Death is taboo in Western society. We hide it away behind the walls of hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral parlors. We don’t talk about it. So it comes no surprise that almost no one knows what to do when someone dies. So here is your guide.
We’re All Going There
First it needs to be said that death is the single universal experience for all beings (outside of birth which is pretty varied). We all die, and the process of death itself is incredibly consistent. Death is the great equalizer. There is no amount of money, power, or fame that can exempt us from death. That might be a source of anxiety for you or of peace; but either way, death cannot be avoided.
All religious traditions have something to say about death. Those teachings vary wildly. And the bottom line is: we don’t know. Death you could say, is the last great frontier, the great adventure that no one can have for us. For most of us certain Christian, or culturally Christian assumptions make up our ideas around death. Heaven and hell, reward or punishment are common themes.
But know that the concept of heaven and hell didn’t exist in the time of Jesus, and isn’t a Jewish (the religion of Jesus) concept! Hell is a rather modern invention borrowed from the Greeks and brought to glorious, gory fruition by the famous Dante.
The Divine whom I have encountered is above all loving and faithful. I do not know what happens after we die, but I am certain that God(dess) is at least as concerned with our well being as a human parent and I believe that She has it handled, whatever our next adventure might be.
If you are not prepared…
Most of us are not at all prepared for death. Because the subject is so taboo, and so thoroughly the realm of professionals these days most people have absolutely no idea how to handle the death of a loved one, what to do after, or how to continue with their lives in a healthy way. What we will not cover here is preparing for your own death. That is a whole other subject and great work has been done on it, especially in the modern hospice movement.
Chances are you have received that call. The one that tells you of a terminal diagnosis of a friend or relative. Or perhaps the call to come quickly because there isn’t much time left. If you felt totally unprepared and out of your depth you are not alone. If you are facing the approaching death of a loved one take a deep breathe, because there are things you can do to make death less frightening. And I will walk you through this.
Sometimes death is swift and surprising. But far more frequently in the modern world death is a stalker. We see it coming, and modern medicine can hold it off. If you find yourself facing the certain and approaching death of a loved one there are things you can do, should do. These are suggestions, your own cultural traditions will vary. Please take these as guides, and modify and change to fit your own context.
Your friend or relative is dying; there will be people in their lives who drift silently away because of fear or discomfort. Don’t be that person. While it might be wildly uncomfortable continue to show up. Being the person who stays as death draws near is the greatest gift you can give the person you love (and yourself.)
This will look different given your context and the needs of the person who is dying. It could be as simple as a daily phone call to check in, or driving them to doctor’s appointments, or (if you are like my friends and me) texting them irreverent and utterly inappropriate gifs when they’re having a hard time. You don’t have to become a different person, just don’t vanish. Be present, it is the best gift you can give.
As death approaches people get wildly uncomfortable and discomfort tends to make us run our mouths. I have sat in hospital rooms where a family member would not stop talking. While their patient (and dying) relative sighed and nodded. I get it. It is super, super hard to talk about death, or to listen to your loved one talk about their own death, but it is really healthy for them to do so. Filling the silence may be tempting but remind yourself to listen.
Listen: even when what you hear makes you uncomfortable, and resist (really, seriously) the urge to try to “fix” what you are hearing. (For way more detail on this try this article I wrote a while ago on supporting a person in crisis.) What is happening is real, and it’s complicated, and your loved one needs to process that in their own way. Let them express what they are feeling and thinking, and avoid pushing your own ideas unless they ask.
Feel free to record, or write down family stories. Now is a great time to ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask about their life!
Ask what they want
This is going to sound really “duh” but ask what your loved one wants. Help them fill out an advanced directive which outlines their wishes about things like life support. Again, as a culture we are really bad about thinking through such things in advance. But doing so is a gift for everyone involved. It takes pressure and decisions off family members when crisis occurs, and it makes sure your loved one is cared for as they wish.
Your local hospice chaplain can be very helpful in this as they have lots of experience. If your loved one is willing, talk about their funeral. Find out what they do and don’t want. Write it down and make sure all the important parties know where it is. (If the dying person has a religious community this is a great time to call priest/rabbi/imam. These folks are experts at death and they can help with forward planning and keep the funeral planning files on hand and ready.
