Losing a loved one is devastating. And it’s impossible to fully prepare for that grief. But you can prepare for the things that must be done afterward, like holding an end-of-life service, handling legal matters and telling the family.
These are important things you have to take care of—both legally and because they’re part of the grieving process. This checklist will walk you through what to do when someone dies so you can handle what needs to be done and focus on what matters most: caring for yourself and your family.
And as you read, remember, you are not alone. You have people who care about you and will walk alongside you. We will walk alongside you too. So let’s go through this together.
What to Do Immediately
Whether it was sudden or expected, losing a loved one is always a shock. And figuring out what to do in those first few minutes can be overwhelming. Here are the five most important things to do immediately.
Get a Legal Pronouncement of Death
Where and how your loved one passes away will determine how this step works. If they’re in a hospital, nursing home or other medical facility, the staff will make a legal pronouncement of death. If your loved one dies at home, you will need to call the right medical professional to come make the pronouncement:
- Hospice nurse, if your loved one was under hospice care
- 911, if your loved one:
- Died unexpectedly at home
- Has a chance of being revived
- Was an organ donor (more on organ donation in the next section)
- Primary care physician, if your loved one was under this doctor’s supervision recently
- County coroner, if none of the above apply
Sometimes—especially if you call 911—first responders may try to revive your loved one. Have Do Not Resuscitate orders or advance care directives ready if your loved one didn’t want to be revived.
Unsure how to talk about your end-of-life wishes? Use this free guide.
The county coroner and 911 can also transport the body for you. Otherwise, you’ll need to call a funeral home or crematorium to do this. These businesses are legally required to tell you how much their services will cost, so ask and write down the price.
Get Clarity on Organ Donation
Your loved one’s driver’s license will show whether they wanted to be an organ donor. If they wanted to do this and passed at a medical facility, notify the staff right away to start the process. For deaths at home, call 911. The paramedics will quickly transport your loved one’s body to the nearest hospital to carry out their wishes.
When a child passes away, their parents or legal guardians make decisions about organ donation. This is a heavy, heavy choice. And there is no right or wrong answer. Some parents can’t bear the thought of organ donation. Others think of it as a way for their child to live on or give another child a chance at life.
Even though organ donation often has to be done quickly, this difficult choice shouldn’t be rushed. Talk to your spouse. You can also ask the hospital staff for guidance. And remember that whatever you choose for your child is okay.
Take Care of Dependents’ Immediate Needs
Loss is difficult for anyone, but it’s even more heartbreaking when kids are involved. Here are some general guidelines for taking care of kids who have experienced a loss.
If There’s a Living Guardian
Maybe the children lost one parent but not the other. Maybe they lost a sibling. Or maybe they’re your kids who are too young to be left alone while you go handle the deceased’s affairs.
In these cases, the kids still have a living guardian. What they really need is short-term care for a day or two. It’s best for them to simply stay with someone familiar (like a grandparent, aunt and uncle, or close family friend) until their guardian can come take them home.
If the Deceased Was the Sole Guardian
This situation starts out with the same goal: Get the kids to a safe place with a trustworthy adult who can care for them for 24–48 hours. But it can look very different depending on the deceased’s wishes and the family dynamics.
If you or the kids know who their new guardian is supposed to be, take them to that person as soon as possible. Most of the time, the kids can actually stay there until that person receives official guardianship through the probate process. But if you don’t know those wishes or that person isn’t available that very minute, you’ll need to find another trusted party to take care of the kids in the meantime.
Unfortunately, this may not be an option in some situations. If you believe the children will be unsafe with their other relatives, call your local Department of Human Services or Child Protective Services. They can help find a safe, short-term home until the deceased’s will is found or—if there is no will—until the probate court appoints a guardian.
(If you’re concerned about who the courts might appoint and you’re willing to become the kids’ guardian, you should inform the local probate court as soon as possible.)
