Posted by: njrigg | December 16, 2021

My Christmas Survival Plan

By Patricia Mason

As the spouse of a drowning victim, I have learned that life as you know it can change in an instant.  The entire process of losing someone without goodbyes, notice, or in my case never seeing the person again is overwhelming.  As humans we are not prepared for the idea of losing someone out of the blue who wasn’t sick.  It is overwhelming and all consuming.  Just as you are trying to find a way to keep going, the holidays arrive and can throw a bigger wrench into an already complicated and emotional situation.

My husband, Patrick, died while swimming just metres from our home on Lake Erie in July 2016.  I was at a work seminar when he died and came home to detectives looking for me, with my husband in an ambulance. I never had an opportunity to see him again.    

Christmas 2016 came at a time when I was already dealing with complicated grief, depression and the upcoming holiday season was overwhelming.  I had no interest in celebrating the holiday in any form.  I did not cook anymore, and it would have broken my heart to make Patrick’s favorite dishes without him there.  I was completely lost at what to do.  

Fortunately, I had been seeing a psychotherapist for a couple months at the time who specialized in helping traumatic death survivors.  She was an amazing source of ideas and we worked through my Christmas 2016 Survival Plan for the weeks leading up to the holiday.  She taught me that it was best to try and plan out such important events in advance which would allow me to prepare emotionally for what was going to occur.

We decided to narrow the guest list down to my mother and my adult son only on Christmas Day. This would limit the people I had to have contact with on a very emotional and difficult day.  

It was suggested to specify a short timeline for Christmas Day celebrations.  I decided to limit the celebration to a two-hour luncheon with a set start and end time which would eliminate people lingering around as well as provide personal time to grieve the loss of my husband at the Holidays.  My therapist brought up the importance of allowing myself to grieve on Christmas Day and to give myself times where I could be alone and cry as much as I wanted or look through photo albums of happier times.  This for me, was a very important part of my grieving process over the holidays.  I decided to write Patrick a letter on Christmas morning and tell him how much I missed him and how it would never be the same without him.  This was my opportunity by myself to allow myself to bear my soul to my Patrick.  The envelope was sealed, and I still have the unopened letter five years later.  

For Christmas Decorations I decided to not have a Christmas tree, but my mother had unexpectedly dropped off a small table top tree on my porch as the holiday approached, so I decided to decorate it with a few photos of Patrick and family.  Not making the house look like a Christmas village that first year made it easier for me to cope with my loss.  

We decided a set simple menu was the best approach for me.  As someone who had been living almost exclusively on cereal and fruit for almost five months, I could not imagine cooking a turkey dinner without Patrick there.  My therapist suggested that I try a pre-cooked spiral ham that I would just have to heat in the oven and serve with fresh rolls and potato salad that I could find at a local deli.  It was perfect for me because it wasn’t what I would usually have served for Christmas with Patrick, so I did not feel as sad.  

My therapist advised me to choose a couple people on Christmas day who would call at different times of the day to check on me by phone and make sure I was coping okay and did not need any help.  My best friend told me she would call me at a set time on Christmas morning and my therapist called me in the afternoon after the luncheon was over to make sure I was coping okay.  We decided that I would not answer the phone otherwise on Christmas Day, as I felt it would be too much for me to deal with.  People left me voice mails and I returned calls when I was up to talking to them.

My therapist suggested I plan activities for myself to do after my company left on Christmas Day.  My natural response was I didn’t want to do anything but she explained that it was good to preplan activities so I could avoid feeling as overwhelmed and helpless.   I have always loved watching Christmas Movies like “A Christmas Story,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” and the Die-Hard movie.   I made myself physically comfortable by wrapping myself up in my quilt made of Patrick’s clothing and eating whatever snacks I felt like. I eventually fell asleep by the fireplace.  

Overall, the day went as we planned.  Of course, it was difficult and emotional but we had planned that it would be, so it was expected.  I was proud of myself for surviving my first Christmas without my Patrick.  I am so grateful for the advice and planning I did with my therapist to prepare for the holiday.  Looking back, I think preparation was the key.  It was easier to make it through the day by knowing what was coming and limiting my contact with the outside world.  Realistically, I know that’s not possible for people with young children, for example, but it is how I spent my first Christmas.

Five years later, the big turkey dinner is back, apple pie in the oven, the tree is decorated, and stockings are hung on the fireplace.  Of course, my life is different now five years later but I have again found joy in different ways.  I will never forget the very humble and important first Christmas without Patrick.   

My advice to anyone experiencing their first holiday without their loved one is to make time for yourself to grieve your loss during the holiday season.  Remember that your grief journey is yours and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but I believe giving yourself allowances and time to grieve away from others can be very helpful.

About Patricia:

Patricia Mason is a property manager in Sherkston Ontario Canada.  She lost her husband Patrick Keith to a Lake Erie drowning while swimming in July 2016.

Patricia Mason
Posted by: njrigg | May 31, 2019

What Happens When Someone Drowns?

What Happens When Someone Drowns?
By Nancy J. Rigg
June 9, 2007

Many families have asked me what happens when someone drowns. There are clinical definitions, of course, but what most surviving family members want and need to know is how much a loved one suffered before dying.  I will draw upon two personal experiences that have reassured me a little that drowning is one of the more “peaceful” ways to die.

First, after my fiancé, Earl Higgins, was swept away in a flash flood as he attempted to save a child’s life, I was deeply concerned about Earl’s last moments of life. This is natural and totally normal, of course. How can we not be concerned? A drowning death, or any kind of death involving water, is so sudden and shocking for us, how can it not be a terrible ordeal for those we love who have drowned? I really needed to understand what it meant to experience a fatal drowning in order to find some measure of peace in my own heart.

Where to begin?  What about the Coroner’s Office?  That seemed to be a logical starting place, although it took me three long and very difficult years to secure permission to meet with the coroner who performed the autopsy on Earl’s remains. To this day I don’t know why this was so difficult to arrange. I had to be pre-screened for suicide watch and go through a whole raft of other nonsense before I was allowed to visit with the coroner. In looking back, if just one professional in a position of authority in Los Angeles had taken the time to listen to me and respect my needs sooner, I sincerely believe that the normal grief and trauma that I was experiencing at the time would never have intensified into a whopping case of post-traumatic stress.