Remember to laugh
Sneak a chocolate milkshake into their room, do each other’s makeup, watch funny cat videos. Just because someone is dying doesn’t mean they want to be serious all the damn time. They will likely be surrounded by people who can’t stop crying (or nearly crying), and they’ll have plenty of decisions to make and probably uncomfortable medical procedures to endure.
Feel free to be their chance to act human. One of the holiest deaths I have ever attended took place around the bed of a woman who couldn’t really talk anymore. Her children and I (her priest) had gathered, and they proceeded to hold her hands and tell the most outrageous (but true, maybe) stories from their childhood. They howled with laughter, finally admitting all sorts of teenage indiscretion. Their Mom smiled, her eyes sparkling. They gave her, and themselves a great gift: joy.
Ask for help
If you need it, ask for help. Caregivers get tired, laundry piles up, and there is absolutely no shame in asking for help. Many of those around you won’t know what to do or say (damn that cultural taboo). Giving them a concrete way to help you out is often a relief. So ask, even if it’s just a grocery store run or to take the kids out for ice cream.
Remember that you are good to no one if you are sick and exhausted. So take care of yourself and for the love of little green apples: let other people take care of you.
And then it happens, someone you love dies. This is really why you are here most likely, wondering what to do when someone dies.
No matter how prepared you are death is never easy so be gentle with yourself. I have walked with many families through death and it’s aftermath and these are the things I have learned.
Navigating Funeral Home Planning
The funeral director is a businessman and their job is to make money. That does not mean they is evil, unethical, or corrupt but they might be. Funeral directors vary wildly, however always remember that they are in business. It is there job to sell you things, many of these things you don’t actually need.
If you or your loved one had a religious community call them! Ask if their priest/pastor/rabbi/imam will go with you to make funeral arrangements. I am always happy to accompany a family to a funeral home. Having your tradition’s religious representative with you does a few things. First, it ensures that the preparations the funeral director undertakes actually match your tradition’s practices! (Never assume.)
For example: there is no need for families who attend my church to pay for a space for a reception or a service. Our church is the appropriate place for both those things, and we don’t charge. Yet every time I have gone to a funeral home with a family guess what was automatically already in the package?
But the other reason for having the priest or rabbi with you is very practical: you are in mourning and that is a time of great vulnerability. Your priest/rabbi/imam is not in mourning (even if they dearly loved your loved one). They can advocate for you, protect you from being over sold by the funeral home, and speak for your loved one’s wishes.
Stick to the plan
Plan, plan, plan; then stick to it. Before you head to the funeral home sit down with the others involved in planning the funeral and be clear on two things: how much you can spend, and what your priorities are. While regulations vary by state in some places you don’t need a funeral home at all, you can work directly with a crematorium (if cremation is what your loved one wanted, Google: “cremation society of” and your state for detailed information). Cremation can cost a few hundred dollars, no special urn is required for burial in a cemetery or columbarium and certainly not for spreading/sprinkling.
In other places a casket liner isn’t required, or a vault. But funeral homes will almost always include these things as “givens” in their packages.
Don’t go into debt.
Your loved one cannot enjoy the $7,000 (not kidding, seen it) casket gilded with gold and lined with silk. Dead people don’t really need anything. Americans spend insane amounts of money on funerals, out of guilt or obligation, or because we assume we must.
But most people would far rather that money went to educate their grandchildren than buy an expensive casket for themselves. Set your budget and stick to it. Funeral homes will often start the whole process by laying out a package that “honors your deceased loved one.” It is never their cheapest option and there is always a lot of padding in that package that really isn’t necessary.
Money does not equal love. Spending more doesn’t mean you love more. So honor that person you love by not putting your family’s future in danger by going into debt.
About Funerals (religious services or otherwise)
A funeral isn’t required, but it is very helpful for those who are mourning. If your loved one (or close family member) has a religious community enlist their help. My community really wants to help, we want to cook you huge amounts of food, and put together flower arrangements, and invite you into our space. Many families have showed up at “Grandma’s church” only to discover she had a whole other loving extended family ready to embrace and support them. I see it happen over and over again. Lean on those religious communities, it is what they do best.