For Children in Any Situation
Regardless of who passed away and who’s taking care of the kids now, the kids are dealing with a lot. So talk to them about what happened as soon as you can. This conversation will look different for each child depending on their age, personality and how much they understand. But do keep the conversation age-appropriate. As our friend Rachel Cruze says, “Share, don’t scare.”
A Note About Pets
Remember that kids may not be your loved one’s only dependents. Give any pets food and water, and arrange for someone to come let them out or clean up after them if needed. Once the dust of the day settles, you’ll want to make plans to care for the animals for the next few weeks—until the probate process ends and they’re given to their new guardian.
Tell Family and Friends
Notifying family and friends can be one of the hardest parts of the day. But there are some ways to lighten the burden.
- Start with your loved one’s closest friends and relatives.
- Ask them to call other family members.
- Don’t worry about calling everyone. Just call the people closest to your loved one. You can reach out to the rest of their contacts later.
- Give yourself grace and take breaks when you need them.
- Remember to call your loved one’s employer.
Get a Support System in Place
Grief affects every part of who we are—our emotions, bodies and minds. When we grieve, our bodies release stress hormones that make it hard to sleep, eat or think straight. They even make us more likely to get sick!1
That’s why you need a support system right now. Medical facilities know this, so most hospitals have chaplains on staff to give families immediate support. These trained professionals can help you get through the first few hours.
You should also contact a handful of close friends who know and love you—the kind of people who will sit with you at 3 a.m. or cook dinner when you’re exhausted. They love you, and they’ll be there for you. Lean on them.
What to Do the First Week
You will need to plan an end-of-life service and secure your loved one’s assets within a few days after they die. Here’s how to make these arrangements.
Find and Follow Their Final Wishes
Hopefully your loved one stored all their important legal documents, like their will and letter of instruction, in an easy-to-find legacy drawer. Otherwise, you’ll need to find these papers. Look for anything that shares how your loved one wanted their end-of-life service and estate handled.
It’s also possible that your loved one died without a will. In that case, you’ll choose the end-of-life arrangements, while the probate courts will help settle the estate (more on that in a minute).
Note: If you currently care for a relative with a terminal condition, ask where their legal papers are and how to access them. You may even need to help them obtain documents they don’t have, like a will. It’s a hard but necessary conversation that will save you the heartbreak of potential legal problems.
Some people leave very clear instructions. Others don’t leave any instructions at all. And most people fall somewhere in the middle. So you may have to make some choices for your loved one, like:
- Traditional burial, green burial or cremation
- Traditional, military or memorial service
- Which related items to buy (caskets, headstones, urns, etc.)
It’s difficult to think about shopping around for good prices right now. But funerals can get expensive fast. The average cost of a burial was between $7,000–10,000 in the U.S. in 2020.2 Do your best to be conscious of how much you’re spending.
And finally, consider how to help others honor the deceased. You could invite people to send gifts to a charity your loved one supported. Or you could set out a journal at the end-of-life service, where people can write down their favorite memories of your loved one. All of this will help them—and you—grieve well.
Make a Public Announcement
Newspaper and online obituaries help you notify people in the community who want to pay their respects. Many funeral homes will even give families a link to their loved one’s online obituary to share via email and social media. That said, these announcements are totally optional. You can skip them if your loved one would have preferred more privacy.
It’s sad but true: Right after a person passes away, their stuff is very vulnerable to theft. And the thieves are most likely family! It causes major drama when people take things to “remember Granny by”—especially if that item was promised to someone else in the will.
And in some families, ornery people grab as much as they can get—from Grandpa’s prize watch to his push mower. That’s stealing and it’s wrong, even if it’s family!
Guard against theft by locking the car, house and garage. (In fact, change the locks.) Look for cash, keys and other valuables, and write down a list of what you find—this will be helpful when it’s time to distribute assets. Then store these valuables in a safe place. And if you think family members will question your motives, bring one or two trustworthy people to confirm that you didn’t take anything.
