What to do if someone dies unexpectedly


Death is a universal phenomenon that has been interpreted and understood in various ways by different cultures, religions, and philosophies throughout the history of time. While the biological processes of death are scientifically understood, its existential, spiritual, and emotional implications vary widely depending on individual beliefs and the cultural context.

Currently in the United Kingdom there is no statutory definition of death1. Death can occur due to a variety reasons, including old age, disease, injury, or trauma. It is often classified into a clinical death, which is the moment when the heart stops beating and breathing ceases; and a biological death, which occurs when irreversible damage to the brain and other vital organs leads to the complete and irreversible cessation of all life-sustaining functions.2,3

Most of society see death as a natural process with a particular sequence, often defined by ones age. However, this is not always the case; death can occur unexpectedly, and we may not always be prepared for what is to come. Losing a young person or anyone unexpectedly can be an incredibly difficult and tragic experience.

Here are some key steps to support you when trying to cope with the unexpected loss of a loved one.


Notify authorities and obtain a death certificate

If the unexpected death of your loved one occurs at home, then you may need to contact emergency services or the police to report the death. If the person was under medical care, you might need to notify their local healthcare provider or hospice team.

Additionally you will also be required to obtain a death certificate, which is often issued by the local registrar’s office. This document is necessary for legal purposes, including arranging the funeral and handling the deceased personal affairs.


Give yourself time to grieve

When you lose a loved one, no matter the circumstances, it is important that you give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions you find rise to the surface. It is normal to have feelings of anger, guilt, and confusion; suppressing these feelings in the long run can have a negative impact on your mental health and will hinder your ability to start processing your grief. Remember that grief is a natural response to loss, and it can manifest in a variety of behaviours. Be gentle with yourself and know that with time healing is possible.


Make funeral arrangements

When someone passes away unexpectedly it is often a shock to family and friends; additionally more often than not it is also the case that the deceased’s funeral wishes were never made clear to next of kin or those with power of attorney.

At-need funeral plans are typically tailored to meet the preferences, traditions, and budgetary constraints of the deceased and their family. Funeral directors or funeral homes play a crucial role in guiding families through the process of making at-need funeral arrangements, providing support, information, and assistance during a challenging and emotional time.

Working with a funeral home or funeral director to make arrangements for the funeral or memorial service helps aid loved ones in their decision-making process to determine details such as whether a burial or cremation would be best, selecting a casket or urn, and the planning of the ceremony. As experienced funeral professionals, they are well placed to offer straightforward and impartial advice with all aspects of the funeral planning process.


Reach out for support and seek professional help if needed

Be sure to lean on friends, family, and support groups for emotional support. Talking about your feelings with others who understand can be very helpful in the healing process. If you find it difficult to cope with your emotions, or if you’re struggling to function in your daily life, consider seeking help from a therapist who specialises in grief counselling. Therapy can offer a safe space to process your feelings, gain perspective, and develop coping strategies to help you manage the everyday.

The NHS in England has a range of support mechanisms in place to support those dealing with bereavement, including peer support, wellbeing audio guides, and more. You can find more details on these services here.


Handling legal and financial matters

As a close family member or the next of kin, you may need to take care of the deceased’s financial affairs, including notifying banks, creditors, and insurance companies. You may also need to settle their estate, including distributing assets and handling any outstanding debts.

You may also be required to locate and secure important documents, such as the deceased’s will, life insurance policies, bank statements, tax returns, property deeds, and any other relevant legal or financial documents. It also may be beneficial to consult with a legal professional who specialises in probate and estate law.

An attorney can provide guidance on the legal requirements for settling the deceased’s estate, including probate proceedings, distribution of assets, and payment of debts and taxes. For a more detailed breakdown of the roles and responsibilities of next of kin and power of attorney, read our guide.


Take it one step at a time

Dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one or young person can be overwhelming, and it’s important to take things one step at a time. Allow yourself to grieve and process your emotions at your own pace.

Ultimately, coping with death requires time, patience, and support from others. Here are some simple resources that will support you in gradually finding healing and hope amidst the pain of loss.

Cruse Bereavement
Winston’s Wish
Child Bereavement UK

1Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, 2008. A Code of Practice For The Diagnosis and Confirmation of Death. Available at: https://aomrc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Code_Practice_Confirmation_Diagnosis_Death_1008-4.pdf. Last accessed February 2024

2Life Source, 2024. What is Clinical Death. Available at: https://www.life-source.org/latest/what-is-clinical-death/ . Last Accessed February 2024

3American AED CPR Association, 2024. Healthcare Provider Bls, Anatomy, Physiology, Clinical Vs Biological Death