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How to Handle People When Your Loved One Dies

You may really be hating people right now, and that's OK.

Source: 123RF/Standard license
Source: 123RF/Standard license

Your loved one has recently died. First, I am very sorry for your loss. I know we don't know each other, but losing a loved one is one of the hardest things you will ever experience. It's not just the death of your loved one that is painful—the pain comes in waves after that. One thing you may notice is that people are really irritating you (or irritating you more than usual). Here are the common things you may experience after the death of a loved one, and options you have in those situations.

1. You don't have to give out details.

People are naturally curious, especially when a loved one died at a relatively young age. You are under no obligation to say his or her cause of death. My mom died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and I was inevitably asked how long she had smoked. Part of people's curiosity was due to the fact that they were either current or past smokers. (There is a point where even if you quit smoking, the damage is irreversible.) If my mother's death serves as a cautionary tale and even gets just one person to stop smoking, that would be wonderful. Meanwhile, sometimes I just don't feel like getting into her cause of death, and that's OK.

2. You deserve some alone time.

You may have a lot of people coming to your door with food. A lot of food. It's a very loving and thoughtful gesture. It is also OK to tell someone you're just not up to talking right now. It's OK to be "selfish" with your time (even though practicing good self-care is never selfish).

3. When you tell people, they may not believe you at first.

You may be in charge of calling relatives and friends and letting them know your loved one has passed away. (Note: Telling someone in person is best, but call if that is not possible. Don't text the news.) This is one of the hardest jobs you will have. While you can delegate it out to another family member, there are times where people really need to hear it from you. Also, it is better to let key people in a loved one's life know over the phone or in person instead of seeing it first on social media. When you tell your family and close friends on the phone, you may have to repeat a few times that your loved one has died, due to the person on the phone being in shock (this is especially the case if your loved one's death was sudden). Depending on the closeness of the friend or relative, you may want to share your loved one's cause of death. If you don't want to, you have that option too. But do consider telling your immediate family (unless family circumstances deem that to not be a good idea–every family is different).

4. You can tell friends and family not to post information on social media yet.

Notice that I wrote "tell" instead of "ask." There is a different tone between asking and telling. Asking pretty much says, "I'd like you to please not do this–if you can." Telling means, "Do not share this on any social media until I have notified the whole family." People have had quite a shock when they have read on social media about the death of their loved one before someone had a chance to call. If you are not the immediate family, do not post about the person's death

5. People will say inappropriate things to you.

Someone at my mom's visitation came up to me and said, "Your mom died from smoking, right?" I didn't quite know how to respond to that. She then told me she had to leave the visitation, because, as she said, "that makes me very upset." (I'm thinking, "You're upset? My mom is dead.") Excusing herself with, "I'm sorry for your loss, I need to go," would have worked. And to the friend of my mom: If you are reading this, I don't know your name, and I bear you no ill will. Just don't do that to someone else.

6. Some people will be your rock.

One of my mom's childhood friends called my mom every week when she was dying. It meant so much to my mom, and to our family. She continues to contact me and my brother on a regular basis. She also spoke at my mom's funeral when my brother and I just couldn't get through it. A dear friend went with me to the funeral home to finalize arrangements and went with me to pick out an outfit for my mom to be buried in when the airline lost our luggage. (That is a story unto itself.) Those are the people you can lean on.

7. You have some latitude.

Funerals are a very, very expensive business. My mom, fortunately, left detailed instructions about her funeral service, down to which flowers she wanted by the guest book, and which flowers she wanted on her casket. (She wrote, "Don't get the largest arrangement of this, they fill it with carnations instead of roses.") She priced things out so that it was reasonable. That is the exception rather than the norm. If you need to scale back what your loved one wanted, that is OK. Your loved one probably wouldn't want you to not go into debt. (And even if they would have been fine with you going into debt, you don't have to. As the minister said to us when we were organizing the service, "You can do whatever you want.")

8. Sometimes you just have to tell people to stop.

There are some people who will ask for gruesome details of your loved one's death. Some do this out of concern, some do it out of morbid curiosity. If anyone asks you anything that doesn't sit right with you (like, "How much pain was she in?"), it is perfectly within your right to say, "I'm not going to answer that." Walk away if you need to.

9. Some people not as close to your loved one will shout from the rooftops about their grief.

This one is hard to understand. Someone that your loved one went to high school with, and only talked to your loved one at high school reunions, is now posting all over social media how upset they are. There is a chance that this person had a deeper connection with your loved one than you were aware of, but it may also be the case that they are seeking attention from others. You are within your rights to tell them to stop posting about your loved one. If they refuse or are writing inappropriate things about your loved one, report it to the social media site. If they harass you, report it to the social media site and law enforcement.

10. People may ask you for something from your loved one's possessions.

You may have people come from far away to attend funeral services. They may ask you if they can have a specific item that meant a lot to their relationship. This is completely up to your discretion if you are the next of kin. (If you aren't the next of kin, refer that person over to the family member that is.) If you are the next of kin, consider the following: 1. Does this person strike you as genuine? 2. Do you really need this item in your possession? Does it have sentimental or great monetary value? 3. How much would it really mean to this person if you gave them this item? 4. Is there another item you could give them instead? Again, you are under no obligation to just randomly give items to people. (If it's in your loved one's will, that's another story and best handled by talking to an attorney if you have any questions.)

11. You may be really irritable and irritated at people.

Life may seem really unfair right now. Especially when a loved one suddenly dies. You get angry about people who can still play with their kid in the park. You get angry (or maybe more than usual) because some person cut you off in the grocery store parking lot. Feeling this way is very normal. Sometimes you will just need time to be alone and process how you are feeling—and that is totally acceptable. Counseling is helpful to get you through the really rough spots of grief. However, if you are thinking about suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 immediately, or you can chat at

Here are some other posts on my PT blog about grief, my mom, and losing a pet: "Grieving My Mother," "5 Things They Don't Tell You About Grief," "Navigating Grief: How To Cope," and "10 Tips for Helping Your Grieving Pet."

More from Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.
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