If you don’t have a religious community in the area don’t feel shy to reach out. I have done many, many funerals for people I have never met and it was an honor. (A lot of them weren’t even Episcopalians!) A religious community will do a religious funeral, it’s just sort of who we are, so expect that.
Also: if Grandpa was a member of a super conservative evangelical denomination and your family is not (and maybe includes LGBTQ folk or members of other religions) it is totally OK to have a family funeral that does not involve Grandpa’s church. You do not have to sit through theological violence: choose a funeral officiant you trust. Remember those in mourning (including you) are incredibly vulnerable, chuck shame and expectations out the window and do what is life giving.
How to talk to children
This is really important. Be honest with kids about death. I have walked into the aftermath of families who couldn’t bring themselves to use the word “death” with a child, and it was far worse than if they had. Never talk about someone “falling asleep” for example as a euphemism for death unless you want to spend the next two years with a child who will not go to bed.
In general experts in child psychology and development are clear that we should use words like death and died with children (hint: we should use them with adults as well). Keep what you say simple and clear. And support the child in their feelings. This can be hard as adults who want to quickly move a sad child on to happier things, or when children don’t seem to react as expected. For specific advice from experts see these two great articles.
Care for yourself
Someone you love has died. Your world has changed and it can never return to the way it was.
Those are hard things to read, but it is even harder if you pretend they aren’t true. For good or ill death changes the world. Someone who held space in it, who added good or evil to that world has gone. Your reaction is likely to be complex. When I preach at funerals I do not praise the person who has died. I do that for a very specific reason: no one is perfect. No matter how much you love someone there is someone who they hurt, someone from whom they were estranged.
The likelihood is you have complicated feelings right now. You might be relieved because your time as caretaker is over, or your loved one’s suffering has ended. You might be furious that they died (at them or at someone else). You are probably sorrowful as well. And all of these (and more) emotions are absolutely normal.
Take care of yourself. If your relationship with the person who has died is was difficult, complicated, or left many loose ends now might be a time to get yourself some therapy or to sit down for a long talk with whoever is your religious or spiritual advisor. If you have been a caregiver for a very long time you are almost certainly worn out, and feeling at loose ends. Give yourself rest.
Be sure in the midst of all the busyness that follows death that you care for yourself. I keep saying that it is OK to ask for help, and that’s because it’s true.Set aside the guilt of being “selfish” and care for yourself as tenderly as you would care for others.
Be an observer of people
This could be a whole article in itself. But know this: death amplifies all of the family systems behaviors that exist in a group of people. If you are a healthy group you’ll get closer. But if there are simmering conflicts they are likely to explode after a death, especially the death of someone like a patriarch or matriarch.
Be an observer. Notice the dynamics and behaviors happening around you. And if what you see is destructive get help. Get yourself into therapy, meet with your spiritual/religious adviser, check in with your partner our trusted friend. Families can tear themselves apart over something as odd as the family china. It happens.
You probably can’t stop unhealthy behavior all by yourself but you can be aware of what is happening and make healthier choices for yourself and your family.
Give Yourself a Lot of Time
In six months you will still be mourning. In a year everyone else will have moved on but the anniversary of your loved one’s death will probably catch you by surprise. The first holidays without them, the first birthday or anniversary, it will be different for everyone but mourning isn’t a neat tidy set of steps that you can work through in a few months and be over.
Mourning has it’s own pace and your mourning will be unique to you. Well meaning friends and family may tell you that you need to move on, or that “time heals all wounds.” The truth is you will move on because that is how life works. You cannot not. But you will never be the same, you aren’t supposed to be. When someone important to us dies our world changes forever.
The truth is you will find a new normal. It will be a lot like the old normal, but also different.
There is no timeline. But if you find yourself having a hard time performing daily necessities, like work, or caring for yourself or family it’s time to seek professional help to work through your grief and help to find that new normal.
Be gentle with yourself.