While you secure the valuables, go ahead and throw out the garbage and perishable food. Clean the bathrooms and do laundry. Basically, clean up anything that could go bad or stink.
Finally, if you don’t live nearby, ask a neighbor or even the local police department to check on the house daily. (Just make sure you call the non-emergency number if you want the police to do this!) You could even ask someone to house-sit during the funeral, since thieves sometimes look at obituaries to plan robberies when they think no one will be home.
Notify Additional People
First, look in the will to see who the executor is. This person will be in charge of overseeing the estate and distributing assets, so make sure they know they have this responsibility. Then notify guardians for kids and pets if you haven’t already. Last, tell the beneficiaries who are in the will—but set clear expectations. They can’t legally receive their inheritance until it goes through probate.
Now is also a good time to call anyone in your loved one’s contact list who you haven’t notified yet.
What to Do the Next Few Weeks
After the end-of-life service, it’s okay to pause for a couple days and just be with your family. Then, you can handle these affairs for your loved one.
Get the Death Certificate
This is super important. Businesses and state offices require a copy of the death certificate to let you access financial accounts, claim the life insurance payout and much more.
We suggest getting at least 10 copies. The funeral home can make them for you (and that’s probably easiest). Or you can contact your state’s vital statistics office.
Meet With an Attorney and a CPA
An attorney and a certified public accountant (CPA) will help you navigate the state and federal laws that manage estates and taxes for the deceased.
The attorney will help you transfer assets—from physical property like houses and cars to financial property like retirement and bank accounts—to the new owners. Plus they can help you solve any probate issues, like if your nephew Joey contests the will.
The CPA will help you get a tax identification number for the estate and file the right type of tax return for your loved one.
Start the Probate Process
Probate is the legal process that makes sure your loved one’s children and pets go to the right guardians, that their stuff goes to the right beneficiaries, and that their taxes and debts are paid. Probate is only for certain types of assets, though, so it’s good to learn what does and doesn’t go through probate.
The executor of the will should start the probate process within the window of time the state allows (usually 10 to 90 days). They’ll take the will to the county court, and the judge will confirm that it’s valid. After that, the executor will be authorized to carry out the will, and guardians will be granted legal custody.
If there is no will, the court will distribute the assets and appoint guardians. Unfortunately, the court doesn’t know your loved one’s wishes or what their relationships were like. They usually give child custody, money and property to the closest relatives, whether your loved one wanted that or not. This is why it’s so important to speak up now if you have concerns about guardianship.
Remember, the court clerks and judges are there to help if you have questions about how the process normally works—but they’re not lawyers. Ask your attorney if you have questions about your specific case.
Contact These Offices and Companies
You will need to contact some other public offices and companies to tie up all the legal loose ends. Here’s who to call and why:
- The local Social Security office, plus any VA or pension offices: to stop benefits or transfer them to another eligible recipient, like the deceased person’s spouse
- Life insurance companies: to claim your loved one’s life insurance payout
- Financial institutions: to access accounts. The executor should open a new account for the estate and transfer this money into it.
- Credit agencies: to notify them of your loved one’s passing via a formal letter so they can submit any unpaid debts. Check your state’s laws on how to write this letter. And remember, the estate pays these debts. Don’t pay creditors with your money or give them access to any accounts.
- The post office: to request that they forward the deceased’s mail to the executor
- Deceased Do Not Contact List: to stop junk mail
Cancel or Transfer Services
It’s up to you to cancel services that are no longer needed—or transfer services into the name of the person who will keep using them. After all, if your spouse passed away, you still need the utilities that were in their name.
If you need to use a service temporarily—like keeping your mom’s electricity connected from the time she passes until you sell her house—then you’ll need to pay the bills with the estate’s money.
Look for your loved one’s bills and account information, so you can call these companies to make any changes. Remember to check for utility services like power and water, as well as subscriptions like streaming services or gym memberships.
Cancel Accounts and ID
Some of these cancellations notify state offices, like the DMV, that your loved one has died. Some of them—like email account cancellations—help protect against identity theft. You’ll need to cancel your loved one’s . . .
