, if only for a short while.

    Having said that, it will be important to maintain some regular routine. It will help stabilize you and your family. Delegate chores and responsibilities and enlist the help of friends and extended family. If people ask how they can help, give them a specific job to do, like pick up the dry cleaning or cook a specific meal on a specific night. Allow your community to surround you with support.

    Everyone will pace themselves differently. Some people will dive right back into their regular routine and not miss a beat. Some people will need a way to structure work and family commitments as they handle their emotions. The concept of compartmentalizing can help. When at work, set aside your grief/feelings as best as you can by imagining placing them in a lovely container. The idea is that you can pick and choose when to address them. This can help regain a sense of control and allows you to focus on the work task at hand. Later, when you have some time, set aside a specific time to open up the container and access your feelings. It may be that after work you have an hour to yourself to journal, cry, scream into a pillow, or simply sit with yourself and your feelings. Once the hour is up, rejoin your family and set up a simple task to complete. Walk the dog or play a board game. This will help you pace the overwhelm and allow your body a way to slowly integrate the pain without overwhelming you. Balance is key here. Keep in mind this may be easier said than done. Initially, you many not feel able to control when or how you feel your feelings and that is normal. Just know that there will come a time when it will feel more manageable.

    Share Your Grief

    It is so important to find outlets for your grief. It may be that you simply need to share with your friends and family how you are feeling and let them know what you are going through. When talking to children, edit the details to make the sharing age appropriate. People can feel your energy and it will help them for you to acknowledge what you are going though so they know it isn’t something they have done to upset you. Allow others to provide you with nurturing and comfort. Hugs and physical contact can be very healing.

    Group support is very powerful. When you feel ready, gather with other people who knew your loved one and spend some time talking, sharing stories and memories. Bring out pictures and momentos. Allow yourselves permission to laugh and remember the good times. It can be tempting to idealize the dead person, but it is helpful to remember the whole person, including the parts of a person that were challenging. It can be healing to share honestly by acknowledging the challenging parts, just as it is to share and remember the beautiful parts. We are all made of up many parts, and it is helpful to integrate all of it.

    If grieving with family or friends isn’t an option, consider reaching out to a support group. For survivors of suicide, SOS (survivors of suicide) offers group support for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Sutter Care at Home in Sonoma County also offers free support groups including Bereaved Parents, Survivors of Suicide, Partner/Spouse Loss, People in Grief, Adults who have Lost Parents, and Daughters Grieving Mothers.

    Say Goodbye

    Due to the unexpected nature of the death, you may be left feeling things were incomplete or unsaid. It may feel important to express the things to your loved one that you didn’t have a chance to say. You can write a letter to the person expressing all of your feelings, including any guilt or anger, that you would like to express. Journaling is a very powerful way to process your feelings. Some people find great relief in setting aside some time each day to journal about how they are feeling. You can even speak out loud and have a conversation with the person, to include things you may want to apologize for. Don’t worry. If you choose this option, it doesn’t mean you are crazy. It is simply a way to move the energy from inside your body to outside your body. Sometimes people make an art project, or collage. Creative expression can help the healing process move along. Whatever the outlet, it is very important to find some way to express your feelings. You will benefit from finding a way to close the loop on any unfinished business. If you are feeling stuck or unsure of how to move forward with this, feel free to reach out to me.

    Honor With Ritual And Ceremony

    Many cultures have found the healing power of participating in ritual or ceremony to mark passages throughout the lifespan. When you have reached a place where you are ready to celebrate the life of the person lost, it can be very healing to participate in a ritual or ceremony that honors the person you are grieving. How do you imagine the person would like to be celebrated/remembered? What kind of service or ritual would be meaningful? You may gather in a Church community for a religious service or create one of your own. Some people find that bringing in a living symbol that represents your connection can be very healing, like planting a tree or rose bush. When you see this symbol, it brings you back to the feelings of love and connection you shared. Some people choose to make a memory book and gather photos of shared times. Organizations and companies may design a plaque and have a dedication ceremony commemorating and acknowledging the contribution of the deceased employee. This gives coworkers the chance to honor the life of their colleague/ friend in a formal and public way. Some people set up foundations for particular causes that carry on the messaging and passions of the person who has died. Whatever form it takes, creating and participating in a ritual of some kind can help aid in the grieving process.

    Post-Traumatic Growth

    When something traumatic happens, there is the potential for the experience to deepen our connection to ourselves and to those around us. There is an opportunity to grow and learn from it. This may come later in the healing process, or it may not come at all. But, the potential for it is there. What would that look like? We all want to find meaning in our lives. When someone dies, it has a way of realigning our priorities and asks us to reevaluate what is important to us. With the awareness of the impermanence of life, we may refocus our energies and let go of relationships or habits that no longer serve us. We can apply whatever lessons we learn from going through the grief process to our current lives. We may come through the experience realizing how important it is to act kindly towards others or tell those in our lives how much we love and value them because we never know how much time we will have with them. There are many ways the experience could potentially change us for the better. Be curious about what the experience can offer you. Finding a larger meaning after going through a traumatic experience can help us grow as human beings.

