What to Do Immediately After a Loved One Dies

Minimize Family Stress by Being Prepared

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Witnessing the death of someone you love is never easy, but being prepared for his or her final minutes will considerably reduce the stress arising from "what now?" questions after your loved one passes. Although there are quite a few tasks you should complete in the several weeks or months after the death, you'll also want to be prepared for the first few hours after his passing.

Contact the Authorities

Call the police if your loved one died at home—you will need police involvement to ensure that the medical examiner legally pronounces the death.

If your family member died at home but was receiving hospice care, then contact the hospice agency. If he died in a caregiving facility, such as a hospital, nursing home, or hospice, then onsite healthcare personnel will deliver the official pronouncement of death.

If you've already partnered with a funeral home, then determine in advance whether you'll need to notify the police, the funeral home, or both. In some cases, the funeral home will attend to the legal paperwork surrounding death on the family's behalf.

Prepare for Organ Donation

If your loved one died at home and you do not know whether she wished to donate her organs or tissue, then you should check her driver's license, will, or advance directive. Time is of the essence because donated tissues must be gathered as soon as possible after death.

Ideally, someone from the family will have made prior arrangements for tissue or organ donation before she died, to minimize the risk that the tissue will no longer be viable for donation on account of the time between death and the donation.

Contact a Funeral Home

If you and your deceased loved one did not choose a funeral or interment provider ahead of time, you will need to select and contact one. Families often 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 Key People

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

Don't forget people like your loved one's employer or important but estranged family members.

Activate a 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. 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 Dependent Care

If your loved one had pets, ensure that they're taken care of until long-term arrangements may be made.

Children are more complicated. A surviving legal guardian takes custody of minors, and if there's no guardian and no provision in the will for short-term guardianship, then the state's social welfare department may intervene.

Regardless of custody questions, however, a child will experience grief in a different way and will require careful support and attention.

Don't forget to take care of yourself, too—your own grief might affect your ability to care for your pets or your children, so consider seeking short-term help if you need it.

Locate important documents

Collect the important documents you'll need to help navigate the days and weeks ahead. If they're not already available, you should search for the deceased's will, advance healthcare directive, healthcare proxy or do-not-resuscitate order, Social Security card, 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 contract, and a funeral preneed contract.

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