After a death - If you are a partner, relative or friend
The death of someone close to you is very significant and everyone reacts differently to it.
In the first few hours after their death, you may feel very shocked or numb however well-prepared you were. You may have lots of overwhelming emotions, such as feeling extremely upset and angry. Many people also feel very relieved that their relative or friend can now be at peace.
Most cultures and religions have processes or rituals that they carry out at the time of death. It’s important for you to do what you feel is right. There may be some things that you need to do but don’t feel that you have to do anything straight away or rush to ‘get on with things’. If you want, you can just spend some quiet time with the person who has died. Many people like to sit and talk or hold hands, and see the person at peace, especially if the last few hours or days were difficult.
You may want to have someone there to support you. It may help to ask them to contact other people to let them know, if you don’t feel up to telling them. A spiritual or religious adviser can also support you and carry out any processes or rituals that are important to you and your relative or friend.
If your relative or friend dies in a hospital or hospice, the nursing staff will be nearby. They will guide you through what needs to be done over the next few hours.
If your relative or friend dies at home, you’ll need to let their GP or district nurse know what’s happened within a few hours. The GP or a dictrict nurse will come as soon as possible to confirm the death. This is also known as verifying the death.
If the GP comes, they will verify the death and give you a medical certificate for the cause of death with a form called Notice to informant, which tells you how to register the death. If a district nurse comes, or you have to call an out-of-hours doctor, they can verify the death but you may need to get the death certificate from your GP the following day.
When you have the medical death certificate, you need to take this to the local registrar’s office to register the death.
The doctor who certifies the death has a legal responsibility to inform the coroner (procurator fiscal in Scotland) if a post-mortem is needed. A post-mortem isn’t usually necessary if the death was expected and the person was seen by their GP in the last 14 days (28 days in Northern Ireland) before their death. However, there are some exceptions. For example, a post-mortem may be needed when a person dies of an occupational disease such as mesothelioma.
If a post-mortem is needed, it usually takes a few days to arrange. You’ll get a medical death certificate afterwards. This can help to give exact information about the cause of death. You’ll need to wait until the doctor has decided whether a post-mortem is needed before you set a date for the funeral or alternative service.
What the funeral director will do
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Once the death has been verified by a nurse or doctor, you can contact the funeral director (undertaker).
They provide a 24-hour service and can advise you on what to do. Details of funeral directors are in your local phone book or on the internet. You can also get information from the National Association of Funeral Directors. The funeral director will come as soon as you want them to.
You can let the funeral director know if you’d like them to help you look after your relative’s or friend’s body at home until the funeral, or whether you’d like the body to be taken to the funeral director’s chapel of rest. You can visit the chapel of rest to be with the body if you’d like to.
Caring for the body
The funeral director will take care of your relative’s or friend’s body and will wash them. This process is different for different religions and cultures but usually involves carefully washing and drying the body, closing the eyelids, and making sure their mouth is supported while closed. The person’s hair is tidied and sometimes washed. The funeral director will also ask if you’d like them to be dressed in any specific clothes, such as a favourite outfit.
If you’d like to help the funeral directors wash and dress your relative or friend, let them know as soon as possible so they can arrange this.
Some people want to be embalmed. This is when the body is disinfected and treated with chemicals to help preserve it. Blood is drained out of the body and replaced with embalming fluid. This is carried out at the funeral directors.
You need to take the medical death certificate - and birth and marriage certificates - to the registrar’s office in the area where the death occurred. This needs to be done within five days (eight days in Scotland).
Some registrars’ offices have an appointment system, so check before you go. You can find the number of your local registrar’s office listed under Registration of births, deaths and marriages in the business section of your local phone book. It may also be on the envelope containing the death certificate. If you’re not able to go yourself, another person can act as an ‘informant’ and register the death for you.
Before you attend the registrar’s office, it’s helpful to think about how many copies of the death certificate you might need. You can buy ‘certified copies’ for a small charge at the time of registration. These are duplicate original certified copies and not photocopies. You’ll usually need one certified copy for each life insurance policy (or similar) that you need to claim.
At the registrar’s office, they will enter details of the death in the register and give you a certificate of burial or cremation. You need to give this to the funeral director. The registrar will also give you a certificate of registration of death, if this is needed for social security purposes.