    Death is sad. Grieving is a process. It takes time. It comes in waves. You may feel that you have completed your process only to be hit out of the blue, months/years later, when you hear a song on the radio or an anniversary date approaches. The process continues, although the pain does lessen over time. Many people feel that they shouldn’t move on with their lives because somehow that means they are forgetting their loved one. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You will naturally move to a place where you are feeling less sadness and this does not in any way minimize the love and caring you have for your loved one. When asked, most people would agree that the person who died would not want you to be living a life of constant grief and suffering. The best way to move forward is by living in a way that honors the relationship and choosing to live life to its fullest potential.

    The human Spirit is incredibly resilient. I anticipate that you will naturally move through the grieving process, as long as you have the right support and give it a sufficient amount of time. If you are struggling with grief, feeling stuck, or would like to talk about your process, please know that I am available to support you.

    If you would like some additional support in your grieving, please feel free to contact Holly Prichard, MFT at 707-591-5065 for a free consultation.

    In addition to her private psychotherapy practice in Santa Rosa, CA, Holly Prichard, MFT is a trained EAP crisis response provider and can travel to provide on-site crisis education and counseling to employees of organizations experiencing a disruptive work event, such as a work place death, injury or other event that causes a disruption in the work place. Call 707-591-5065 to learn more about providing this service to your organization.

    What to do when someone dies

    The person who died may have left funeral instructions in their will or a letter about their wishes.

    If there aren’t any clear wishes, the executor or nearest relative will usually decide if the body will be cremated or buried and what type of funeral will take place.

    Finding a funeral director

    Check that the people you talk to are registered with at least one of the following organisations. Make sure you get more than one quote.

    • National Association of Funeral Directors
    • National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors

    Ask funeral directors for quotations to help you decide which company to use. Ask for an itemised quote which includes:

    • the funeral director’s services
    • a coffin
    • transfer of the deceased person from the place of death, and care of them before the funeral
    • a hearse to the nearest crematorium or cemetery
    • all necessary arrangements and paperwork.

    There may be extra charges for third parties such as the crematorium, clergy and doctors. Funeral directors may ask for these fees to be paid upfront.

    Arranging a funeral without a funeral director

    You don’t have to use a funeral director if you don’t want to – you can have a ‘do-it-yourself’ funeral.

    DIY funerals can be less expensive, more environmentally friendly as well as more personal and intimate.

    This type of funeral often takes place when someone makes their wishes clear before their death and plans for it themselves, as it can involve more advance planning.

    Contact your local council if you want to arrange a funeral in your local cemetery or crematorium.

    Paying for a funeral

    Arranging a funeral can not only be stressful – it can also be expensive. If you’re paying for the funeral, think carefully about what you can afford.

    The funeral can be paid for by:

    • you or other family members or friends
    • a lump sum from a life insurance policy or pension scheme the person paid into
    • a pre-paid funeral plan the person took out
    • the person’s estate (any money, property or assets they left). Funeral costs take precedence over other debts
    • money the person had in a bank or building society, although they don’t have to release the money until probate (the legal process of distributing the money, property and possessions of the person who’s died) is granted. If there’s a delay, you may need to pay the costs in the meantime.

    Help with funeral costs

    You may be able to get a Funeral Payment from the Social Fund if you’re on a low income and meet the criteria.

    There are strict rules about who can get help and how much you will receive. You must be claiming Pension Credit or certain other means-tested benefits, and had a close relationship with the person who died – for example, you may have been their partner.

    If you don’t qualify for a Funeral Payment – or it doesn’t cover the full costs of the funeral – you may be able to get a Budgeting Loan from the Social Fund. These are interest-free loans of between £100 and £1500 that you repay from your benefits.

    When someone dies unexpectedly


    When someone dies, a doctor must be satisfied about the cause of death before they can certify it and the death can be registered. If the doctor is not satisfied about the cause of death or did not examine the deceased at least 28 days before the death occurred, the death must be reported to the Coroner. The Coroner must also be informed if the deceased died as the result of an accident, or in violent or unexplained circumstances. The role of the Coroner is to investigate sudden and unexplained deaths so that the death can be certified and then registered.

    Generally the death is reported to the Gardaí, who will inform the Coroner. The Coroner then decides whether a postmortem examination (also called an autopsy) is needed. A postmortem examination is a medical examination of the body carried out by a specially trained doctor called a pathologist and usually takes place in a hospital mortuary.

    Identification of the body

    If the Coroner decides a postmortem examination is needed, then a family member may be asked to formally identify the body. They will be required to go to the mortuary and identify the body to a Garda who is acting on behalf of the Coroner. The Gardaí may require more information about the circumstances surrounding the death.

    Where there are multiple injuries or marked postmortem changes , identification may be confirmed by a photograph or other means. In such cases a family member is not required to view the body.

    Where a Coroner has ordered a postmortem examination, the permission of the family is not necessary.

    Release of the body

    The body will normally be released to the family immediately after the postmortem examination has been completed. Funeral arrangements should not be made until the body is released or the Coroner has indicated when release will occur. This is important at all times, but particularly on public holiday weekends.

