What to Expect When a Loved One Passes Away Unexpectedly

Estate planning attorneys do a lot of talking and writing about how to plan and what to plan for. But they don’t always offer much practical advice on what to expect in the immediate aftermath of your loved one’s unexpected passing.  I’m not talking about the week after, or even the day after– Do you know what you should do or expect if you came home to find that a loved one passed away unexpectedly? Here are some things you should know, based on my own human experience and from years of work in my former life as a police officer and emergency medical technician.

(1) Check for Signs of Life

Just because a loved one is unresponsive doesn’t mean that he or she has passed. Check for a pulse and breathing. Do you think this step seems obvious? You may be surprised to find out that mistakes in declaring death are more common than you think. If you don’t know how to assess vital signs take a CPR course or click here to see a video of how to assess an unconscious person.

Obvious signs that someone is beyond help can include:

  • Lividity –  When the heart stops pumping, blood stops circulating, causing it to pool in the lowest parts of the body. It can cause the skin to turn a bruised color.  This occurs within 30 minutes from the time the heart stops.
  • Rigor Morris- Around two hours after death, the body’s muscles stiffen, due to the loss of a substance called “ATP”.

(2) Check the Address (if you don’t know it) and Unlock the Door

You may not have grandma or grandpa’s new address committed to memory. Go write it down. (Seriously, write it down.) And while you’re at it, make sure the door is unlocked and the porch light is on. When you call for help (see Step 3), you’ll want the first responders to be able to quickly find and access the home.

Does it seem like this will take too much time? Trust me, Taking a moment to calmly assess the situation and prepare is nothing compared to how long it will take if first responders have to search for the address in the dark or kick in the front door.

(3) Call for Help

Now, whether your loved one is alive or not, you should call 9-1-1. Take a deep breath and dial. When the Dispatcher comes on the line, be sure to give your name, the address you’re at, and a phone number in case you’re disconnected. Tell the Dispatcher what’s going on. If you don’t know CPR, Dispatchers are usually trained to coach you through it in real time.

Be patient with your Dispatcher. He or she is a trained information gatherer. You may not think that all the questions are relevant. Answer them anyways. The Dispatcher is trying to get the story to relay it to the police and fire/EMS personnel who will be on their way to help.

(4) Be Helpful but Stay out of the Way

First Responders may have questions for you about your loved one’s medical history, age, etc. Answer the questions as best you can. Offer to retrieve items that first responders may need, such as a list of medications or your loved one’s ID. Remember, these are the professionals, so stay out of their way and let them do their jobs. They will do everything they can, even if your untrained eye tells you otherwise.

(5) The Investigation

If your love one is obviously deceased, then paramedics will probably not transport to the hospital. However, be prepared that the police will have to do a death investigation. The police have to rule out foul play. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions about your loved one and his or her routines.

At the end of this, the police will contact your local medical examiner, who will make the decision of whether they will come out to investigate. If your loved one was elderly or had known serious medical conditions, the examiner will likely take a report over the phone and provide a case number.

As next of kin, it will be your job to call a funeral home. The funeral home will send out representatives to take your loved one to the funeral home for preparation.

If, for some reason, the medical examiner comes to the location, he or she will likely be leaving with your loved one. This is not terribly uncommon, depending on the situation. The medical examiner’s office will follow up with you as soon as possible, so you and your family can make funeral arrangements.


These are some things you can expect in the unfortunate event that a loved one passes away. Of course, it’s impossible to cover all bases, since each situation is fact specific. Although this is an uncomfortable topic, it’s better to have an understanding of what to expect in a crisis.

Please remember that death and loss are parts of life, as much as we wish we could avoid them. Don’t forget– this will be a time to take care of yourself and to be with your family. Your spiritual and emotional needs are just as important as safeguarding your loved one’s estate (maybe more so). This is just one reason why it’s important to have trusted professionals in your corner that can deal with the legal stuff, so you can handle the things that are really important.

Questions or comments about what to do next or how to begin honoring your loved one’s wishes? Leave them below or feel free to contact me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s