- Driver’s license
- Credit cards
- Auto, health, disability and other insurance policies
- Email accounts
- Social media accounts
Remember, companies need to confirm that your loved one really has passed away before they can just cancel an account. So don’t be surprised if they ask for documentation—just send copies, not original documents.
Continue to Get Support for Yourself and Your Family
For the first few weeks after a death, a bunch of friends and relatives usually offer to help and ask how you’re doing. It can honestly be overwhelming—especially if you want a minute alone to gather your thoughts, cry or just breathe.
It can also be overwhelming because reality hasn’t set in yet. It can take a few weeks (or even a few months) to truly begin processing life without your loved one. And just when the cards and flowers usually stop—well, that’s when you need support the most.
Grief can cause people to start feeling anxious and depressed the day of the loss, or it could happen weeks, months or even years after their loved one passes away. They may have panic attacks or dark thoughts they don’t know how to “fix.” If that sounds familiar, hear us loud and clear: Your feelings aren’t a problem to solve.
They are real and valid. They’re revealing grief in your heart that you must acknowledge and deal with. And the good news is, there are ways to deal with anxiety and depression after a loss.
Even if you don’t struggle with severe anxiety or depression, you’ll still go through intense grief. There will be painful firsts—like the first anniversary without your spouse or the first time you walk past the toy aisle without your child. People will say ignorant, hurtful things like, “I thought you’d be over him by now” or “Why is her picture still on the wall?” You may even feel like your spouse doesn’t understand, because the two of you might be handling the same loss in totally different ways.
Those things are hard. They suck. That’s why it’s absolutely critical to acknowledge how they affect you—and to partner with people who will continue to support you through this time.
Support for You
It’s good to reach out to close family members or friends. But you need to meet with a professional too. A counselor or pastor will have the training to help you through the darkest grief. You may also find it helpful to attend a support group to connect with others who have gone through a similar loss.
And again, through all of this, take care of yourself. Eat well. Sleep. Exercise. Give yourself time to feel, think and pray. If you’re a person of faith, understand that it’s normal to be angry with God after a loss. Be honest with Him about that—He can take it.
Do the hard work it takes to deal with anxiety and grief. Give yourself permission to enjoy the days when you feel good—because it’s okay to feel good again. And spend time with the people you love.
Support for Your Family
Speaking of people you love, here are three things you can do to help the kids in your family through their grief.
1. Love Them
Hug them. Tell them you love them. Talk to them about their grief—and keep those conversations going as they get older. How they understand and react to the loss will change as their brains develop, so they will grieve in new ways as teens and young adults. They’ll need your support through those challenges.
2. Take Them to a Counselor
Not all kids grieve the same way. One child’s personality or behavior might radically change overnight. Another child might seem “fine” but secretly be bottling up their pain. Some children withdraw. Others lash out. Some do both.
So regardless of how your child seems to be handling the loss—or how much you talk to them about it—you need to take them to a licensed counselor who can help them develop healthy tools for dealing with the grief as they grow up.
3. Model Healthy Grief
Model for your kids what a strong, grieving parent (or aunt, uncle or grandparent) looks like. Again, keep it age-appropriate—your darkest thoughts and deepest pain are for the adults in your support team, not for the kids. But it is important for kids to see you cry and talk about your feelings. It’s also important for them to see you take care of yourself—whether that’s taking a walk, seeing a counselor or laughing again.
You may even have to model healthy grief for other family members. Some relatives—especially from older generations—may have a stoic that’s-just-how-it-is way of thinking. You might have to tell them it’s okay to still talk about and honor your loved one.
It won’t be easy. The pain will never completely go away. But when you commit to grieve well, to take care of yourself and your kids, and to handle the hard tasks, then you will learn how to cope with the pain in healthy ways. And one day, you’ll even get to a place where you can use that pain to bring about something good in the world.
What better way to honor your loved one than to live well?