    If there is a criminal investigation, it may be necessary to have a second postmortem examination or further investigations. In this case, the release of the body and the funeral arrangements may be delayed.

    Registering the death

    The death can only be registered by the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths when the Coroner has issued a Coroner’s Certificate to the Registrar. The Coroner will issue this after the postmortem report is received or after an inquest is held. In the meantime the Coroner can issue an Interim Death Certificate, on request, which is acceptable to the Department of Social Protection for bereavement grants and other benefits.


    If a death cannot be explained by a postmortem examination, an inquest must be held to establish the facts of the death, such as where and how the death occurred. Where an inquest is to be held, the Coroner is usually able to allow burial or cremation once the postmortem examination of the body has been completed.

    For some deaths, inquests are legally required. In other cases, the holding of an inquest is at the discretion of the Coroner and the family can make their views known to the Coroner, if they so wish.

    The inquest will not take place until at least 6 weeks after the death. It is a public enquiry, presided over by the Coroner (and in some cases involving a jury) into the cause of the death. Witnesses may be required to attend the inquest to give evidence regarding the circumstances and cause of the death. The family are entitled to attend the inquest, but they are not legally obliged to be there.

    When a jury is present at an inquest, it is the jury rather than the Coroner who delivers the verdict. Nobody is found guilty or innocent at an inquest and no criminal or civil liability is determined.

    What to Do When Someone Dies at Home

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    Based on a study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine, 80% of Americans wish they could die at home. Unfortunately, the statistics also show that only a small percentage of those 80% will actually manage to do it; and according to the same study, 60% of people die in an acute care hospital, 20% in nursing homes, and only 20% at home.

    What to Do When Someone Dies at Home Unexpectedly

    If somebody dies at home unexpectedly and they are alone, it is called an unattended death. Because body decomposition begins as soon as the person dies, it is imperative to be aware of the potential health hazards that come with finding a dead body in a residence.

    Bodies that aren’t discovered for days can quickly decompose, especially in warm climates, causing bodily fluid spillage that can carry bloodborne pathogens and other harmful diseases (such as Hepatitis B and C, HIV, MRSA and more). Even if you knew the departed well and they were not knowingly infected, they could still be a disease carrier and unaware of it, so treating the scene as a biohazard is of utmost importance.

    • Call the police. Calling first responders to photograph the scene, collect evidence and properly take the body away is the first step.
    • Do not touch. Do not attempt to clean the scene by yourself. If homicidal foul play or suicide is involved, chances are, there will be grisly physical reminders of the traumatic event. Depending on the situation, biohazardous substances will be present, so don’t expose yourself to harmful diseases when it’s not necessary.
    • Call Aftermath Services. Many people are not aware that cleaning a trauma scene isn’t something the police do. Once the sirens fade and the dust settles, you are left with an often messy situation on your hands. Aftermath Services provides discreet, compassionate and professional biohazard & trauma cleanup services that fully remediate trauma sites with hospital-level disinfection with OSHA-approved methods.

    What to Do When Someone Dies at Home in Hospice

    Someone dying at home in hospice requires vastly different procedures than when a death occurs in a hospital. These are some of the more immediate actions and decisions to be made when a person dies at home:

    1. Pronouncement of Death. The deceased must have a hospice caregiver pronounce death. If they are unavailable, the deceased will need to be transported to a hospital, where they may be officially pronounced dead. Calling 911 will bring police, fire or paramedical services to the home; however, none of these services are able to pronounce death or time of death. A coroner may be needed to pronounce death.
    2. Do Not Resuscitate. If applicable, have a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) document handy so no last-minute attempts will be made to prolong the life of the individual dying.
    3. Body Transportation. Arrange for the body to be transported to the morgue or a funeral home/crematorium. Generally, if the deceased was elderly and was under a doctor’s care, it is unlikely that an autopsy will need to be performed. If this is the case, a funeral home can transport the individual.
    4. Physician Notification. Notify the deceased’s physician. If the departed had been regularly seeing a physician in their office, or if house visits had been made by the doctor, they need to be notified so they can notate the death and “close the file” of the departed.
    5. Family Notification. Contact family and close friends and let them know that the deceased has passed away.
    6. Pet Care. If needed, the individual’s pet(s) will need to be cared for, and arrangements made for new ownership.
    7. Employer Notification. If the deceased was employed at the time of death, call their employer to notify them and inquire about any due wages, life insurance policies, other benefits, etc.

    These are some of the more urgent items to be taken care of. Once they have been addressed, there will be additional actions to be taken including:

    • Making funeral arrangements
    • Obtaining a death certificate and making copies of the certificate
    • Making arrangements for someone to keep an eye on the deceased’s residence, if applicable
    • Contacting Social Security and any other agencies to have benefits stopped
    • Closing bank accounts
    • Finding life insurance policies
    • Stopping all utilities and having mail stopped or forwarded

    In the months following the death, other small and large matters will arise and will need to be taken care of as well.

    You don’t have to go through tragedy alone. For over 20 years, Aftermath Services has provided biohazard cleanup services to help grieving families and communities get on the road to recovery. Our dispatch centers are located nationwide so they can be to you within a few hours of your call.

    Call (877) 701-5930

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