We have recently been asked for some information about what to do when somebody dies at home. We have brochures about being an Executor or a beneficiary of an Estate, they were asking for more pragmatic advice before you need a solicitor, such as who do you call? We have reached out to a couple of local experts (nurses who work in emergency rooms and in nursing homes, a trainer from St Johns Ambulance, and our own estate solicitor) and come up with the following information.
Do you know DRSABCD?
Do you know DRSABCD (Danger, Response, Send, Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillation).
If you don’t know what that is follow this poster image to find out more.
If you don’t know what it is look it up today, now, while you are calm.
If their death is unexpected
If the person dies at home and the death is unexpected:
- Don’t Panic. Take three slow, deep breaths. You will feel the urge to panic, this is natural but not helpful. Try to focus on what needs to be done, rather than how you are feeling (deal with that later).
- Next, go through DRSABCD (Danger, Response, Send, Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillation).
- If you think they might be dead, but you aren’t a nurse or a doctor, still call the ambulance.
- The ambulance staff won’t get angry at you because they arrive and the person is dead, they are the experts, you are not.
- The 000 staff are very helpful and will step you through what you need to do.
- When giving directions to 000 it is helpful if you can give an intersection or landmark.
- Once the ambulance arrives, if the person is dead, they will decide whether to contact the GP or the Police.
- Take note of the time and the surroundings. People will ask you questions such as how long have they been like this, or what were they doing before you found them. It will feel like it all happened very quickly, or you may have moved something out of the way to administer CPR.
- If you have a second person in the house have them stand on the street so that they can flag the ambulance, house numbers are difficult to see.
- If you don't have a second person in the house, is there someone nearby who can be with you to provide pastoral care or personal support? A neighbour? A relative?
- The paramedics won’t pronounce the person dead, that won’t happen until they reach the hospital. This could take some time.
- Once the pronouncement is made there is a lot for you to do. You need support at this time.
- If you are not attempting resuscitation don’t interfere with the body (e.g. covering up someone who is naked). The Police will want everything left as is.
- If the Police do attend and ask you questions remember, you have a right to silence.
Right to silence
If the Police do attend and ask you questions remember, you have a right to silence. You are stressed, you have been through an awful experience. People often say incorrect or inaccurate things when they are stressed, and then say further inaccurate things trying to cover over the original inaccuracy. Basically people can spiral very quickly.
It is very difficult to later correct what you said without being accused of being dishonest.
If you are going to answer questions then don’t try and approximate answers, don’t guess, and don’t try and answer questions when you aren’t thinking straight. You can answer questions with "I don't know" or "I can't remember".
You can say that you don’t want to answer any questions right now and leave it at that.
If their death was expected
If you are at home and the death is expected:
- If the person has a regular GP, call their offices (if they are open) and ask someone to attend to deal with the body and other necessary details
- If they don’t have a regular GP, or they won’t come, then call the Police
- A doctor has to examine the body and produce a medical certificate, strictly speaking a funeral director can’t be appointed until the certificate is issued. This is not a death certificate, that is different and that will take weeks.
If you have a terminally ill family member, or they are in palliative care, or you are nursing them at home, talk to your family members ahead of time about how they would like to find out. Perhaps set up a phone tree, which is a list of people to call and who should call them (generally each person calls two more, or one person calls six people who then calls everyone in their designated category).
What to do next
Once the ambulance, Police or GP have been called and a medical certificate has been issued:
- Was your family member an organ donor? Can you call someone to find out?
- If there isn't already a phone tree or something in place, you will need to notify family and other important people in the deceased’s life.
- It probably is not possible for one person to do this. Delegate where you can.
- Ask people who you call to contact a discreet group of people, for instance, can you contact all the family members on your side of the family? Can you contact the minister so he can let the Church know? Can you contact his work so they can let the employees know?
- Do not say anything on any social media about the death unless you are the next of kin.
- According to the law the executor will take possession and custody of the body from the moment of death until it is buried or cremated. If you aren’t the executor, then contact them.
- Providing further instructions to the funeral director.
- If you know the person already has a funeral director, be sure to check if they have a pre-paid plan.
- If there is money in the Estate then the first thing that money should by law be spent on is funeral expenses. Do not pay for the funeral on your credit card. You will not get the money back from the Estate for many months. If you take a funeral invoice to the deceased’s bank, they will draw a cheque to the funeral home if there are funds in the deceased’s account. The bank will NOT draw a cheque to you even if you can prove that you paid for the funeral.
- Many people put funeral wishes in their Will, check the Will (if there is one) before planning the funeral. These wishes are not binding, (they may for instance not be practical in the circumstances) but they are what the person wanted.
If you need access to their computer, for instance to get their contacts to let everybody know that they have died, then take it to a computer store with the medical certificate (so that they don't just think you are hacking your ex's computer or something malicious). Generally speaking, people have some way to automatically log into their email from their computer or the computer person will be able to find some way to access their emails even if you don't have the password. If they had a smart phone, take that with you to the computer store because they may be able to combine the information to get you the details you need. For instance android phones are normally synced to gmail accounts.
You will also need to contact their phone provider to notify them of the death so that the phone doesn't get cut off if there is an unpaid bill, which again will make it difficult for you to contact people about the funeral.
Once you have dealt with the funeral and notifying relatives:
- You won’t be able to do much with the Estate before the Death Certificate issues, but if it will help you then speak with a solicitor before this point
- If there is money in the Estate then the money from the Estate will be used to pay for any professional services related to administration of the Estate such as the funeral, the solicitor, the accountant or the florist
Dealing with grief
Most importantly, look after yourself. If you are the executor, next of kin or you found the body, these are incredibly stressful things. It is normal to experience grief, and it is as normal to seek help from a professional (i.e. a psychologist or psychiatrist) to deal with that grief as it is to seek help from a professional (i.e. a solicitor) to deal with executing the Estate. If you can take some leave from work, take it. Ask if you have bereavement leave at your work. If a friend or family member offers you any help, accept it (assuming the help is suitable, if not try 'I don't need that but I could really use ...'). If you have a friend or spouse, talk to them.
Be helpful in the way you deal with people. A good example we have heard is the 'circles of grieving'. Try googling it. The immediate circle is the person closest to the deceased, normally the spouse. Then you create circles moving out, the next circle is usually the person’s children. You should comfort in, dump out. That is, provide comfort to the people in the closer circles than you, talk about your grief and seek help from people in a circle further out than you.
When providing comfort avoid telling them anything (I feel, you must feel, you need, I know what you are going through). Instead ask them open ended questions (how are you doing? What can I do to help?) Don’t feel like you only have to talk about the tragedy, and remember, there is nothing wrong with silence. Physically being present speaks volumes.
If you would like to print out this information or email it to someone we have prepared a PDF, please feel free to use that.