The forensic specialist I finally met with was a seasoned, deeply compassionate pathologist. He was as spiritual (in the best sense of the term) as he was a skilled scientist, and no matter how awful this meeting was at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, it was one of the most healing experiences in the aftermath of Earl’s death.

The first thing Dr. Bucklin did was gently take both of my trembling hands in his, face me squarely, look me in the eyes, and in his soft, reassuring voice, which I remember to this day, he said, “I am so sorry that we are meeting in these circumstances.”

Wow, he was the first person in three years since Earl was swept away to say how sorry he was that this had happened!

We went through the autopsy report and I asked, and he answered, all of the questions that had been haunting me for so long, starting with the issue of suffering. Suffering and distress are measured scientifically through forensic testing, and because it took nine months to find and recover Earl’s remains, blood and tissue samples were not meaningful; however, Dr. Bucklin had written reports on many drowning victims – sadly, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children aged four years and younger in the USA, the second leading cause of accidental death in children 14 and younger, and the third overall leading cause of accidental death in general – so he was drawing upon many year’s worth of experience.

According to forensic reports, adrenaline levels are an indicator of physical and emotional distress. For drowning victims, the adrenaline levels are at the same level as they would be if we were sleeping. Although there may be momentary distress and panic when someone realizes that he or she is in trouble in the water, evidently this is quickly replaced by a feeling of “euphoria” and “peace,” according to pathologists and near drowning survivors. Loss of consciousness comes quickly and the transition into the death state is more than likely similar to falling asleep.

It takes less than 30-seconds for someone to drown. But panic is quickly replaced by what has been described as an amazing sense of peace and calm.

Dr. Bucklin then contrasted these findings with victims who have been murdered, or died in other sudden and unexpected ways. Their adrenaline levels are much, much higher, meaning that there was measurable distress and little to ease it before the death transition took effect…

I was very grateful for Dr. Bucklin’s straightforward and compassionate feedback. It helped ease much of my worry about Earl’s final moments of life.

Another reassuring encounter was with a firefighter friend of mine in Baltimore County, Maryland (USA). His name is Bill and he is a near-drowning survivor. He is also a search and rescue (SAR) dog handler. We meet almost every year at the annual NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue) conference.

Bill came up to me several years ago during one of the NASAR conferences where I had been doing a presentation about the need to provide immediate crisis intervention support to surviving family members in the aftermath of drowning accidents, and he told me a harrowing story about how he nearly drowned off the coast of Maryland in the Atlantic Ocean.

The thing Bill felt compelled to stress was the “awesome, overwhelming, total sense of peace and calm” that overcame him before he lost consciousness.

He said it was the most intensely profound spiritual experience he had ever experienced, and he was not a religious person in general. He said, yes, there was a moment of panic when he got caught in a powerful rip current. But the distress was replaced quickly by a deep sense of peace, calm, and tranquility, as well as profound safety and love, like being embraced by all creation.

These two men ~ Bill the SAR dog handler/firefighter and Dr. Bucklin, of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office ~ gave me as much reassurance as is possible without going through the experience myself. I trust their truth.

Earl also appeared in a powerful, visionary dream to reassure me that he was safe and well. This was three nights after he disappeared. I don’t speak of this kind of “altered consciousness” experience too often, because some people find it disturbing, or unbelievable, or just silly, wishful thinking. But I am enough of a scientist myself to do as much “empirical testing” of these unusual experiences as one can, and for me, without a doubt, I believe in the truth, the blessing, and the profound healing grace of these extraordinary moments where the veil between “life” and “after-life” is lifted momentarily and we are allowed a brief glimpse of the vast mystery beyond, as we struggle against tremendous odds to heal and move forward in the aftermath of a devastating, tragic moment in time.

I don’t know if this will help other families who are struggling in the aftermath of losing loved ones to fatal drowning accidents, but I do believe that our dear ones do not suffer greatly.  When Earl came to me, he radiated profound peace and calm, as though he, too, wanted to reassure me that he was safe and well.

Stephen Levine is a “transition counselor,” working with terminally ill patients and their families. He is also a widely published author and poet. He’s a protégé of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, although as a Buddhist, his approach to the exploration of death and dying is different than “wishy washy Protestant” Elisabeth’s (her description, not mine!)…

Stephen says that someone who dies loses his or her life only once, but for surviving family members, a sudden and tragic death is experienced “a thousand, thousand times.” For those who witness a sudden death, or are present when a patient is “pronounced dead” in the hospital, or struggle to envision in your mind’s eye what happened, the trauma of it all can replay in our minds over and over and over again in a merciless and relentless manner.

Stephen recommends the practice of meditation, of exploring loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, rather than condemning ourselves for being unable to alter the outcome of the devastating tragedy that has entered our lives. “Try to see the possibility of working through all this once and for all,” he recommends.

All I can say is this… try to find time, especially in those early, awful days, weeks, and months of sudden death grief and shock, to lie down comfortably, close your eyes, quiet your mind, breathe slowly and deeply, and allow healing energy to filter through the universe into your wounded heart. Focus on your dear one who is with us no longer. Send him or her all the love that you feel. And open yourself to whatever insight is made available to you as you move through this difficult, devastating, terrible, and astonishing healing journey.

