There are deaths that are expected, and sudden deaths that take us completely by surprise. Whichever bereavement you suffer will inevitably feel surreal, and having recently gone through the loss of a close family member and having to deal with the practicalities of the situation (as well as the emotional effects), I wanted to compile a practical checklist on what to do when someone dies, to help anyone else going through this.
The days after you are given the initial news is a time when you are emotionally numb. Going through the motions as a functioning human being but not really functioning much at all. The death in my case was not a surprise, we were able to say our goodbyes and make provisional plans before the death occurred, however it didn’t make the pain of the loss any less. A few years ago I lost a close family member which was a surprise. Both losses sting just as much. I’m still processing my feelings around this loss, so I don’t want to write too much about feelings or coping strategies. It’s taking all the strength I have to keep my family afloat, explaining things to the children for example. However no-one talks about death until they are affected by it, and hard though it is, there are practical things that need to be done – at a time when you are not likely to be in a coherent state to do them. So please use this checklist to tick off things as they need to happen, it could help you to feel that you are doing something useful and helpful.
Before the death:
If, like me, you had an inkling that this death was a possibility, there are things you can do to help make the eventual situation easier. Talk to the patient (I’ll use the word patient to describe the deceased before they died – for simplicity) about their wishes. Ask them what funeral arrangements they want, and help them to make a will if they haven’t already. It depends on the individual situation you are in if you can actually have this kind of conversation with them or not. If the patient has faced up to the inevitability of the situation, they may welcome the chance to put their affairs in order. As much as it could pain you to hear about it, it’s important for them to feel like they have been heard. Let them issue their instructions. This is a link to the NHS Organ Donation Register to investigate organ donation.
If it would be insensitive to talk to the actual patient about their affairs after death, or if they don’t want to discuss it, then just be there for whatever they need. Hold their hand, touch is the most basic comforting you can do but the most profound. Skin to skin contact – just like you did with your babies to bond. Listen, let them get things off their chest. Sit with them as they cry. You don’t have to have all the answers, none of us do. But we can bear witness to another’s suffering. We can hold the space for them to vent in whichever way this comes out. It’s not easy. But nothing about dying is.
Check your wardrobe. It sounds like an odd thing to write but do you have a suitable outfit for a funeral? If not then perhaps you can keep this in your mind when you are near shops, so you can pop in and have a look when you pass. Often you may suspect that death is near but wouldn’t know when it will happen. You could have weeks or months before the inevitable actually occurs, so I’m not suggesting you take a special shopping trip, but just have the thought in your head for when you happen to be near the shops. It’s better to be prepared in advance and have something for yourself (and partner, children etc) ready in your wardrobe so that you don’t have to take a grief stricken shopping trip in the days after a death when looking for clothes is the last thing you feel like doing.
When death occurs (A practical list):
If you find yourself in this position in the future then I hope that this list helps.
One final tip: If you are ever on the receiving end of a phone call to inform you that someone has died, the kindest thing you can do for the person making the call is to say “Thank you for letting me know, I am sorry for your loss” then get off the phone and allow them to call the remainder of the people on their list. Questions and platitudes are not helpful at this time. They have a lot of things to deal with and spending all day on the phone repeating the same horrible information over and over is the last thing they need. So be thoughtful to them and save your remarks until a later date when things have sunk in a bit more for everyone involved. I know it is not easy to get a call like this but it is equally not easy to make this call either.
On a personal note let me take this opportunity to thank everyone around me for their love and support with our recent bereavement and send love for everyone who knew him.