What to do Immediately After a Loved One Dies

An after-death checklist of the tasks survivors should handle right away

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The death of someone we love unwillingly plunges us into a maelstrom of grief that clouds the mind and often makes it difficult to think clearly. This is particularly true for those closest to the deceased, such as a spouse or partner, a parent or child, or anyone else responsible for reporting the death to others, planning the funeral and/or interment services, and handling the myriad of necessary decisions that arise.

This article offers a checklist of the tasks and responsibilities survivors should handle immediately after a loved one dies.

(Please see "What to do After a Loved One Dies: The Following Weeks" for a list of tasks survivors should handle in the weeks and months following the death of a loved one.)

Contact law-enforcement or medical personnel
You need to call the police/911 if your loved one died at home. If he or she died at home but was receiving hospice care, then contact the hospice agency. If he or she died in a care-giving facility, such as a hospital, nursing home or hospice, then onsite healthcare personnel will make the official pronouncement of death.

Determine if the deceased wished to donate his/her organs
If your loved one died at home and you do not know whether he/she wished to donate his/her organs or tissue, then you should check the deceased's drivers license, will or advance directive.

Time is of the essence here because any needed organs/tissue must be gathered as soon as possible after death.

Contact a funeral/interment provider
If you and your deceased loved one did not choose a funeral and/or interment provider ahead of time, then you will need to select and contact one. Typically, families choose a local funeral home or a firm that previously served the family, unless some non-traditional form of body disposition is desired, such as direct cremation, direct burial, body donation, a home funeral, etc.

Notify immediate family, key relatives and friends
While awaiting the arrival of law-enforcement or funeral home personnel, you should begin contacting other members of your immediate family, as well as close relatives and friends, and inform them of the death. While doing so, and where appropriate, you should ask them for help contacting others (see next entry).

Activate your "phone tree"
You do not personally need to inform everyone about the death if you do not feel up to it. Instead, request members of your immediate family, key relatives and friends to help you spread the word to others, as appropriate. Ask them to contact specific individuals, however, and, if needed, provide that contact information for them. To help you keep track, review an address book or the contacts on your cell phone and make a list to ensure you do not overlook someone.

Arrange for pet and/or child care
If the deceased had a pet and/or young child, or if you bear these responsibilities, then consider asking a trusted relative, friend or neighbor to take over these duties temporarily if you do not feel you can handle them right now (or whenever you will be away from home during the next few days).

Locate important documents
There are various legal documents you will need immediately following the death of a loved one.

If not already available in a known place, you should gather the following (if applicable): the deceased's will; advance healthcare directive, healthcare proxy and/or do-not-resuscitate order; Social Security card/information; military discharge papers (typically a "DD-214" form, also known as the "Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty"); organ/tissue donation authorization; life-insurance and/or a funeral preneed contract.

Author's Note:
If you would like to receive a printer-friendly PDF of this after-death checklist, please email Chris Raymond with "Send After-death Checklist" in the subject line.

Additional Information:
How to Create an Advance Healthcare Directive
What is Direct Cremation?
Veterans Death, Burial & Memorial Benefits
How to Plan a Funeral Service
Should You Request an Autopsy?

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