Copyright, Nancy J. Rigg, 2007

A colleague of mine recently sent me this message and gave me permission to share it with you…

“Many years back when I thought I was infallible, I almost drowned in monstrous surf, an experience I will never forget. If not pulled from under water by another surfer, I would not be here to make any comments! However my body had already gone into ‘laryngospasm,’ that to my understanding is like the last 60-second window before water enters the lungs. One thing I remember was I experienced a ‘peacefulness’, had a flash back memory of my Dad; was relaxed in a way of seeming to experience ‘acceptance’ of what was occurring & everything seemed beautiful…

“Strange to say, but It was a surreal & beautiful experience. I have read that death by drowning (after the initial struggle for life) is ultimately a very peaceful death….”
~ Mark

Posted by: njrigg | June 5, 2016

Swiftwater Rescue Saves Lives

Swiftwater Rescue Protects Rescuers and Gives Victims a Fighting Chance to Survive



by Nancy J. Rigg

Adam Bischoff was 15-years old. Earl Higgins was 29. Joel Burchfield was 11. Gail Ortega was 18. Cary Dean Burlew was 11. Jose Romero was 39. Robert Diaz, Jr. was only 2-years old. 39-year old Young Woo Kang was visiting Los Angeles from Korea. CHP Officers Britt Irvine and Rick Stovall were doing what they always did, serving the public, trying to help motorists in trouble. 33-year old John Henderson was a single father on a hike with his 9-year old son, Matthew. And Griselda Gallo, 14, Dulce Castruita, 14, and her brother Raul Nahle, 17, were high school friends who clung to one another, arm in arm, during their last few moments on earth.

All perished in swirling, churning floodwaters in Southern California.

On February 17, 1980, my fiancé, Earl Higgins, and I witnessed two young boys riding their bicycles perilously close to the edge of the flood-swollen Los Angeles River. Jimmy Ventrillo, who was just 10-years old, got too close to the water’s edge, accidentally dipping the front tire of his bicycle into the water.  The current was so forceful, both bike and boy were pulled into the deluge.  When Jimmy cried out for help, Earl made a thoughtful, heroic attempt to rescue him.  He ran to the river’s edge, removed his belt and tried to use it as an improvised throw-bag, tossing it to the boy, with the hope of reeling him back to the shore.  But when Jimmy grabbed onto the belt, the power of the moving water pulled Earl into the river, too. The stark image of man and boy being swept downstream at about 25 miles-per-hour is something that will haunt me always.  Earl’s remains were not recovered until an agonizing 9-months later during a dredging operation 30-miles downstream in the Los Angeles Harbor.

Why, why weren’t rescuers able to save Earl? Even as I struggled to rebuild my life in the aftermath of a flood disaster that killed more than 30 people in Los Angeles and caused millions of dollars worth of property damage, nothing seemed to quell this question.  Every time there was flooding in Southern California, I counted the dead.  With only a few exceptions, everyone who was swept away perished. There were no happy endings. Los Angeles flood control channels and rivers were open death traps.

The concerns I expressed to politicians fell on deaf ears and eventually dried up in a desert of disinterest when a lengthy drought set in.  In February 1992, the drought ended when a series of powerful storms pummeled the Southland, wreaking havoc from Ventura County to San Diego killing more than a dozen people.

The death of one young man was especially painful, coming just a few days before the 12th anniversary of Earl Higgins’s death. 15-year old Adam Bischoff somehow slipped into the torrent and was swept for miles downstream past rescuers who still had neither the training nor equipment needed to perform a safe and effective “swiftwater rescue.”  Adam drowned on February 12th and his remains were recovered the next morning when the floodwaters finally receded.

Adam Bischoff’s death mobilized our community in a way that no previous tragedy had.  Political leaders, who finally emerged from the fog of risk management denial with pained and bewildered looks on their faces, suddenly wanted to know why local emergency responders were so ill prepared to handle inland water rescues. Although a handful of visionary water rescue specialists, including Los Angeles County Lifeguards, City and County firefighters, and rescue paramedics and helicopter pilots from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, had been quietly working for years to improve swiftwater rescue capabilities within their own agencies, it was only when the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors got behind them that efforts to standardize and coordinate swiftwater rescue training, fund the purchase of much-needed equipment, and develop a proper flood safety education program were realized.

Flooding is the leading cause of weather-related death not just nationwide, but worldwide.  Because no federal agency has consistently tracked death statistics in floods and incidents involving swiftwater, and since criteria state-to-state for judging what constitutes a “flood related death” is haphazard at best, I can refer to the World Congress on Drowning – 500,000 drowning deaths per year, and the Centers for Disease Control – 2500-3000 drowning deaths per year.  But these statistics don’t include flood, hurricane, tsunami and other aquatic tragedies, including boating accident deaths. Regardless of the cause, too many lives are lost in water in incidents which are 99% preventable “if only…”

One undeniable factor in the high death rate worldwide is the general lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment for rescue personnel, who too often struggle, on the spur of the moment, to “do the best they can,” improvising rescues, like Earl Higgins did, often with equally tragic results.  

AustinTravisCoEMS 024

Not all victims who are swept away in torrential floodwaters are found immediately. Some may never be recovered, adding to trauma and stress for surviving family members.

In talking to Mike Turnbull of Rescue 3, one of the pioneering swiftwater rescue training firms, more than 150,000 fire-rescue, law enforcement and other personnel have received Rescue 3 swiftwater rescue training and certification.  This is great – but it’s also a drop in the bucket if you consider that there are 1 million 400,000 firefighters out there waiting to be sent into a flood zone with or without the proper PPE.  I can’t even calculate how many law enforcement personnel and SAR volunteers find themselves in situations involving swift water that exceed their skill levels.

So much more needs to be done.  FEMA continues to waffle about how to integrate swiftwater rescue into their US&R Task Force model.  And although the Coast Guard is now the lead agency for federal flood rescue operations, USCG personnel in general are not provided with swiftwater rescue training specifically and this worries me a lot.  I’m proud of the progress that has been made in the National Park Service, but again, swiftwater rescue needs to be standardized throughout the United States National Park system. The US military has secured some flood awareness training, but not nearly enough. Soldiers who are deployed during flooding events remain at risk. 

It’s not just about adding swiftwater rescue to the National Park Service, Coast Guard training, local SAR and FEMA teams that counts – although it is absolutely vital for the protection of personnel in the field during the annual snow melt, as well as during hurricane and other major flood responses.  What we REALLY need from FEMA and other federal and state agencies is the kind of leadership that speaks in a loud, clear voice: A victim’s chances of survival should not depend on where he or she gets swept away.  Swiftwater rescue training needs to become part of every technical rescue team’s tool box. 

