In the Wake of the Unthinkable: Starting to Pick Up the Pieces after Losing a Loved One

For most of us, contemplating the loss of a spouse or other loved one is the most difficult thing imaginable. In his classic book A Grief Observed, beloved writer C. S. Lewis offers this description of how the world can appear to someone grieving such a loss: “Her absence is like the sky: spread over everything.”

Indeed, nothing can make us feel more alone, confused, vulnerable, and disconnected from reality than losing someone for whom we cared deeply. Doing anything—even taking the next breath—can seem impossible.

And yet, it is also said that “the longest journey begins with a single step.” Even when facing the unthinkable, it is possible, one small step at a time, to begin a new phase of the life journey. And what many people find is that by taking those small steps, one at a time, tiny bits of light begin to appear; a path forward begins to take shape.

Here are some concrete, day-by-day actions that are both important and also helpful for those who need to begin taking those first small steps. You or someone you care about may find this guidance helpful, especially in the early days of the grieving process.

Days 1–10

First, realize that you are probably in shock. This is not the time to make any major decisions, especially financial ones. However, there are a few things you should do.

  1. Review the deceased’s driver’s license—if applicable—to verify organ donor status. If the deceased is your spouse, you should also follow the provisions of any advanced healthcare directive, such as a living will or healthcare proxy, that was in place. The hospital, nursing home, or hospice can guide you through the process.
  2. Contact the funeral home you plan to use or ask the hospital, nursing home, or hospice to do so on your behalf. The funeral home will make arrangements to transport your loved one’s body.
  3. Contact immediate family as needed and also get in touch with close friends and other loved ones. You may want to have a trusted friend or relative make these calls for you. It’s important to keep in contact with those who can support you and your family.
  4. Ask a trusted person for help in planning the funeral or memorial service, if you choose to have one. If the loved one was a veteran of the armed forces, a member of a Masonic lodge, Eastern Star, or other fraternal organization, inquire about assistance or special arrangements.
  5. VERY IMPORTANT: Ask the funeral home to order 20 or more copies of the death certificate; these will probably be needed these later on.


Days 11–60

In the days and weeks following the funeral or memorial service, you will probably begin returning to some of your accustomed activities, though you are likely to still be going through long periods of sadness, confusion, and disorientation. But with the assistance of a trusted friend or family member, it is now time to begin addressing some more long-term matters.

  1. Make a list of all your monthly bills, including mortgage or rent, car payments, credit card bills, utilities, and other expenses like groceries, gasoline, and others. If there are medical expenses related to the loved one’s passing, set these aside separately for future attention.
  2. If the deceased was your spouse, go to any banks where you had joint accounts and inform a bank officer of the death. You may want to leave joint accounts open for a year following the death a spouse. If an attorney has advised you to create a separate estate account, make the needed arrangements.
  3. If the deceased was your spouse, notify the local Social Security office of the death. You can also go to Begin applying for survivor benefits, such as Social Security or veteran’s benefits, if applicable. If you have dependent children, they also may be eligible for benefits.
  4. Obtain copies of any wills, marriage licenses, birth certificates, life insurance or annuity policies, statements for bank accounts, 401(k)s, IRAs, most recent tax returns, and other similar documents applicable to the deceased, along with all the copies of the death certificate. You may want to keep all these in a single file that you keep readily available, as you will probably be referring to these repeatedly over the next several months.


Two to Six Months

All through the processes described above and continuing for at least the next year, you should set aside plenty of time for self-care. Journaling, reading, taking walks, receiving grief counseling, and spending time with friends and loved ones can all be ways to help you regain perspective and begin imagining what your new path forward will look like. Online resources like and may also be helpful.

  1. Schedule a meeting with your trusted financial advisor, attorney, and other professionals who help you manage your affairs. Bring the file of documents you assembled earlier and be prepared to discuss ongoing matters such as cash flow, budgeting, and estate planning concerns. Your financial advisor may wish to help you establish an emergency fund, if you don’t already have one.
  2. Notify creditors and close credit card accounts, as applicable. It’s advisable to provide copies of the death certificate to the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. This will make it more difficult for identity thieves to exploit the deceased’s personal information.


Nine to Twelve Months

By this time, you may be able to think about more long-term matters. With the assistance of a trusted friend or loved one and your financial and legal advisors, you may wish to begin outlining a financial and personal future that aligns with your most important goals and priorities.

  1. style=”padding-bottom: 18px;”Follow up with your attorney about finalizing probation of the will, as appropriate. You may also want to consult with your financial advisor to ensure that any proceeds or dispositions are handled in the way that is most advantageous to you.
  2. Reassess your goals and priorities. Are there things you want to do, whether professionally or personally? Are there causes that you wish to support or areas of personal growth you would like to explore? Keep a list of these matters as they occur to you; this list can become a blueprint for the next phase of your life journey.


As a fiduciary advisor, The Planning Center understands that especially in the most difficult circumstances, every aspect of the client’s life must receive careful consideration that places the client’s needs at the forefront of every decision. By helping our clients obtain clarity during the difficult passages, we provide the valuable guidance and direction that is imperative for charting the best course for each individual. To learn more about how we can help during the difficult passages of loss, please visit our website.