At the time of the death

There is no right or wrong way to feel after someone close to you has died. Everyone reacts differently. You may have known that your relative or friend was dying, but sometimes a person may die unexpectedly.

Your relative or friend may have died at home, or in a hospital, hospice or care home. If you are alone when your relative or friend dies, you may find it helpful to have someone with you soon after the death to support you.

If your relative or friend dies at home, you will need to let the person’s GP or district nurse know what has happened. They will come to confirm the death. If your relative or friend dies in hospital or a hospice, a doctor or nurse will confirm the death. Once the death is confirmed, you can contact a funeral director.

If your relative or friend dies unexpectedly, it can be difficult to come to terms with. The ward staff or GP will talk to you and try to answer any questions you have.

Your feelings at the time of the death

There is no right or wrong way to feel or react immediately after the death of a relative or friend. You may feel shocked or numb and as if everything is unreal. Or you may feel relieved that they are now at peace. Everyone reacts differently. You may have known that your relative or friend was dying and been preparing yourself for that. But sometimes a person may die unexpectedly, and this can be a huge shock. We have information about the different feelings you may have.

Your relative or friend may have died at home, or in a hospital, hospice or care home. If you are alone when your relative or friend dies, it may be possible and helpful to have someone with you soon after the death to support you. This might be a relative, friend, health or social care professional, or spiritual or religious adviser.

Many cultures and religions have ceremonies or rituals that are important to carry out when someone dies. A spiritual or religious adviser can help you with these if you would like them to.

If you want, you can spend some time just sitting with the person who has died.

It is important to do what you feel is right for you. Don’t feel that you have to do anything straight away or rush to get on with things.


If your relative or friend dies at home

If your relative or friend dies at home, you may be alone with them. You may not be certain they have died, and you may be unsure of what to do next.

You can take your time – you may find it difficult to think clearly. You may have been given some written information from the district nurse or palliative care team about what to do, so follow that if you can. If you’re on your own, you may want to call a family member or friend to be with you.

First of all, you need to let the person’s GP or district nurse know what’s happened. They will come as soon as they can to confirm the death. If the person dies when the GP practice is shut, you can call the out-of-hours doctor.

If the GP comes, they will confirm the death. If the death is expected, they will be able to write the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD). They may give you a time to collect the certificate from the GP practice later. Or you may have to call to arrange a time to do this. They will also give you a form called Notice to informant. This tells you how to register the death.

If a district nurse or out-of-hours doctor comes, they will confirm the death. You will need to get the MCCD and Notice to informant form from your GP. This may take a couple of days, for example if your GP is away. You can call the GP practice to find out when the forms will be ready for you to collect.

When the death has been confirmed by a nurse or doctor, you can contact the funeral director (undertaker). You don’t need to do this straight away if you would like to spend some time with your relative or friend. Funeral directors are available 24 hours a day. They will explain what you need to do.

When you have the MCCD, you need to take this to the local registrar’s office to register the death.

It can be a shock to see the MCCD, as this will probably be the first time you see in writing that your relative or friend has died. Some people describe feeling as if they are being told their relative or friend has died all over again. You may want to read it while you’re with the doctor or a family member or friend.

You may want to ask about what is written on the MCCD and what it means. If you prefer, you can arrange to speak to the GP at a later date. If you don’t want to ask about what’s written on it, you don’t have to.


If your relative or friend dies in hospital or a hospice

Your relative or friend may be being cared for in a hospital or hospice when they die. You may or may not be with them. Whether or not their death was expected, you may feel shocked and numb and unsure what to do next. The care staff should support you through the next few hours.

A doctor or nurse will confirm the death. If the death was expected, they will give you a medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD). You will need this to be able to register the death. You may have to collect the certificate from the hospital on the next working day. The nurses will tell you what you need to do.

After you have left the hospital or hospice, your relative or friend’s body will be moved to the hospital or hospice mortuary. If you want to see your relative or friend in the mortuary, the nurses will tell you who to contact.

I knew the moment she’d gone. I rang the bell and the night staff came in. And I said, “My mum’s gone.” They checked her pulse and it wasn’t there and they said, “Yes, she has.” And they left me for a while and I just sat there holding her hands. It was very, very calm.

Georgina


If the death wasn’t expected

If your relative or friend dies unexpectedly, you may be totally unprepared. You may find it particularly difficult to believe what has happened. The ward staff or GP will talk to you about what has happened and try to answer any questions you have.

If the death of your relative or friend was not expected, or if they die at home and had not been seen by their GP in the last 14 days (in England, Scotland and Wales) or 28 days (in Northern Ireland), the death will be referred to:

  • the coroner (a doctor or lawyer who investigates unexpected deaths) in England, Wales or Northern Ireland
  • the procurator fiscal in Scotland.

This is a standard procedure.

Most deaths that are reported to the coroner or procurator fiscal are completely natural, but the cause of death is not clear. The coroner will decide if an examination of the body (post mortem) is needed to give exact information about the cause of death. If a death is referred to the coroner or procurator fiscal, the funeral may sometimes be delayed.

You can get more information about what to do after a death from:

The Bereavement Advice Centre has a helpful booklet called What to do when someone dies.


Caring for the body

The funeral director will arrange for your relative or friend’s body to be taken to the funeral home. If you would like their body to be kept at home before the funeral, they can give you information about how long their body can be at home for and what you need to do.

The funeral director will take care of your relative or friend’s body. They will carefully wash and dry them, and close their eyelids and mouth. They will tidy and sometimes wash their hair. They will also ask if you’d like them to be dressed in any particular clothes, such as an outfit that may have had special meaning to them.

You can tell the funeral director if there are any particular cultural or religious practices you would like to be carried out.

If you would like to, you can 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. The funeral director can give you more information about this.

Back to After death

Bereavement

You will probably feel a range of emotions when someone you care about dies.