What to do When Someone Dies

Cup of tea or coffee.

By Sarah Kerr, PhD

If you’re present at an expected death, the first thing to do when the person dies, is nothing.

Don’t run out into the hallway and call a nurse. Don’t pick up the phone. Don’t even speak or move very much in the first few moments.

Mainstream culture doesn’t teach us how to meet death well, so it’s common for family members to be anxious or frightened when witnessing a loved one’s last breath. If you don’t know what to do, a kind of panic response can set in because, “They’re dead!”

When an expected death occurs, it’s not a cause to panic or move quickly. It’s very sad that the person has died, and your life will never be the same, but it’s not a medical or legal issue. There’s nothing external that needs to be done in that moment.

What needs to be done in that moment, is internal. Your inner world is in shock. You might even feel panicky. The task is to stay with the internal experience, rather than jumping to external action.

Take a deep breath, pause, and be really present to what’s happening.

Feel what you feel. Cry if you need to (and hopefully there’s someone there to hold space for you and your grief.)

Sit at the person’s bedside and feel the experience in the room. What’s happening for you? What might be happening for the person who has died? What other presences are there that might be supporting them on their way?

Most importantly, take time to adjust to the magnitude of what has happened. No matter how prepared you are, death is still a shock. It takes a while to absorb the reality of it.

If you move into action mode right away, by calling the hospice, or even calling a family member, you miss this critical chance to let the truth sink in.

Give yourself five minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes, just to be.

You might even put on the kettle and make a cup of tea.

If you give away this precious time, you’ll never get it back again.

When you’ve had a chance to integrate a bit, then do the smallest possible thing. Call the one person who needs to be called. Engage whatever systems might need to be engaged, but at the minimal level possible. Move very, very slowly, so your soul has a chance to catch up.

The external world can get busy after a death. There are things that need to be done, but those things can wait, for a few hours, or even a few days. You won’t get a chance to catch your breath later on. Better to do it now.

Being intentional immediately following a death is an incredible gift. It’s a gift to yourself and the people around you, and it’s a gift to the person who has just died. They’re adjusting to a new reality, too. They’re starting their new journey, in the world without a body. If you keep a calm space around them, they can begin the next phase of their journey in a more beautiful way.

It’s a healing gesture on both sides of the veil. ISI

Dr. Sarah Kerr, PhD, Death Doula and Founder of The Centre for Sacred Deathcare,

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