Dealing with Death - the first few days

THE FIRST FEW DAYS after a family member dies

  • Immediately find out whether the person was or could be an organ or tissue donor. Try to honor their wishes if known - otherwise it's up to you..
  • Decide on a time and place for the services since most people will ask about this right away, and some may need to make travel arrangements.
    • Weekends are best for travelers.
    • Pick a place that is convenient, as you may be going back and forth.
    • Choose a location that can accommodate the number of people you expect and the type of services you want.
    • Pick a funeral director you feel comfortable with, and who is not going to pressure you to spend more than you can afford. Ask for recommendations from friends you trust, or from a church since they deal with a lot of death. This turned out to be a very important decision for me. I picked Gilman & Valade and they were amazing. Experienced, caring, sensitive, accommodating. No pressure for expensive choices during the most difficult time of my life. Great suggestions.
  • Make a list of people to notify (family, close friends, employer, business colleagues.) Make phone calls. You might get someone to help you with this.
    • Some people will ask what you need. Tell them, or ask if you can get back to them. Doing something will actually help them feel less helpless. If the offer wasn't sincere, you'll find out. More.
  • Arrange for someone to take turns answering the door and phone.
    • This was the most helpful thing I did right away. A caring, non-blabby person is best. This isn't about them, and you will need to keep the phone lines open. (Visitors should probably use their cell phones.) They need to be good at gently fending off people you do not wish to/or are not ready see.
    • Keep a record of calls and visits and gifts (like food), for thank you notes or to get back to people when things settle down.
  • Write the obituary.
    • Standard content includes the person's full name, age at death, where they were born and grew up, year they graduated from which school, where they worked, who they volunteered for, and list of immediate family members.
    • Doublecheck your facts.
    • I included a cause of death as helps avoid some painful questions about what happened.
    • I made Doug's obituary personal. A dry list of facts is boring. It does tell you much about the person's life or what was special about them - their passions, their qualities, why they will be missed, etc. Even something funny.
    • Include a good, sharp photo, preferably fairly recent, healthy and smiling.
    • If you do not want flowers (which can be depressing when they die), decide on a memorial (the person's favorite non-profit organization, a group that helped the deceased, a library, school, or charity, etc.) I offered three choices to people - each representing a different facet of my husband's life and interests.
    • Include the time and place of services. Indicate whether there will be visiting/calling hours or a wake. Say whether the reception and cemetery service is open or limited to family only.
    • Deliver it to newspapers. (The funeral director may do this for you.) Include local weeklies. Some will publish obituaries for free - for daily papers, obits can be pricey as this is where they make a lot of their income.
  • Plan the services.
    • Try to make them special.
      • At Doug's service, I brought some of his favorite things to display that represented his interests in climbing, running, softball and the environment. I also had a bunch of photos on easels. I think it brought more "life" and gave people something to look at and talk about while in the receiving line. A friend made a photo video that played in the receiving room.
      • Consider leaving blank cards/small notes where people can share their memories of the deceased, or thoughts, and put them in a bag or box. People can write on them while waiting in a receiving line.These are wonderful to read later.
    • You will want a book where people can sign in when they arrive.
      • Our funeral home put a big photo of Doug above the book.
    • You will need to decide what to do with the person's remains - burial or cremation. I let families know in advance that there was no viewing, as some parents are concerned about their children seeing a body. I preferred to have people remember Doug full of life.
    • You may want to prepare cards that people can take home. I made ones that had Doug's picture on the front, and Robert Test's poem "To Remember Me" on the back, since Doug was a tissue donor. I thought people could put it in their wallets. See other quotes and poems you can consider.
    • Think about whether you want to ask anyone to speak about the deceased. Ask them to be fairly brief to allow others the opportunity.
    • Pick music. I used songs that were part of Doug's life, or that said something about how I felt. I was able to find a friend to sing one, and two other friends to play the piano and violin.
    • At the wake, consider leaving addressed envelopes and cards for donations to organizations selected. This makes it easier for people.
  • Arrange for child care if needed.
  • Coordinate food supply for the next few days.
    • Our neighbor arranged for a food tree. Things most appreciated were coffee, healthy snacks, and full meals (from bread to dessert.)
  • Consider special needs for the household, such as cleaning, etc., that can be done for friends.
  • Arrange for hospitality for visiting friends and relatives.
    • You will probably want to invite people from out of town to the house to visit and mourn after the services.
  • Select pallbearers and ask them to assist.
  • Keep a list of people to receive acknowledgements - of flowers, calls, etc.
    • I set up a notebook. My mom wrote the person's name, date, phone number and item they brought so my thank you notes could be personal.
    • If people bring food items, mark the plates for their return - otherwise you will probably lose track in the ensuing pandemonium.
  • Notify insurance companies.
    • The first ones you want to reach are life insurance, as you may need this money to pay for funeral expenses, etc.
    • Afterwards, notify homeowners and car insurance companies.


  • Prepare a list of distant persons to be notified by letter.
  • Notify lawyer
  • Notify executor.
  • Check on death benefits (social security, insurance, credit union, fraternal, military)
  • Change beneficiaries on insurance, IRA's, bank accounts, etc..
  • Notify insurance companies - car etc.
  • If the deceased was living along, notify utilities and landlord and tell post office where to send mail.
  • Rule of thumb: Do not make any major decisions for at least a year after the death of a spouse. Do not sell your house, make a major purchase, or make a major change in your way of life.
    • Mourners should be spared from making decisions they are not ready to make. Others can help by not pressing them about the future ....Whenever possible, decisions that leave room for a change of heart are best. Maybe they can help you delay an impulsive or unreasonable decision. (Tatelbaum)
  • Unless you need the space, or must move, there is no rush to go through the deceased things and dispose of it immediately. However, I'd also suggest that you don't wait more than two years.
  • Update your will as necessary.



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