What to do first when someone dies unexpectedly

6 min read

When someone dies unexpectedly, it can be difficult to think straight or know what to do. The unthinkable has happened, and your world is completely changed in an instant. You may be in shock, you may be in disbelief—it’s a blow no one can prepare you for, and it may feel like no one can help you.

While it’s true that no two people experience grief the exact same way, we all are faced with the same processes and deadlines order to deal with your loved one’s death. And there are things we can learn from those who have experienced this already.

You don’t have to be alone in figuring out what to do first: taking several initial steps will get you through those first frightening hours and days.

When a loved one has passed away: First, call 911

If your loved one died at home, immediately call 911. Depending on how the death occurred, the 911 operator may dispatch any or all of these: police, firefighters, and a coroner.

If a coroner is not sent, you will need to call again for one to legally pronounce your loved one dead. Another option: Many people contact their loved one’s physician, since they know their medical history.

Either a doctor or a coroner will be able to advise you on next steps, but getting the legal pronouncement is mandatory in order to get a death certificate issued for your loved one—something you will need for almost every step going forward.

Go to the hospital or morgue

If your loved one did not die at home, as soon as you’re notified, go wherever their body is being held. This could be a hospital or morgue. If you are next of kin, you will likely have to identify the body, so prepare yourself for that grim responsibility.

From there, the pronouncement of death is taken care of by the hospital staff or the coroner, so you don’t have to take further action.

Ask about investigations or autopsies

Depending on how your loved one died, you may be asked by the coroner or medical authorities whether you want an autopsy.

People generally only proceed with an autopsy if there is evidence of trauma, if the death occurred in unusual circumstances, or if it was in any way unexpected. Even if you don’t believe a crime has happened, you can ask for an autopsy.

And if it does look like a crime, the police will probably open an investigation, which will include an autopsy.

Look into funeral homes

Even if your loved one’s death was premature, hopefully you know what they wanted in regard to their funeral.

If you’re not sure, asking other close family and friends may help you find the answer, as this is a topic people discuss with others sometimes. In addition, the medical examiner or hospital can usually offer a list of funeral homes in the area that have a good reputation.

Before you contact them, consider the basics: whether you want to cremate or bury your loved one, what kind of service you want to have, and how big your budget is—and know your rights as a consumer. (For instance, it is not legal for a funeral home to require you to buy a casket from them, no matter what they say.)

Get copies of the death certificate

Legal proof of your loved one’s death will be necessary to do everything from plan a funeral to close out their accounts and publish a notice to creditors, just to name a few of the tasks that will require this document.

Death certificates are signed by the county coroner and issued by the county where your loved one died. You can contact them yourself, but this is a service most funeral homes offer and many people let the funeral director handle this for them.

Experts recommend obtaining between 24 and 36 death certificates, depending on the size of your loved one’s estate.

Notify family and close friends

This might be the hardest phone call you’ll ever have to make, so you may want to jot down notes as to what you want to say.

When informing those closest to the person who died, you want to give yourself and them ample time to talk without interruptions. Or, if you can, go to them and be by their side when you share the devastating news.

As much as you may be suffering, try to remember that the people you are notifying will be suffering too.

While close family and friends should be informed individually in person or on the phone, a mass email to your loved one’s wider circle is OK.

Take care of any pets

If the person who has passed away left behind pets, it is important to figure out who can take care of those pets until a final decision is made.

If you shared any pets with the person who has died, it might be a good idea to ask someone to temporarily take them while you’re grieving and making funeral arrangements. You are going to have your hands full and asking for help to ease the load is a good—and healthy—idea.

Contact their employer

If your loved one was employed when they died unexpectedly, you’ll want to call their place of work. If you’re unsure of their boss or manager’s name, or aren’t clear on who should be told the information, speak to someone in the company’s human resources department.

Contacting your loved one’s employer is important for two reasons: to notify friends and colleagues who cared about them, and to start the process of releasing any unpaid wages, commissions, bonuses, or other benefits.

Close their accounts and shut down social media

From driver’s licenses, to utilities, voter registration, email accounts, insurance policies, and everything in between, it should all be canceled. Utilities, if not canceled, can go into collection or result in a series of harassing calls. Contacting the Data and Marketing Association (DMA) so your loved one’s name is added to the Deceased Do Not Contact List (DDNC) so as to avoid any future calls that may be upsetting to you is also a good idea.

If the person who died had any social media accounts, cancel them, too, unless you’d prefer to use that platform to memorialize them.

Notify banks and federal agencies

Any banks, brokerage firms, and other financial institutions your loved one dealt with need to be informed as soon as possible, as do the Social Security Administration and the IRS.

If your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits and you don’t stop the checks immediately, the executor of the estate may be held liable for those payments later. And the IRS will give you a tax ID number for the estate, since their Social Security number will no longer have a purpose.

Finally, to avoid identity theft, which can create chaos later as your loved one's estate goes through probate, it's a good idea to alert the three major credit agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Call each of them to ask them for the process of putting a freeze on your loved one’s credit.

Be aware of wrongful death lawsuit options

If your loved one died at the hands of another you may be able to sue for wrongful death. Examples might be anything from dying during surgery to being killed in a car accident where the other driver is to blame.

While no amount of money will bring back your loved one, lawsuits are a way of holding people accountable so ideally it won’t happen to another person.

Check in on yourself often

Trying to process such tragic and unexpected news can leave anyone feeling numb, confused, terrified, and steeped in a whole plethora of emotions. But the big one that you’re bound to feel is shock.

Although you have many things you need to do, it’s OK to sit down and give yourself a chance to try to make sense of what has happened. Be kind to yourself. Ask for help when you need it and demand space when you need that instead. As much as there is to be done, your mental and emotional health should still remain a priority.

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.