COPING AFTER A SUDDEN AND TRAUMATIC DROWNING DEATH
By Nancy J. Rigg
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an average of 10-12 people drown per day in the United States. This number does not include those who lose their lives in boating and other accidents in the aquatic setting, or are swept to their deaths in floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes.
The World Congress on Drowning notes that the “global burden of drowning is estimated to range from over 400,000 to upwards of 1 million people every year; in everyday life, recreation, and in disasters.”
For every life lost to drowning, there are countless survivors, whose lives are forever shaded by tragedy.
Drowning deaths and other losses in the aquatic setting are always sudden, unexpected and deeply traumatizing for surviving family members, friends, and witnesses who may have watched, helplessly, as an incident unfolded, or tried to rescue someone.
If circumstances have caused a Good Samaritan to drown while trying to save a family member, or stranger who gets into trouble in the water, the grief and trauma of the surviving victim can be especially acute. Nearly a third of all deaths in swift water are would-be rescuers.
Frequently, more than one life is lost, often within the same family.
Recently, six teenagers – Takethia Warner, 13, JaMarcus Warner, 14, JaTavious Warner, 17, Litrelle Stewart 18, LaDairus Stewart, 17 and Latevin Stewart, 15 – drowned in the Red River in Louisiana, as they scrambled to rescue a seventh boy, 15-year old DeKendrix Warner, who had accidentally plunged from a relatively safe wading area into a 25-foot deep drop-off. According to news reports, DeKendrix Warner was rescued by a bystander, 22-year-old Christopher Palin, but the other children drowned before more help could arrive.
In Idaho, a fun day of boating at the American Falls Reservoir turned tragic when four men – identified as Darrel L. Shappart, Jr., 57, Jared Alan Hale, 26, Aaron Jeff Hale, 30, and Stephen Jacob Verbeck, 30 – drowned as a result of a cascading set of sad events, involving efforts to rescue one man who could not swim, according to news reports. Witnessing these deaths were five children between the ages of nine and two, who ended up being marooned on the boat after all four adults drowned. One child had the presence of mind to dial 9-1-1 from a cell phone, but the frightened and distressed children had to wait on the drifting boat until the authorities came to their aid.
And in July, 20 people were killed in a flash flood at the Albert Pike Recreation Area in Arkansas. Again, several families lost more than one member, including Kerri Basinger, whose husband, Shane, and two daughters, Jadyn and Kinsley, were killed in the early morning flooding at the campground.
These names are being listed here because we must never allow anyone who has drowned, including those who have died in floods and hurricanes, to be forgotten, or be reduced to mere statistics:
Anthony Smith, 30 years of age, Gloster, LA
Katelynn Smith, 2 years of age, Gloster, LA
Joey Smith, 5 years of age, Gloster, LA
Shane Basinger, 34 years of age, Gloster, LA
Kinsey Basinger, 6 years of age, Gloster, LA
Jadyn Basinger, 8 years of age, Gloster, LA
Robert Lee Shumake, 68 years of age, DeKalb, TX
Nic Shumake, 7 years of age, DeKalb, TX
Sheri Wade, 46 years of age, Ashdown, AR
Eric Schultz, 38 years of age, Nash, TX
Bruce Roeder, 51 years of age, Luling, LA
Kay Roeder, 69 years of age, Luling, LA
Debbie Roeder, 52 years of age, Luling, LA
Gayble Y. Moss, 7 years of age, Texarkana, TX
Kylee Sullivan, 6 years of age, Texarkana, TX
Leslie Jez, 23 years of age, Foreman, AR
Kaden Jez, 3 years of age, Foreman, AR
Debra McMasters, 43 years of age, Springhill, AR
Julie Freeman, 53 years of age, Texarkana, TX
As we approach the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on August 27, 2005, it is prudent to remember that at least 1800 people died as a result of this devastating storm, the majority from drowning. Flooding is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States. Hurricane Katrina represents one of the most deadly natural disasters in our country’s history. If a comprehensive list of names were available of those who died in Katrina, their names would be included here as well.
The reverberations of trauma and grief from these major tragedies alone is profound and far reaching. But every day, a child dies in a swimming pool, a surfer tangles with a rogue wave, a fisherman disappears in a deep, cold lake, a fun vacation is shattered when someone gets swept off a raft into dangerous rapids. Compounding grief and sorrow for many families is the shocking realization that it may take weeks or months before their loved ones can be recovered. Or they may never be found. Despite the best efforts by water rescue and dive recovery teams, an untold number of drowning victims are never recovered.
