3 practical ways to help after a traumatic or unexpected death

While this information is directed toward helping people dealing with an unexpected death from a car crash, it may apply in other traumatic deaths. 

In the hours and days after a fatal crash, it is helpful to have someone around who is practical and accustomed to managing stressful situations. Here are three practical ways you can help after an unexpected death.

1. Make specific, direct offers.

Grieving people can struggle with the regular, day-to-day tasks of living—like cooking, cleaning, laundry, running errands, mowing the lawn.

Think about their lives, and what they might need on a daily basis. Do they have children at home? Pets? Elderly parents who may need assistance? An unexpected death doesn’t change any of those needs.

Everyone needs to eat, so providing meals and groceries is a practical option.  You could set up and share a calendar for other people to send over meals, or order dinner for delivery. Just check in with everyone to go over dietary needs, food allergies and preferences.

Driving and transportation are a good way to be supportive. It’s understandable that a person would feel reluctant to drive after losing someone in a car crash. Also, the shock and grief around a sudden death can make it hard for a person to concentrate while driving. Consider offering rides, or arranging for a driver.

Decide what you are able to commit to doing, and then make direct, specific offers.

Instead of “Let me know if I can do anything to help”, try to name the task and time.

  • “I could come walk the dog on Saturday morning”
  • “Can I help you plan a service or write an obituary?”
  • “I’d like to have pizza delivered for you on Friday night, is that OK?”
  • “I am stopping at the store, what can I bring you?”

Please try not to do anything that is irreversible — like doing laundry or cleaning up the house — unless you check with your friend first.

That empty soda bottle beside the couch may look like trash, but may have been left there by their husband just the other day. The dirty laundry may be the last thing that smells like her.…Tiny little normal things become precious. Ask first.

 – Megan Devine, Author of Everything is Not Okay

2. Be an administrative assistant.

In first few days after a sudden loss, a person may be in shock. They later describe this as a fog, a trance, or a bad dream. This is a common coping mechanism, and does not mean they don’t understand what happened, or have strong feelings about it.

If the death was the result of a car crash or other public incident, the public may be aware of it before the family can even make an announcement.

In these situations, it may be best for the family to compose a short statement to be shared on social media, as writing and placing an obituary usually takes a few days. If you are close to the family or the deceased, you can offer to write and share this statement. Or offer to contact their employer, school, church, neighbors or other relevant groups.

Finding services

Many people aren’t ready for grief counseling immediately after a loss, and it takes a few weeks to process. Any research or background information you provide might be helpful.

There is also an intimidating list of things that have to be done after an unexpected death.

  • Obtaining a copy of the death certificate (which may be required for some of the other tasks).
  • Finding the dead person’s final will and testament, or contacting an estate lawyer.
  • Paying final medical bills, or submitting to insurance.
  • Contacting Social Security, and if applicable, the Veterans Administration.
  • Stopping or forwarding mail with the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Removing the deceased’s name from utilities and services.
  • Contact banks and credit bureaus.
  • Filing a final tax return.
  • Alerting car insurance company, filing a claim if the death was the result of a crash.
  • Gathering and organizing information on all assets and debts, such as bank accounts, mortgage, retirement account, student loans.

You may not feel that you are close enough with the bereaved person to offer this kind of help—and that’s OK. But we often find that our clients in this situation feel very alone and unsupported when it comes to the overwhelming burden of administrative tasks that come with death. It can be very helpful to have a practical friend take over some of the labor.

People often describe feeling scared and unsafe after experiencing the traumatic unexpected death of a loved one.

If you can do nothing else, send a small gift like a plant, a candle, a blanket, a bottle of wine—anything that lets them know you care.

3. Plan to stay in touch.

The grieving people that we help are usually at least a few weeks or months out from a traumatic loss, and often describe feeling very alone. While people may rally around to help immediately after a death, we move on while our friends are still in mourning.

Keeping a grieving friend in your thoughts is nice, but they don’t know you’re thinking about them.

Set reminders to check in with your friend in the weeks and months to come. Do not expect reciprocation, as people experiencing significant grief are often less proactive.

Take note of the landmarks that your friend may connect to their loss, and the dates of major events. Try to avoid making assumptions about how your friend might feel.

Be a good listener.

If you ask someone how they are doing, be prepared to hear the real answer.

Let them talk about the person they lost. Many people will assume that they don’t want to be reminded of their loss, but the result is that no one talks about the deceased person. Say their name, acknowledge that the loss is now part of your friend’s life.

They may want to talk about the death itself.

This is a tragic moment that people struggle with, whether or not they were even present. Many imagine what their loved one must have gone through, and it sears its way into them. Others will never be able to forget what they saw and experienced.

Be patient if they want to keep talking about it, if they repeat themselves.

    – Audrey Ewell

A fatal car accident, or other violent death, is particularly traumatic for the mourners. In our experiences with spouses and parents who’ve lost someone in a crash, we have found that many find comfort in immersing themselves in every detail of the collision. They find it helpful to know what exactly happened and be fully informed about every investigation and report related to the fatal crash. Facts can be comforting, especially compared with what you might imagine occurred in the crash.

You may not be the right friend for this conversation, but maybe you can suggest talking with a friend in the medical profession, or a professional therapist.

This isn’t about you.

Whatever you chose to do to help someone after an unexpected death, remember that you didn’t do this for yourself: you did it to help someone in mourning.

You might send a sympathy card, make a donation, or show up for someone and never be thanked for your time and trouble. If you have feelings about this, the kindest and most practical response is none at all.

Additional resources: 

    • Understanding Wrongful Death
    • How to help a grieving friend 
    • Coping with Grief: https://www.northwestern.edu/counseling/shared-assets/homepage/grief-coping.pdf
    • 10 practical ways to help your friend through the death of a loved one: https://medium.com/@AudreyEwell/ten-practical-ways-to-help-your-friend-through-the-death-of-a-loved-one-6af609eefceb

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