Updated 28 June 2013

What to do when someone dies

The news hits you like a brick wall: someone close to you has died. Apart from dealing with the grief, what are the other things you should do? Here are some indispensable tips.

The telephone rings and the voice on the other end sounds unexpectedly guarded and offish. You just know something is terribly wrong, and then you get the news: a family member or close friend has died.

So how do most people react to news of this kind? "If the death is unexpected, people's first reaction is usually disbelief and shock," says Cape Town psychologist Ilse Terblanche.

"They may try to deny that it has happened and it may take a while for them to accept the finality and reality. It is often followed by intense anger about the loss. These reactions are normal stages of the grieving process," according to Terblanche. "One only needs to be concerned if a person fails to move on towards acceptance and integrating the loss into their lives."

Whether this is an expected or unexpected death, it is never easy to deal with. And no-one ever prepares you for suddenly having to deal with a funeral and endless paperwork.

Despite the emotional trauma every person feels when they have lost someone, there is often a myriad of practical implications on top of everything else.

Remember these if you have to travel

If the death requires you to travel, remember the following:

  • If you get the news late at night, remember that you are tired and need rest. Rather ask a friend or relative to take you.
  • You most probably also have a home or household to take care of – make the necessary arrangements before you leave. Make sure someone you can trust is looking after your house, cars, pets and children.
  • Make sure you have some backup funds. There are always some unforeseen expenses.
  • Pack enough clothes so that you are prepared for any weather conditions.
  • Don't be shy to take friends and family up on their offers of help – during this time they are your social support network and can take care of certain tasks.
  • Speak to at least five trusted friends in different friendship circles. These five will keep everyone updated for you, saving time and money. You will most probably not have the energy to tell everyone what happened. These five friends can do that for you. Or send a generalised e-mail, if you have internet access.
  • Remember to eat regularly and drink lots of fluids. You will need it. Buy some energy bars to carry with you.

If the death was an accident or something that may interest the media, use your resources. You might know someone who can deal with the media. Get them on board. You do not want to have to deal with reporters hanging around trying to get the story from you at a time like this.

Practical tips

There are also other immediate matters to deal with.

  • The police and doctors: speak to the officers and doctors involved – they are usually an endless source of good tips. Remember they have been through this countless times, whereas you may not have. If you need an undertaker, they will know which person is best to contact.
  • Remember to register the death, and to make sure that all information on the certificate is correct. This cannot be stressed enough.
  • Make about 15 copies of all documents including the death certificate. Get the copies certified at the police station. If you are a direct family member, or someone who is going to deal a lot with legal issues, make copies of your own ID as well.
  • Remember that a funeral is particularly expensive and if you need to transfer the body, you will need a permit from the department of home affairs.
  • If your religion permits, a cremation is usually much cheaper and much easier.
  • At the funeral or ceremony or wake, ask friends to remind you of certain things. At a time like this, one may even forget the flowers or something similar. Allow people to help you make arrangements, but make sure these are trusted friends.

After the funeral or the cremation, the most difficult time lies ahead. Now, for the first time, you actually have time to think and to grieve. Allow yourself to mourn and if necessary, go and see a therapist to help you through this time.

"Get support from family and friends. Don't try to be strong and allow yourself to grieve," says Terblanche. "Take time out and don't force yourself to go straight back to work. Concentrate on all the practical arrangements first and make time for yourself."

"Don't neglect your health and make sure you eat enough nutritious food and that you get enough sleep. If you feel that you need a professional's advice, ask your doctor to refer you to a psychologist or bereavement counsellor. Don't rush yourself or be too hard on yourself - this is a huge loss and it takes for a person to regain their strengths," adds Terblanche.

"Everyone deals with loss in a different way, and at a different pace. One only needs to be concerned if a person after quite a while fails to move on towards acceptance and integrating the loss into their lives," according to Terblanche.

During this time you will also see whom you can depend on and who not. Sadly, when people die, there are often disputes regarding money and possessions. Death often brings out the worst in people. Know that this will happen and be prepared for it.

Urgent things to do

Here is a list of the things nobody tells you beforehand.

  • Get a lawyer, as chances are 90% you will need one.
  • Look for documents the deceased has left.
  • Do not trust anyone regarding money matters. Even the best of friends have stabbed people in the back because of money. If you are the executor of the estate, you can get an agent to act on your behalf. Use a person who is qualified and has time.
  • Bank accounts are frozen when someone dies. If it is close to the end of the month, keep in mind that things like debit orders will bounce. If it is for something like household or car insurance, contact the companies directly to make arrangements. This is not the time you want to be without cover.
  • Make copies of all documents. Even documents that seem unimportant can be crucial later. File the documents, and keep everything in a safe place.
  • When notifying people and businesses of the death, notify them over the telephone, and then follow it up with a written notice, delivered in person. It is very important to give the notice to someone, to get their details and to ask them to sign for it. Many businesses have different departments that never communicate with each other.
  • When cancelling something like a phone contract, make sure customer services as well as the accounts departments know about this and that they have signed a document stating they received notification from you.
  • Take care of matters as soon as possible, but remember that estates can take as long as a year or two to be settled.
  • If properties or cars are involved, deal with them as soon as possible. Insurance and payments can run up over the months, increasing debt unnecessarily.

- (Photo of depressed woman from Shutterstock)


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