We are grateful to Duke University Medical Center, Bereavement Services, for allowing us to feature this informative brochure about traumatic death. Education is one of the most important keys to recovery in the aftermath of a drowning death or other aquatic tragedy.
Coping after a Traumatic Death
Few events in life are as painful as the traumatic death of a loved one, friend, coworker, or neighbor.
A traumatic death is:
• Sudden, unexpected, and/or violent.
• Caused by the actions of another person, an accident, suicide, natural disaster, or other catastrophe.
The following describes grief reactions common to all types of losses, and reactions specific to traumatic death survivors.
Common Grief Reactions:
- Feelings, thoughts and emotions that may feel overwhelming at times
- Sense of failure
- Deep sadness
- Mood swings
- Short attention span
- Inability to make decisions
- Lack of energy
- Heart palpitations
- Blurred vision
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Changes in appetite
- Body aches
- Sleep problems
- Muscle weakness
- New or increased use of alcohol or substances
- Absenteeism at work
- Keeping busy to avoid feelings
Reactions Experienced After a Traumatic Death:
Shock – Physical and emotional shock may be prolonged, persistent memories or dreams about the event may occur for months. It might be difficult to believe the person is really gone.
Fear and Anxiety – Simple activities like answering the phone, being in the dark, or opening a closed door may cause fear or anxiety. You may no longer feel safe, worry that something bad will happen, or be startled easily.
Anger – Anger and rage come from feelings of helplessness after a traumatic death and can be overwhelming for survivors.
Guilt – Guilt includes regrets about the past, over things done or not done, guilt for surviving. Much guilt that people feel is emotional and not rational, but even this realization does not make the feelings go away.
Coping with Traumatic Death:
• Many experts recommend that survivors confide in someone about their loss, and find a support system. This can be a friend, clergy, or another person who has experienced similar loss.
• Keep in mind that each person grieves in his or her own unique way.
• Each person grieves at his or her own pace; there is no timeline for grief.
• Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays may be especially difficult, so you might want to think about whether to continue old traditions or create some new ones.
• Create a ritual or other way to say “good-bye” to the person who has died.
• Write down your thoughts and feelings; keep a journal, write a letter or a poem.
• Take care of your physical well-being; maintain adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise.
• Be kind to yourself. When you feel ready, begin to go on with your life. Eventually starting to enjoy life again is not a betrayal of your loved one, but rather a sign that you’ve begun to heal.
What Can You Do if You Need Help?
Some people find it helpful to explore feelings and thoughts with someone outside the family who is not directly involved and who will listen (a minister, counselor, or support group). Know that you are not alone. There are people available to you who understand and care.
Support group – A safe place where survivors can share their experiences and support each other.
Religious/Spiritual community – People who can help identify spiritual resources that may be comforting for you.
Bereavement counselors – Specialists, who help people adjust to the death of a loved one, try to find a therapist who has experience working with victims of homicide, or other sudden and accidental tragedies.
Local mental health associations – call to get more information and referrals.
Call Your Doctor if You
• Continue to experience intense yearning for the deceased that does not diminish over time.
• Are unable to take care of yourself or your family.
• Have thoughts about harming yourself.
• Become very depressed.
• Start to use, or increase the use of, alcohol or other drugs.
Reprinted with permission from:
Duke University Medical Center, Bereavement Services
Duke Hospital Bereavement Services – Bereavement Services provides a clearinghouse for information, resources and support about grief, loss, dying and death, 877-460-7969.
Photos courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.
Nancy J. Rigg’s fiance, Earl Higgins, lost his life while rescuing a 10-year old boy from the flood-swollen Los Angeles River in 1980. Earl was swept 30-miles downstream, past rescue personnel who, at the time, had neither the training, nor equipment needed to perform a safe and effective “swiftwater rescue.” Earl’s body was not recovered until nine months after he was swept away. As a result of this tragedy, Rigg has been a strong advocate for families who are grieving the loss of loved ones to drowning and other aquatic accidents, and a powerful force for good within the water rescue/dive recovery community. She is fondly known as the “mother of swiftwater rescue.”
© Nancy J. Rigg
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