Thanks to our pioneering swiftwater rescue program in Los Angeles, victims who find themselves at the mercy of powerful floodwaters now have a fighting chance to survive.  And our visionary swiftwater and flood rescue program – which the State of California adopted and has continued to develop and improve upon – is being replicated and adapted to the needs of communities worldwide.

But over the past two months, we have lost four rescuers in incidents involving swift water, one of whom was swept away during Hurricane Irene.  I don’t yet know the level of swiftwater rescue training that each had, or what all the circumstances were, but to lose four rescuers in two months is not only devastating, it’s a reminder about how swiftwater rescue truly is one of the most dangerous of all technical rescue operations – not to be entered into lightly, with too little training, or using equipment that may not be up to the industry standards…

Today is the anniversary of 9/11, when nearly 3000 lives ended.  We know their names, which are prominently featured at the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania, and at the new 9/11 museum.  We’ve seen their photos and heard their families tell their stories over and over again.  

But who died in Hurricane Katrina?  There isn’t even an exact death toll and likely never will be.  We know that more than 1800 souls were swept to their deaths in that tragedy, but where are their stories, where are their names, who are they, how are their families doing in the aftermath?

And what about the average of 2500-3000 lives lost every year to drowning?  This silent epidemic kills as many people annually as were lost on 9/11.  Where are their names and who is telling their stories?

I am the last person who would ever begrudge the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 any honor their loved ones have received and will continue to receive.  But in the same way that we need to reduce the threat of future terrorist attacks, we also need to reduce this terrible, yearly death toll in the water.

Christopher Wieting was 4. Robert Johnson was 8. Edward Wieting was 27. All three were swept down the Pacoima Wash. Jason Bastain was 7. When he fell into the wash, LAPD Officer Mike Grasso and an unidentified 20-year attempted to rescue him. The force of the floodwaters immediately overwhelmed them all. 17 people were swept down the Pacoima Wash that spring.  In January, Mark Zarbis and Jose Nunez took a wild ride on a 46,000-pound, fully loaded cement truck that was hurtled down the Los Angeles River like a child’s toy.  During the 1997-98 winter storm season, when El Nino conditions spawned torrential downpours, on one particularly rainy night in January, there were 32 calls for swiftwater rescue in Santa Clarita alone.  In March 1998, 13-year old Megan Cole tried to grab her 14-year old friend, Jennifer Simpson, when Jennifer fell into Bull Creek.  Both girls were at the mercy of the torrent for more than five miles.  On April 17, 2000, 14-year old Abel Flores and 15-year old Daniel Rivera were swept down Little Dalton Wash towards certain death.

Every one of these individuals was rescued by swiftwater rescue teams.  Although there are still occasional fatalities, not a single death in Los Angeles has been compounded by the lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment.

Swiftwater rescue saves lives.


Written on September 11, 2009

Russell Reddick, with daughter, Kira.

Russell Reddick, with daughter, Kira.

When Russell and Angela Reddick lost their 6-year old daughter, Kira, in a tragic drowning accident in 2004, they did not know where to turn for support and guidance.  Angela discovered a wealth of practical information and compassion on the Drowning Support Network (DSN), an all-volunteer, online peer support group, sponsored by a small nonprofit organization, the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund.  “The Drowning Support Network was there for us when we really needed help,” says Angela Reddick.  “It’s is an amazing source of information for families who have lost loved ones to drowning.  In addition to support, we were encouraged to educate ourselves about our grief, drowning awareness and prevention, and how to help others.”

Kira Reddick

Kira Reddick

In honor of Kira, Russell Reddick is heading out on Sunday morning, September 7, 2013, on a 10,000 mile motorcycle journey to the four-corners of the USA.  Russ is riding his 2007 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, “The fastest street-legal motorcycle in the world,” he says.  Along the way, he will meet with members of DSN, participate in water safety and drowning prevention events hosted by public safety agencies, and raise funds for the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund, which sponsors the annual Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue, in addition to DSN and other education programs.

Kira's memorial.

Kira’s memorial.

Angela Reddick has helped her husband chart his “four corners” course.  “This is not the famous ‘Four Corners’ of the Southwest, where you can stand in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona at one time,” Angela explains.  “It’s the four corners of the lower 48 states in the USA.  Russ is starting in Casper.  Then he’s heading to the first ‘corner’ in the Northwest, Blaine, Washington.  The second ‘corner’ is San Diego, California.  The third ‘corner’ is Key West, Florida.  And the fourth ‘corner’ is Madawaska, Maine.  He will then head back home to Casper, Wyoming.  We estimate the total journey to be about 10,000 miles.”

Russ adds, soberly, “According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 10-12 people drown per day in the United States.  Worldwide, over 500,000 drown every year.  And this number doesn’t include boating fatalities, floods, hurricanes, or tsunamis.  Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children age four and younger.  And it’s the second leading cause of accidental death in kids 14 and younger.”  Russ notes that drowning is “a silent epidemic, and we all need to do so much more to reduce the death toll,” adding that, for the most part, “drowning is preventable.  But it’s fast, and unlike in Hollywood, where ‘victims’ flail around screaming for help, people often drown before anyone notices they are in trouble.”

If a victim is rescued and resuscitated, Russ explains that survivors may end up with severe brain injuries.  “Over 50% of drowning victims need hospitalization,” Russ says.  “Near drowning, or ‘nonfatal drowning’ survivors, as the medical experts call it, can suffer with life-long disabilities.  Angela and I don’t wish ‘fatal’ or ‘non-fatal’ drowning on any other family.  That’s why I’m heading on the road and speaking out.”

To track Russell’s journey, a link is posted on the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education website.

The Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards were established in 1993 by the National Association for Search and Rescue Swiftwater Rescue Committee in honor of Earl Higgins, a writer and filmmaker, who lost his life to drowning in 1980 while rescuing a child who was swept down the Los Angeles River, and Los Angeles County Firefighter Paramedic Jeffrey Langley, a pioneer in swiftwater and flood rescue who lost his life in a helicopter incident in 1993.  In 1995, online educational and networking resources were launched, including the Swiftwater Rescue News and the Drowning Support Network.  In 2002, the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund received 501(c)3 nonprofit certification.

“We wish Russell Reddick a safe journey,” says Nancy Rigg, Founder and Moderator of the Drowning Support Network.  The death of Rigg’s fiancé, Earl Higgins, in 1980 inspired her to launch DSN.  “I was totally isolated when Earl was swept away,” Rigg says.  “He was missing for nine long months before his body was finally recovered.  I really could have used more support and practical information at that time.”  Rigg notes that drowning is a year-round threat.  “The more we can all speak out, work together, and discuss water safety issues, the fewer lives will be lost.”

Sweet Kira Reddick.

Sweet Kira Reddick.

Russell Reddick’s 10,000 Mile Journey:

10,000 Mile Journey Map:

CDC Water-related Injury Fact Sheet:

Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund:

 Drowning Support Network (DSN):

DSN Facebook:

Peer Support:

General Information:

Keep Our Loved Ones from Drowning:

DSN Twitter


Russell Reddick, setting off from Casper, WY

Russell Reddick, setting off from Casper, WY



Destination, Utah

Destination, Utah























Arrival, Oregon

Arrival, Oregon











Russ Reddick, on the road

Russ Reddick, on the road

Posted by: njrigg | July 20, 2013

The Circular Staircase

The Circular Staircase

By Andrea Corrie

James Edward Clark

James Edward Clark

Eight years ago in July, my 19 year old son James lost his life in an accident in the river Thames at Kingston, Surrey.

After eight years of living life as a bereaved parent, what is there still to say about grief?

I have learned various lessons along the way, and sharing those lessons may bring some insight or understanding to others.  Please remember these are opinions borne out of my own perspective and if there is one thing that is certain, it is that grief is entirely individual.  The views expressed are mine and I disseminate them freely.

Perhaps most importantly, I have gradually moved towards understanding that there is no end point for grief.  I relate to the analogy of grief that describes it as a circular staircase.  It is indeed like stepping up and stepping down but also stepping round … and round … and round … in never ending fashion.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stage grief model (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) is familiar, and I have often visited it, looking for ways to try to make sense of the process. In fact, the model is actually a misapplication of an original identification of five distinct stages of coping by  someone who is dying. Her research was focussed on dying people, who knew they were dying, and this is not quite the same ‘one size fits all’ model that is universally applied for mourning of any type, be it for the loss of a parent, a child or a marriage.

It could be argued that many people have made an idol of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages; too many people have grasped onto their linear nature as a proscribed, even time-limited formula to get them through grief.  Laying down a staged grief cycle is formulaic by its nature, but it is difficult to see how else a framework could be devised that would give the newly bereaved an idea what to anticipate.

Those who know me doubtless appreciate that I was not about to follow any edicts about how and when I should grieve, but like anyone else flung into the maelstrom of child loss, I was in dire need of  some signposts to guide me across a new and totally unfamiliar landscape.

Being bereaved is like being told to try to find your way across an alien planet without a map.

Yes, I have experienced all the stages of grief at different times in different ways, and somehow through hard work and application of many resources, I am pleased to affirm that I have arrived at a point of near contentment today.

Stage models create expectation of what mourning is meant to be like.  I suppose I was set up to expect certain reactions and it was disconcerting when those reactions appeared in the ‘wrong’ order or not at all.  Stages also imply that mourning is passive, which I have certainly found not to be the case.

Think for a moment about a mundane task like cleaning the kitchen.  First is the ‘sweeping the floor’ stage, followed by the ‘clean down all the surfaces’ stage, followed by the ‘bleach stage’, and finally the ‘drying off and polishing’ stage.

The kitchen doesn’t do anything but be there, and everything happens to it so that it emerges bright and shiny.

No bereaved parent emerges bright and shiny, untouched by his or her experience.  We would not be human if we did not experience painful reactions and responses to trauma – but these irrevocably alter how we are for the future.

Grief is rarely, if ever, passive.  Rather, especially early on, it is a shouting, roaring, ranting, wailing banshee of a thing which cannot be ignored and has to be squared up to if you are to have any hope of barrelling your way through it.  The only time I have found grief to be passive is when it produces a type of exhausted, numb inertia which I believe is nature’s way of giving one a break from relentlessly working the treadmill.

Dr Kubler-Ross does not have the monopoly on staging.  Various internet sources suggest that seven stage grief models may be applied.  However, these should be viewed with a degree of caution, since such models are based on observations of select populations, which are not necessarily subject to evidence-based scientific study.  A grief model which I read about in an article on the Yahoo! Contributor Network suggests this sixth stage:

Photo by Andrea Corrie

Photo by Andrea Corrie

“Testing and Reconstruction.

The hallmark of this stage is an attempt to solve the practical problems posed by the loss.  A person in this stage may begin to engage in normal life activities again, may evaluate financial obligations or living arrangements, and may begin reaching out more to other people”.

I like the positive message in this stage which represents a place I reached at around the four year mark.  This was the time when I began to socialise again and pick up some friendships that were much neglected.

This was the time that I was able to feel more ‘normal’ again, albeit a new ‘normal’.  The old me is gone forever and those around me have had to take their own time getting to know the new me.

I too have had to take time to get to know the new me!  The loss of the self I knew is a shock.  For 49 years, I knew myself well and I disappeared overnight.  It has taken a while to come to terms with an irreversibly altered persona.

Another aspect of grief that jumped up at me early on is fear.  I remember that at first, I was deeply afraid of becoming overcome, engulfed and embittered by grief from my loss.

The author C S Lewis expresses this very well:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

C S Lewis, A Grief Observed

My way of countering this helpless fear was to take on a variety of challenges, confronting those crises which threatened to overwhelm me.

