First things to know after a loved one passes away

  • It is OK to feel confused and forgetful during these first few days. This is part of the process of grief.

  • There is no right or wrong way to do this. Whatever you are feeling is right.

  • Make sure to ask for help from the friends you want around you right now, particularly those who can help with tasks and organization.

  • There are several immediate arrangements that need to get done, and it is normal to feel that these are totally out of step with your emotions.

If someone close to you has just passed away, you may feel like you’re in a fog. That’s OK. What you are going through is a tremendously painful experience. Grief is a process, and it’s impossible to comprehend all at once. You are transitioning, in a sense, into a new state of your lived reality, and this transition will take time. 

No matter how prepared for this you might have thought you were, your system will be in shock. In the first few days, this shock will manifest itself in different ways—every person goes through this process in a unique way, and it is generally not helpful to read descriptions of grief and feel like you are “doing it wrong.” 

But there is no right or wrong here. There is only your natural path to healing. That’s why the first and most important thing to remember during these first days is: Take your time, and take all the space you need. Don’t set any expectations for how you should be feeling. Guilt, anger, frustration, irritability, a deep sense of helplessness—these are all natural things for you to be feeling. Making space for these emotions is the first step to containing them and beginning to heal.

Call in reinforcements

During these first days after losing your loved one, you will probably be overwhelmed by the number of people who reach out. It’s OK not to get back to everyone immediately. Your friends will understand that you have a lot on your plate, both emotionally and practically, and they will not be expecting you to respond to their messages of condolence right away. 

At the same time, you should think about who you do want to have around you now, supporting you through these difficult days. Unfortunately, you will need to make some arrangements and deal with some logistics pretty quickly, but you should not have to do it alone. Consider who will be a strong support for you right now as you make these plans—perhaps a friend who can think more logically rather than emotionally in this moment, or a person who is detail-oriented and simply gets things done. Decide who you most want to help you through tasks as big as planning the funeral and as little as going grocery shopping. Friends and family members are there for you, and will be glad to help out in the specific ways you ask them to. 

First calls and funeral planning

The bureaucratic tasks you have ahead of you in these painful days are probably going to feel incredibly at odds with your emotional state—it takes time to finally accept that a loved one is no longer alive, and yet, we must make certain arrangements for them right away. Many people who go through this feel this discrepancy. Although this cannot make it any less painful, know that you are not alone in feeling this way.

Your very first day of grief may have to be spent making various arrangements. It will be useful, particularly if you are feeling fuzzy, to have a friend there who can keep a list of things that need to get done and take any tasks off your hands that they can. Grief can make even very organized people get confused and forgetful. Do not judge yourself for this, but make sure you have the help you need to get through it.

Grief can make even very organized people get confused and forgetful.

Depending on where your loved one passed away, you may need to call in a doctor or coroner to legally pronounce them dead. If your loved one was in a hospital or assisted living facility, this will be taken care of for you. But if they passed away at home or elsewhere, arrangements will need to be made right away.

In most cases, your next call should be to a funeral home, although you may first want to figure out if your loved one had a pre-arranged funeral plan. If you know who their lawyer was, reach out to them to ask if they had discussed a funeral plan. Otherwise, perhaps another family member will know. If there is a plan available, your job is easier now. You will simply call the funeral home they made their plan with and arrange with them for transportation of your loved one’s body.

If a plan cannot be found, it will be time to choose a local funeral home, whose director can help you make arrangements for transportation and the funeral service, if you choose to hold one. If possible, involve other family members in the decision, but the more quickly you make it, the faster you will be able to turn your attention to other details, such as informing your loved one’s other family and friends about what has happened, and starting to plan the funeral itself

Many people feel that they must do all of this planning in a haze. It’s unfortunate that some things really must be taken care of right away, giving you no time to slow down and process what you are going through. This is the difficult reality of the first few days of grief.

Remember, your friends and family are there to support you—ask for help, even with the simplest tasks. And though many of the arrangements are urgent, remember that nothing is more urgent than your mental, emotional, and physical health. Be kind to yourself, and take breaks whenever you need them. With a little organization and a strong support system, you will get through this, so you can move on to a place where you can truly process how you are feeling.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.