Your district or palliative care nurse can give you information about what to do when someone dies.
Planning a funeral and burial or a cremation
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Funerals and memorials allow relatives and friends to pay their respects to the person who has died. It’s a way of acknowledging their death and saying goodbye.
You can make all the arrangements for the funeral and burial yourself if you’d like to. However, most people prefer to have the help of the funeral director. The GP will need to know if you’re planning a cremation so they can complete the relevant paperwork.
Before making any funeral arrangements, it’s important to consider several issues:
What were the wishes of the dead person?
Have they expressed their wishes in a will?
What are your wishes?
How will the funeral be paid for? Is there a pre-paid funeral plan?
Some people have no strong religious beliefs, while others have a strong religious or spiritual faith or may have lived their lives as humanists, agnostics or atheists. You may have very clear ideas about how you want to pay your respects to the person’s body and how you want the service to be dealt with. Remember, you don’t need to have a religious leader to conduct a funeral or memorial service.
If you’re unsure what to do or didn’t have a chance to discuss this with your loved one, you can get ideas from books or the internet. An undertaker can also guide you through issuing the death notices and planning the funeral service. You can also get information from the registrar.
People who have a spiritual or religious faith often have a clear idea of who they want to conduct the funeral and where they want the funeral or memorial service to take place. A funeral, religious or spiritual service can be held wherever you like, for example, in the person’s home or their favourite place. Services are often held in the church where the body will be buried or in the chapel next to a crematorium, but they can be held in other places if you prefer.
After the memorial service, the person’s body is cremated or buried.
This takes place in a designated crematorium. The ashes of the person are given in a container to the next of kin. You and your loved one may have discussed what they wanted done with their ashes. You can carry out these wishes when you’re ready.
A burial is usually in a churchyard or other designated burial place. It’s also possible for people to be buried in other places, such as a garden. If you want to bury someone on a property that you own or in a place that they loved, you can get information from The Natural Death Centre.
If you and your relative or friend didn’t have the chance to discuss their choice of burial or cremation, and there’s a will, it’s important to consult the executor to see if the will contains this information. If you discussed plans for the funeral before their death, this makes it easier to be sure you’re arranging a service of remembrance that reflects the person’s wishes. Some people also have strong views on the clothes they want to be buried or cremated in.
Help with the cost of a funeral
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The Social Fund is a government fund that makes payments to people in need. These payments include Funeral Payments to help with the cost of arranging a funeral. To be eligible for most Social Fund payments you need to be receiving certain benefits when you apply. The fund is run by the Department for Work and Pensions.
For more information on Funeral Payments, contact the Department for Work and Pensions or your local Jobcentre Plus office. If you live in Northern Ireland, contact nidirect or your nearest social security agency office for more information. You’ll find their number in the phone book.
When a person dies, the person who deals with their estate (their executor), needs to apply for probate before the will can be executed (carried out). Probate is the official validation and approval of a will. Application for probate needs to be made to the local probate court and usually takes several weeks. Probate may not be needed in some situations, for example when the person who died owned everything jointly with their spouse.
If a person dies without making a will this is known as “dying intestate”. If this is the case, “letters of administration” should be applied for. This process usually takes longer and none of the dead person’s property should be sold or given away until probate is granted. If you have questions about probate, it might be helpful to discuss these with a solicitor. In Scotland, probate is called “confirmation” and letters of administration is called “appointment of executor-dative”.
It’s important that the executors of the will understand their role and keep you up-to-date on the progress. If you’re a likely beneficiary of the will, bear in mind that probate can take a long time. Try to make sure that you have access to enough money in your own account to see you through the first few weeks and months. Some money can be released early to pay for immediate costs, but it’s much easier to have independent funds in a joint account.
How grief might affect you
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Grief is a normal response to the death of someone close to you. It’s usually felt as a yearning for the other person. At times, the yearning can be so strong that it feels like very real physical pain.
Everyone experiences grief in a different way, but most people move through some or all of the stages listed here. People often move backwards and forwards between these stages:
denial, anger and guilt
pining or yearning
gradual recovery and acceptance.
Immediately after the death, and for some time afterwards, you may feel numb. You may find it hard to believe that the person is dead. It’s common to feel angry that the person has died. The anger may be directed at the person themselves for leaving you, or at other people, such as family members or health professionals, for not being able to stop them from dying.