Photo by Andrea Corrie

Photo by Andrea Corrie

I discovered that achievement, small or large, is empowering.

I discovered that focusing on new activities, from spiritual practice to walking, running and cycling, all have an uplifting and positive effect.

I discovered displacement tactics to cope and move forward another small step on the journey at times when my mind threatened to get stuck in grief.

I discovered that expressing grief in writing is a powerful and cathartic tool. It is especially useful to look back over what I have written as a measure of progress.

Photo by Andrea Corrie

Photo by Andrea Corrie

I discovered the need to be introspective and visit my grief quietly and sit with it when I have to, or conversely to have a good angry rant at the fates.  Both reactions are helpful.

I feel that I have been slow in fully realising quite how immeasurable is the impact of our loss on my husband, daughter and stepchildren, and I will always feel immense regret that that we and the wider family do not have the natural continuance of life experienced by the non-bereaved family. 

We are a modern day blended family – Stella and James’ father and I divorced in 1999 and sadly, he passed away in 2002.  Shaun and I were married in 2005 and it was a scant six weeks after that when we lost James.  There is much to say about the grief of step-parents and step-siblings, which deserves its own separate article.

When a child dies, there are no new memories or future events to share and anticipate in relation to that child, and this emphasises the difference between families who are living through child loss and those who are not.

Grief unavoidably carries a measure of guilt, with which the bereft have to learn to live.  Family events such as birthdays, Christmas, weddings, the arrival of grandchildren, all serve to emphasise the absence of the loved one who should be here to share our joys.  It is difficult to resist the ‘what if’ game where one can create scenarios in which you and/or the lost child did something different, which affected the outcome.  The guilt that as a parent you should have been able to prevent what happened to your child descends like a fog and it is very slow to dissipate.

As the guilt over the loss diminishes it may be replaced by a different guilt – that you can begin to enjoy your life again with a return to optimism and anticipation of pleasurable events, such as holidays.

I firmly believe bereaved parents should allow themselves to feel happy again, without any guilt, if they are able.

The time frame for my personal journey through grief is impossible to set down.  It is only in looking back year on year that I can evaluate moving along to the point where I am now.

The point where I am now is different to the point I was this time last year, and different again from the point I will be this time next year.

Thank goodness for the evolution! –  for if we did not move forwards or progress we would land up mired in a spiral of hopelessness.

Does grief make a better person of you?  I think it both humbles and enlightens, even ultimately enriches with understanding.  These days my perception of others is a gentler thing.  I cut people more slack than I used to in some respects, though I find I have little patience for trivial complaints in others.  Everyone has grief, trauma, strife.  We do not all wear it all the time.  But to extend your feelings of empathy to those who are simply unable to understand what you are going through, because they themselves are fortunate enough not to know, is a tough thing to do in the beginning.  It is easy to see others’ lives as blessed when you are struggling with the trauma of loss.

It is easy to be impatient with those who don’t know what to say to you – but you come to realise that you too would have been the same before your loss.

Certainly I think grief can give you strengths you did not know you possessed, and finding the fortitude to cope with grief leads you to tackle that which you hitherto thought impossible.  When you think about it, once you have risen like a phoenix from the loss of your child, nothing that is thrown at you in life can ever hold the same level of gut-wrenching fear.

I have the greatest admiration for my dear friend Karen in Melbourne.  We met online through the support group Drowning Support Network.   Karen has lifelong claustrophobia and fear of flying but she has conquered it since her son Sam died.  She has managed a couple of flights within Australia and she and her husband are planning a trip to the UK next year.  We cannot wait to meet them.

It is often said that after child loss, your address book changes, and I would agree.

My post loss friends, those whom I have met through the Drowning Support Network and the Compassionate Friends are particularly important.  Our friendships have evolved from the initial focus of our grief, to more typical rounded friendships.  But, there is an incalculable value in being able to call upon others who truly understand what it is like to be a bereaved parent.  Also, pre-loss friends may see you as untouchable or unreachable.  They wait for you to return to your ‘old self’ and sometimes cannot cope with the disappearance of that self.

I have also made some new friends entirely unrelated to bereavement which feels like healthy progress.  Early on in grief, loss colours everything and I would not have been able to focus on new relationships with others.

During my writing research, this year in particular I have been intrigued to note the amount of grief writing that is accessible online.  When I first started writing in 2005, it seems to me that there were less people publicly expressing their emotions in the written word.  But If I type ‘grief writing after child loss’ into Google today, it immediately brings up a raft of material world wide.

When I look over the themes I have covered, they are universal, but they certainly evolve over time from the bleak agony expressed early on, to optimistic messages of transformation and hope.

Memorial plaque: Kingston riverside

Memorial plaque: Kingston riverside

In between, I have concentrated on how best to approach my grief proactively and positively, and I also acknowledge the many others who help me along the way.

Safety improvements at Kingston riverside

Safety improvements at Kingston riverside

For ourselves, in the first few years we had the focus of engendering change in the form of safety improvements at Kingston riverside, thus ensuring that other families do not have to endure trauma such as ours.  This living legacy for James helped a great deal in the initial stages of loss.

I have learned to formulate ways to cope and to move forward in living a meaningful and positive life through utilising whatever means I can put at my disposal to help me get by.  Yes, I can now lay down new memories going forward but at the same time I balance them with the memories of the son I have lost; thoughts of the future he should have had are never far from my mind. 

Last year, my husband Shaun and I felt that the time was right to contemplate downsizing from our family home and with the usual attendant stress of property transactions, we moved house.  We have moved a short distance – only eight miles – and we are settling well into our new environment.  Our new, more rural location is a source of great joy to me; we are close to the Basingstoke canal and I am getting to know it through walking, running and cycling.  To experience the beauty of the changing seasons, to see the wildlife and enjoy the colours of nature in all her splendour is wonderful, truly it is like healing balm to the soul.  I feel something of James in all my outings in the area and I often think of the following epitaph, written for a young soldier who lost his life in Afghanistan.

