We’ve all heard stories about someone we know dying at home. Sometimes it’s unexpected, like when a junior high school classmate came home to find his mother on the kitchen floor. To this day, I remember that story with a childlike horror. Exactly what did he do when he found her there?
Other times, when a loved one dies at home, it’s anticipated. Perhaps he or she has been ill for quite some time; maybe hospice has even gotten involved.
Whether the death is expected or not; what you do when someone dies at home can be easily reduced to just two things.
The First Thing to Do When a Loved One Dies at Home
The first is easy to say, but often not easy to do because it’s all about self-care. There is little more you can do for your deceased loved one; it’s time to take care of yourself so you can move forward through what’s ahead: making the necessary funeral arrangements, notifying creditors and other interested parties and, of course, grieving.
Stop. Sit down. Take a few deep breaths. This is a critical first step in dealing with a home death. This is when you’re sorely compromised in taking action by the disbelief you feel (which is a very natural reaction and the initial phase of the grief “process”). You’ve got to just “sit with” the fact of your loved one dying at home.
In all honestly, most of the time that’s all you can do. It’s as if the wind was knocked right out of your lungs; you simply have to sit down (or you’ll fall down). In approaching the very sudden–and wholly unexpected– death of her husband John Dunne, Joan Didion opened her masterwork, The Year of Magical Thinking, with a prose-poem she wrote just hours after his passing. In just 24 words, she accurately describes the suddenness and totality of the change wrought and the prevailing emotional reaction to what had happened:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
In a situation like this, it requires some time to adjust to the very idea of such an enormous change; so take it. And take the next step in dealing with your loved one’s home death only when you’re ready.
Please Note: Because murder is a commonplace occurrence in the United States–on average, there are over 16,000 murders in this country a year, around 44 murders per day– we need to say: if you think your loved one’s home death was the result of a crime, you need to remove yourself (and anyone else) from the immediate area and obtain police assistance via 911. (Data Source)
The Second Thing to Do
Pick up the phone. Make the calls necessary to get the “hands-on” support you need. What kind of support is that? In short, you need both personal and professional assistance:
- Personal support comes from your friends, family, church parishioners or clergy. Anyone you trust whole-heartedly to care for you.
- Professional support comes from the authorities (police, ambulances, hospice nurses, coroners, and funeral directors. These are the people you need to contact to care for the physical remains of your deceased family member.
In all honestly, if there’s no doubt about the fact of death, nothing has to be done immediately after a loved one’s home death. This is a very special time for many people; when religious, ethnic, cultural or personal customs can be performed in privacy.
Eventually, in the event of a sudden unexpected home death, you’ll need to call emergency services (911). The paramedics will follow their stated procedures for cases like this; either pronouncing death on their own, or transporting the deceased to a hospital where a physician can handle the duties involved. Depending on the circumstances of your loved one’s death at home.
Dying at home under hospice care is a very different matter, as the cause of death need not be determined (by the authorities performing an autopsy). If your loved one dies at home under hospice care, you’ll take the same time you need to “sit” with the fact of death, and then pick up the phone to call the on-call hospice nurse. He or she will facilitate all the required paperwork and even assist you in reaching out to a local funeral home. When hospice is involved, there’s an “action plan” already in place for when the patient dies.
That’s it. When it comes to dealing with the home death of a loved one, you’re primary goals are two-fold: take care of yourself and take care of the body and legal status of the deceased. While it’s imperative the death must be officially pronounced as soon as possible, it’s also essential that you take care of your emotional, physical and spiritual well-being at this most critical time. What’s the saying for air travelers? “Put your oxygen mask on first and then help others.” There is no more emotionally devastating time than when a loved one dies at home, which means it’s surely an appropriate time to be vigilant about self-care.