The feeling of missing the person can be overwhelming. Many people continue to ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the person who has died, and have a strong sense of their presence. For example, some people walk into a room and have an experience of ‘seeing’ the person sitting in their favourite armchair.
Other people have vivid dreams where they see the dead person as fit and well. These are perfectly normal experiences, although they can be shocking and upsetting.
You may have times of severe anxiety and distress, where you strongly miss the dead person and sob or cry aloud for them. Although this tends to happen less often after the first couple of weeks, finding a photograph of them or visiting a place that holds strong memories can trigger the distress, even months or years afterwards.
Talking through your feelings at this time may be helpful.
There are many organisations, such as Cruse Bereavement Care, which run groups for people who are grieving. Your GP can put you in touch with a local bereavement counsellor if you’d like more formal one-to-one counselling. Many hospices also provide bereavement support for the families of people who have used their services.
If you have young children and teenagers, they will also experience a range of emotions. Very young children may not understand that they will not see the person who has died again. You may need to remind them of this several times.
This can be hard when you’re coping with your own grief. Teenagers can find coping with the death of a parent particularly difficult at a time when they’re also coping with other changes in their lives. There are many organisations that can help you to support your children.
If you have an older child or teenager, they may find it helpful to join an online forum for bereaved young people. Organisations such as RD4U and Winston’s Wish have forums where children and teenagers can chat to others or just share their feelings.
When someone close to you has died, it’s also common to have physical symptoms for some time afterwards. These can be frightening and some people say the symptoms are so strong that they worry they are seriously ill themselves.
However, physical reactions are normal and can include headaches, dizziness, a dry mouth, feeling weak, tightness in the chest and throat, breathlessness and feeling sick.
You may be aware that your symptoms are similar to those of your relative or friend who has just died. If any of these symptoms persist, you should let your GP know.
On the first day or so after the death, while you’re probably feeling numb, you may need plenty of practical help to do important tasks such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and coping with visitors. You may also need to spend some time on your own, coming to terms with what has happened.
You may be entitled to bereavement benefits such as a bereavement payment, widowed parent’s allowance or a bereavement allowance. You can find out more about any benefits you may be entitled to from your local Citizens Advice Bureau. You can also contact the Department for Work and Pensions. If you live in Northern Ireland, contact your local Social Security Benefits Office Agency. You can also contact us.
After the funeral
The period of time after the funeral, when everyone has gone home and you’re expected to get on with your own life, can be the hardest. It’s a good idea to try not to do too much too soon. You may need time to get used to your loss and the changes this has brought about. It’s important to take time to look after yourself.
Don’t be afraid to show your emotions during the grieving process. It’s perfectly natural to cry when you’re thinking and talking about your loved one, and this can help you feel better. Some cultures have specific practices to follow, which can help to mark each phase of the bereavement process after a person’s death.
The grieving process is different for everyone and very personal. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if your feelings and emotions are normal. You may find that you get stuck at one stage of the grieving process, for example feeling very angry. If this happens, you may want to talk to your GP who may recommend counselling.
Soon after a person’s death you may feel that you’ll never be able to live your life normally again. These feelings usually reduce over time, although this can take a year or more.
You will never forget the person and will always have memories of them. But people are usually able to get on with life again after a while and are able to enjoy activities and make plans for the future.
A very small number of people develop suicidal thoughts as part of the grieving process, either because they feel unable to face life without the person, or because they feel that their own death might bring them closer again. If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t be afraid to discuss them with your GP or a trusted friend or relative. You may need expert counselling and possibly medicines to help you feel better.
Celebrating the life of your loved one
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It’s common for feelings of grief to be brought up again at particular times. This may happen on the anniversary of the person’s death or on birthdays and anniversaries. At these times, you may feel many conflicting emotions and may like to do something to remember the person, such as go to the place where they’re buried, or somewhere that meant a lot to you both. You may want to have a gathering of relatives and close friends to share memories of the person and celebrate their life. You’ll know the best way to remember them. If you have children or teenagers, remember to include them in the plans. They may have their own ideas of how they can celebrate a parent, grandparent or a loved one’s life.
Our Bereavement section has help on how to cope with grief, and, when you're ready, offers ways to celebrate the life of your loved one.