If you’re responsible for a loved one, you’ve probably asked yourself "what do I do now?" when faced with the prospect of death. It’s a gnawing fear rooted in uncertainty and anticipation. Not knowing what to do, where to begin, where to turn, or who to trust makes many panic or put things off. For some it can be immobilizing. Deer-in-the-headlights feelings like this are normal when suddenly immersed in the unfamiliar. Managing our way through the loss of a loved one is definitely foreign territory for most—no matter when or how it happens.
When a loved one passes away, regardless of how you learn of it, it’s a shock. In a flash everything is different. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with grief and wonder “what do I do now?” Who do I call? What decisions do I have to make? And when? So many things to thinks about and questions to answer. How am I ever going to get through this? Tears come.
Yet, while the process is difficult, it’s not as bad as it seems and plenty of people and resources can help you through. If you stay calm, think things through logically, and take it one step at a time you’ll get through it. With many decisions to make under pressure, give yourself adequate time to think and get the right information. Realize that losing a loved one can be painful, stressful and difficult to manage, especially for the unprepared. Don’t succumb to pressure and make decisions hastily or for the wrong reasons.
Circumstances of Death — Part of what you are called on to do depends on the circumstances. If your loved one dies in a hospital or other caregiving facility, or in the presence of public officials like police, those institutions will usually handle arrangements for transport to the funeral home you choose or the county coroner for additional investigative action like autopsy. If your loved one dies unexpectedly at home, work, or elsewhere, you should first call 911 and report the death to the police, who will conduct an investigation and direct further inquiry and emergency services like transport. Also, report the death to any medical professional or care organization working with your loved one.
An Important First Step — What you need to do depends (obviously) on your role and responsibility and who among your family members has what authority and responsibility. An initial step is verifying, and securing family member agreement on, who is responsible, who has authority, and who needs to be involved. Communicating with family first about who will do what is usually wise, diffuses misunderstandings, eases the burden, and engenders cooperation. Talking with family and close friends can itself help you cope with your loss and grief.
Notify family, friends, and clergy, and have those close to you help if they are willing.
Choosing a Funeral Home/Director — Ideally, selecting a funeral director or home is best considered in advance, and often is, so first ascertain whether your loved one has already made preplanned funeral home arrangements. The hospital, coroner or police will communicate with the funeral home and arrange for transport, but you (your family) need to inform the authorities of which funeral home is selected (or prearranged). Your selection of a funeral home is important and needs to be among the first decisions you make. When you’re caught off guard and need to decide quickly consider the options in your area recommended by professionals involved (doctors, police, hospice, etc.). They’ll often be able to guide you on which funeral homes are good choices in your circumstances (who’s reputable, reasonably priced, etc.). Friends and family are also helpful in selecting a funeral home, so don’t hesitate to ask them if you need guidance.
Contacting funeral homes directly and inquiring about their services, rates, and availability is important and allows you to gain a comfort level. Online services comparing or reviewing funeral homes in your area are probably available and may well be worth a close look.
Create a Checklist Outlining Essential Steps — This helps you focus. If you haven’t already created one on your own, you should do it. If you need help, search online for “funeral planning checklist” or “what to do when someone close to you dies” or a similar query.
First item on your checklist should be key persons to notify:
- Any medical professionals working with your loved one of the death.
- Friends and family.
- Clergy for the family.
- If your loved one was working, call his or her employer immediately and report the death.
- Any insurance company insuring the life of your loved one.
- Any lawyer known to hold files or documents governing or relevant to your loved one’s affairs.
The funeral director you select can assist in tending to initial matters like:
- Transporting your loved one’s body.
- Crafting and releasing an obituary to media outlets.
- Securing a death certificate.
- Notifying key persons.
- Grief support.
- Establishing communication with mourners and the community.
The points above are a good start on managing the process. I’ll review additional essential checklist steps, including where headstones and memorials fit into the process, in related posts. None of this is hard or mysterious. You just need to give it a little thought, seek appropriate guidance, and when possible do advance planning. Try to relax. Take a deep breath. You’ll get through this.