Basingstoke Canal - photo by Andrea Corrie

Basingstoke Canal – photo by Andrea Corrie

“Listen for him, in the rustling of the branches, and the rippling of the stream”

Even though this is a place where James has not lived, I feel his presence in the beauty of the surroundings and I am able to revisit thoughts of my loss with a gentle sorrow, rather than the desperate longing that marked the early days of grief.

In fact, it has come as quite a surprise to me how easily I have accepted living in a place where there is no history of James.  Our previous house was naturally full of memories of him, and I will admit that it is easier for me to live somewhere that I am not constantly reminded of both his presence and his absence.  Moving house after loss is a conundrum for many and I was anxious about it beforehand, but I have been reassured by my level of contentment.  I am not sure that I would have been so sanguine about it earlier on.

Turning to the final grief model stage, Acceptance, I do not agree that we ever get over or accept the loss of a child.  For the word Acceptance, I invariably substitute Assimilation.

In time, through bits and pieces of assimilation of our loss, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact.  It has been forever changed and we must readjust.

It is a hard task but not unattainable.  This is my loss; this is the hand I have been dealt and it is up to me to play it as best I am able for the sake of my son and all who know me.

Finally, I revisit a favourite quote, originally published by the Compassionate Friends, which reached me via my friend Sandra.  She channels grief for her son into artistic works of painting and sculpture which give colourful voice to her sorrow.  Sandra is an admirable example of how expressing grief creatively and sharing the results with others, can be an effective tool in the armoury of the mourning journey.

“I am not alone and you are not alone.  For as surely as the intangible things you left behind are with me, so a part of me stepped quietly with you, across the threshold of tomorrow.  

And as the brilliance of a star, in a dark sky, so in my heart is a memory of you – endless, beautiful, indestructible”.

By Sandra Totterdell.

By Sandra Totterdell.

I hold dear the joy, the laughter and the tears that nineteen years of the privilege of knowing the love of my son gave to me.  His life touched and brought joy to many and above all, he leaves us with memories of a life too short, but a life well-lived.

Andrea CORRIE                                                                           July 2013

Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005.  Always missed, forever in our hearts.

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Posted by: njrigg | July 27, 2012

Butterflies and Eggs

Butterflies and Eggs

By Andrea Corrie

27 July 2012

I like eggs.  Their symmetry and smooth shape appeal to me.  A few years ago, a friend who keeps hens asked me to check to see if there were any eggs to collect.  I had never handled a newly laid egg and as I lifted one, still warm from its straw nest, I marvelled at the feel of it, the sense of living energy contained within, a force of its own enclosed in a porous shell.

If you hold an egg in front of a candle flame, I am told, you can clearly see the yolk within, tethered at either end but floating free in the safety of its confines.

But what do eggs have to do with grief and grieving?  It may seem an unlikely correlation but I think they can relate to progression along the grief path.

Grief is a journey…

On 28 July 2012 it will be seven years to the day since my 19 year old son James died in a tragic accident.  At that time, my grief resembled a box of eggs dropped on the supermarket floor; in an instant it became jagged, formless and messy.  Most people would step round it, not look at it and do their best to pretend it wasn’t there.  A few people who came close to understanding would help to mop up, but the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty comes to mind, and it proved impossible to put us all back together again, at least without any cracks.

In the same way as there are a multitude of ways to prepare eggs, there are a multitude of ways of grieve.  None are entirely right and none are entirely wrong.  My own path holds a mix of ingredients and methods, and with each recipe I try, I achieve a little more success until I am at a point where my grief is calm and settled most of the time, with the occasional soufflé like rise in its intensity.

Picture the alchemy of frying an egg – that fascinating transformation from liquid to solid that takes place as an egg white coagulates, whilst the yolk remains soft and warm in the middle.  Transformation is a concept that crops up a great deal in grief. The butterfly is one of the best and most common symbols of transformation, reflecting as it does the complete change of one creature to another.  There is nothing in a caterpillar that hints at the promise of a butterfly.

The most profound human transformation occurs when the soul or spirit leaves the physical body…

Nothing keeps the butterfly held to the ground, but as with an egg yolk, I like to imagine that James’ soul is tethered to all those who knew and loved him in this world, but he also floats free in the afterlife.

Of course, the greatest transformation of an egg is in fertilisation and the ultimate emergence of new life.  We emulate this as parents, nurturing our own offspring as they develop and watching over our brood as they form and grow.  Little wonder that the grief of a parent who has lost a nestling out of time is arguably the deepest, most shocking grief of all.

The most profound human transformation occurs when the soul or spirit leaves the physical body.  This is not intended to be a morbid train of thought; rather there is solace to be drawn from either witnessing, or having an awareness of, the transience of our physical presence.

I was with my dearly loved mum when she died in hospital ten years ago and the actual moment of her passing was deeply awe-inspiring rather than entirely distressing.  The split second change from her bodily presence being there… to not being there… was something quite remarkable and I take comfort that I was privileged to witness her passing.  In some way I believe it prepared me to believe and have faith that this profound transformation of the physical to ethereal would also take place at the moment of James’ passing.

In the human condition, regardless of what has befallen us, there is always hope.  The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) says:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all…

More than anything else, I realise that the essence of moving forward is contained in that simple premise: hope.

  • Hope of a return to feeling ‘normal’ again
  • Hope that the pain would diminish
  • Hope that I would find sufficient peace in my mind to stop questioning why James died out of time
  • Hope that I would come to appreciate the years we had James with us, rather than dread the future without him
  • Hope that I would be able to feel joy again and live my life with purpose and meaning
  • Hope that my relationships with family and friends would resume without the awkwardness of grief’s presence in the room
  • Hope that the lessons from James’ passing, once we could see past the grief clearly enough to understand what those lessons are, would enrich those of us who are left behind to live our lives without him.

“I cannot over estimate the value of amassing a virtual tool box to help deal with this most traumatic life event.”

Happily, my hopes have gradually, slowly but surely, been realised.  There are many contributing elements to this place of acceptance, seven years into loss.

