Ask LH: How Do I Prepare For The Death Of A Family Member?

Ask LH: How Do I Prepare For The Death Of A Family Member?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve seen my friends lose their loved ones and, in many cases, find the process even more trying and stressful because they weren’t prepared. While I’m still lucky to have my parents, my dad’s sick and our time is limited. What do I need to do to prepare for the inevitable? Thanks, MB

Photos by Yuri Arcurs (Shutterstock), Stephan Ridgway, Jellaluna, and me.

Dear MB,

I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Handling a death in the family is always difficult, especially when it’s a parent, but you’re doing the right thing by planning ahead. Rushing through arrangements and figuring out legal details are among the last things you’ll want to do during a time of mourning. Aside from being terribly sad, the death of a loved one can be complicated, expensive, and a lot of work. While you can’t eliminate the stress entirely, you can plan and ask for help in advance to minimize it.

Discuss And Arrange Funeral Plans In Advance


Funerals are complicated, often expensive (upwards of $10,000 in many cases), and payment in advance is required. Life insurance policies and other benefits often take a month or two to arrive, so while you may be able to cover the cost in the future you’ll actually need the money in advance.

If the financial burden has been placed on you in full or in part, you essentially have two options: save the cash ahead of time or ensure you have credit available. While credit isn’t the best option, as you may end up paying interest while you wait for benefits to come in, many banks will extend your line temporarily in the event of a death if you simply call and ask. This is not an easy call to make last-minute, so make it early. Some banks may require proof of of a life insurance policy or even a death certificate when the day finally comes. Knowing these details in advance will help you approach the situation more practically when you’ll likely be very emotional.

Making the actual arrangements will be difficult regardless of if you’re doing it alone or with other family members. When multiple people are planning, arguments can often arise regarding minor details. When you’re handing the arrangements alone, you simply have a lot of work for one person. Chances are, however, that a number of decisions have been made already. Cemetery plots are often purchased in advance. Some people prefer cremation and have decided that’s what they want.

While it’s never an easy conversation, you’ll need to discuss preferences with your terminal loved one. In the case of a parent, sometimes that conversation is best had with the healthier of the two. In some cases, the surviving parent may be too distraught to discuss details. Who to speak to about the arrangements is a personal and situation-specific decision. You’ll have to judge what’s best for you and for your loved ones. Of course, the sooner you discuss the details the better. Talking about death is much easier when it feels farther away.

Ask For Help Before You’ll Need It


Aside from the planning you can do yourself, you can enlist help from a number of people before and during the process. Funeral homes provide services to help you through the process. If you’re having a religious service, leaders of your church, synagogue, mosque or other congregation have dealt with many deaths and can be a great source of comfort and assistance during the process (whether you, personally, hold any religious affiliation or not).

Of course, friends and family will be the greatest help. Decide who you want by your side and who you don’t beforehand. Ask for assistance before you need it so you know you’ll have it. While most everyone will want to help you, if you’re asking for it just days in advance they won’t be prepared. Additionally, you’ll want to inform your boss in advance as well. You obviously won’t know dates, but if you’re expecting an upcoming loss your employers should accommodate your needs to take time off when it comes. They’re far more likely to help if they know what to expect.

Acquire Forms And Legal Documents

When planning for a death, there are several documents you may need and calls you’ll need to make. If you’re publishing an obituary in a newspaper, for example, find out the process from the paper before you have to submit so the task can be handled without much thought. If you’re responsible for notifying the government of your family member’s death, acquire those documents ahead of time. You may also need to close bank and other financial accounts. If you can fill any of them out in advance, at least partially, you’ll be better off. Paperwork is not something you’ll want to do when you lose someone you love. Additionally, if you’re in charge of the will you should obtain a copy early. If a lawyer or other family member is handling the reading and dispensation of property, just find out what they need from you so you’re prepared.

Configure Your Phone And Mail For Lower Volume


Although a more unusual suggestion, you should prepare your smartphone (if you have one) for the inevitable torrent of calls you’ll receive. If you can get call blocking software that will prevent anyone not in your address book from calling, you should consider it. You may not want lots of condolence calls from people you don’t know or don’t know well. You definitely won’t want calls from businesses trying to capitalise on your inheritance. If your have an iPhone, you can just use the Do Not Disturb feature in iOS 6 to filter out most people. On Android, try Mr. Number or DroidBlock. Of course, this sort of thing may not bother you. If it does, however, take necessary measures to prevent unwanted calls in advance.

Additionally, find a friend to help handle your mail and other domestic tasks for a couple of weeks. It’s everyday life that can be the toughest, so assistance with regular tasks can help you get through the initial period of grief.


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  • I wish you and your family the best, MB. My Dad died 8 days ago after 5 weeks of terminal illness.

    The advice above is good – we had pre-arranged the funeral; it was a hard thing to do, but I’m so glad we did – you don’t want to deal with that after. Make sure you understand your family’s financial position. Know where the Will can be found.

    Much more importantly, though – spend as much quality time with your Dad and family as possible. While I was debating taking leave from work, my father died…I wish I had just made the decision. You might think you are prepared but when it happens, the shock and grief will be just as if he had died suddenly and unexpectedly. Leave no regrets you can possibly address.

  • It’s coming up to a year for me since my Dad passed away (stroke, then palliative care). Like above, I agree that this is one situation where you have to go with your emotional urges as far as telling them things that you haven’t been able to before, spending time with them etc.. I am glad I did everything I wanted to for my Dad, and with him. I had to choose between uni and Dad, and I chose Dad. I have no regrets, which I feel has made the grieving process that little bit easier.

    All the best MB.

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