What Happens When a Patient Dies at Home? Death is a significant life event that will eventually happen to us all.
Events around death are traumatic, and loved ones may not know how to handle them as they will most likely be grieving.
As traumatic as the events may be, several things need to happen before, during, and after a patient dies to ensure that all involved follow the proper post-mortem procedures.
There are no rules on how to handle death; every person’s experience is unique.
While we tend to think of death as an immediate event, the process of dying can occur over several weeks or months, especially if you are dealing with the death of a hospice patient under palliative care. It is useful for the people caring for the patient to know and recognize the signs of impending death to understand the process better and prepare themselves for the eventual outcome.
As death begins to approach, the patient will most likely experience an increase in infections and multi-system complications. They may need frequent hospitalization and have less of an appetite, leading to a loss of strength and stamina.
As death draws ever nearer, you may find that your hospice patient sleeps more, experiences cognitive decline and confusion, and shortness of breath. They may also require more medication to manage their symptoms.
Finally, they may refuse to take any food and fluids, and show visible signs of restlessness, labored breathing, and dry mouth. They may also experience a fever, twitching, purple mottling of the skin, sweating, and even go into a coma just before passing away.
As soon as a hospice patient dies, the priority is to minimize contamination from the body to those nearby. Bodies begin to decompose immediately after death, especially in warmer climates. This process can cause body fluids to spill, exposing anyone near the body to blood-borne pathogens and diseases like MRSA, HIV, COVID-19, and Hepatitis B and C.
It is also advisable to ensure that the body is lying flat before rigor mortis sets in during the first few hours after death.
At this stage, somebody may perform religious, cultural, and ethnic customs according to the deceased’s beliefs. If you need to notify specific loved ones, counselors, or religious leaders of the death, this is the best time to call them.
If a hospice patient dies at home in the company of loved ones and family, several immediate actions need to take place for medical and legal reasons.
When a hospice patient passes away, only hospice caregivers can give the death pronouncement.
If they are unavailable, the family will need to transport the deceased to the nearest hospital, where a medical professional will give an official death pronouncement.
If applicable, family members should have the deceased’s “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) and Organ and Tissue Donation documents on hand.
These documents respect the last wishes of the deceased and avoid any unwanted procedures on their body. If healthy organ donation is impossible, tissue donation may be possible.
The next step will be to arrange for the body to go to the morgue, crematorium, or funeral home to prepare it for funeral rites.
If your hospice patient was under a doctor’s or palliative care, an autopsy might not be necessary. In these cases, the funeral home is allowed to transport the deceased from their home or the hospital after this procedure is complete.
If the hospice patient died without their regular physician present, family or hospice caregivers would need to notify the patient’s physician to make a note of the death and close the patient’s file.
The family may also need to notify the deceased’s employer to get the process of determining final due wages and life insurance policies underway.
While this process may not occur immediately, the family will need to get a death certificate in the days and weeks following their loved one’s death for legal reasons such as:
Death is a traumatic life event, and it may not be easy to process what needs to be completed after it has occurred.
By following the above steps, you can take care of your deceased loved one’s affairs while dealing with your complex grieving emotions.
Always seek the advice of professionals if you are unsure what to do in the event of a hospice patient’s death to help you deal with this significant and traumatic life event.