My main drive has been a dogged determination not to let grief and sorrow get the better of me.  I cannot over estimate the value of amassing a virtual tool box to help deal with this most traumatic life event.  And my experience tells me that the best way is to gather whatever works, such as the following, most of which have helped and continue to help me:

Join an organisation such as The Compassionate Friends, or Drowning Support Network.

Connect with other bereaved parents.  You will find like minds and people who truly understand.

Express your grief through writing, reading, painting – creativity is a great outlet.

Learn new crafts, volunteer for fundraising or charity work, take up new sports, hobbies – from somewhere, push yourself to  find the energy to take on something that challenges you –  and work at it.  Achievement is rewarding.

Go for counselling with an organisation such as CRUSE and/or take up an extreme sport – anything that deflects your main focus from grieving will help you to process your grief indirectly in a way that is palatable and appropriate to each individual.

About eighteen months ago I took up running.  I will never be a marathon runner, nor would I wish to be, but I do enjoy the challenge of running 5K (3.1 miles) a couple of times each week.

But I now realise that when I first started running, I could find many reasons not to do it properly.  I would set off with enthusiasm, then after a few minutes I would slow to a walk/re-tie my laces/change the tracks on my iPod/take some water etc.

“It took a while to understand that these were my own ‘butterfly mind’ diversion tactics from the matter in hand. “

It took a while to understand that these were my own ‘butterfly mind’ diversion tactics from the matter in hand.   For me, there is a definite synergy between running and the grieving process, and these avoidance/diversion techniques can equally be applied to a morning run and traversing the rocky road of grief.

Sometimes it is absolutely necessary for peace of mind to be able to switch off from grieving.  At other times, it is possible to meet it head on.  These days there is control in my grief so that it has become a place that I visit – in a  manner that I choose, and when I choose.

Thus the distractions and diversions have lessened over time, as they have done in my running.

I can now run for three miles without stopping which is, to me, an amazing and elating achievement.

I can now go long periods without thinking of James or perhaps more importantly, feeling guilty for not thinking about him, which is an equally amazing and elating achievement.

Self belief and confidence play great roles in grief recovery.  Acceptance of child loss is an alien concept.  But assimilation of the event is something that can and does happen over time.

The author Paulo Coelho says,

“When faced by any loss there’s no point in trying to recover what has been.  It’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new”.

“When faced by any loss there’s no point in trying to recover what has been. It’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.”                     ~ Paulo Coelho

This is impossible to consider at the beginning of the grieving process.  How can anything fill the void that is left by the loss of your child?  The answer is that nothing can, but I firmly believe that through sustained hard work, application, concentration and focus one can recover hope for the future and live life with meaning and joy once again.  Grief is tiring! – but the renewed hope and optimism that is eventually regained, certainly makes this weariness easier to bear.

There are changes afoot in our household as my husband and I plan to sell our house and downsize locally.  We both feel that the time is right for us to proceed.  Of course I have anxieties about leaving James behind.  However, a good friend recently said,

“Don’t worry.  You will pack up your memories of James along with your boxes.  When new people come into your house they don’t see your memories.  They don’t see your events, happy or sad.  They bring in their own with them”.

This makes me feel much better about the concept of being somewhere that James has not lived with us.  It would have been very different early in our grief.  Perhaps it works for some people who must break ties to achieve a modicum of peace, but I know that had we moved earlier, which was a temptation at one point, it would merely have been an attempt to run away from the pain.

The day we move into our new home, wherever it may be, I will put my favourite photos of James in a place where we see them every day, and I have faith that he will be there with us, in spirit.

James Clark, jumping for joy…

I have observed over the past year that more people are comfortable with mentioning James, than previously.  It is as though they feel that sufficient time has elapsed so it is ‘safe’ to do so.  More than one colleague or friend has said that they don’t mention him because they don’t want to upset me…. My response to this is that I don’t ever want James to be forgotten and to hear his name, to talk and laugh about him and his life, is to me a wonderful and very special thing to be able to do.  It is lovely to be able to do this with less likelihood of tears than in the early days.

The great British stiff upper lip is not so great when it comes to grief and grieving!  We need to be less buttoned up and to say how we really feel.  There is no shame in crying with someone in their loss.  But I have learned to make allowances for people who have not encountered traumatic loss, for if I think back to the time before we lost James I would surely not have behaved any differently.

I too would have been one of those people who say, helplessly, “I don’t know what to say.”  But I understand better how people feel so useless and shocked in the face of traumatic loss.

It is true to say that there is no manual or text book that adequately describes, for a bereaved parent or for those counselling a bereaved parent, how to deal with the enormity of bereavement.  We do not automatically know how to behave, how to grieve, how to make sense of the turmoil of emotions that comes with this particular form of loss.  We must each work through our grief creating our own recipes.  If you take ten people and put them in a kitchen to make a three egg omelette, the chances are that you will end up with ten different omelettes.

So it is with grief.

We must all make our own choices and draw on a carefully blended recipe of resources to produce the desired end result; assimilation of loss and hope for the future.

Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005.  Always missed, forever in our hearts.

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Photos by Andrea Corrie – used with permission.

Posted by: njrigg | June 17, 2012

Father’s Day 2006 – Bringing Mark Home

Father’s Day 2006 – Bringing Mark Home

By Tom Dragoon

Ausable River – upstate New York

Father’s Day, June 18, 2006 was unlike any other since the birth of my son, Mark, on June 6, 1977.  I had made only one request for that special day from a group of volunteers numbering over 300 strong who had been working non-stop since June 5th.  On that day the Ausable River had claimed Mark’s life and sent the lives of his family and friends into a complete frenzy, at first hoping to find him alive, later surrendering to the task of bringing his body home for closure.

When you finally accept the fate that your child will never be coming home alive, the only goal a parent has is to hold their child one more time before saying goodbye.  That was the goal that I sought for Father’s Day – to be able to hold him, tell him I loved him, and then to say goodbye.  The feeling of complete helplessness was so overwhelming as we waited for the river to give up our son’s body, only the strength of the multitude of family members, friends, co-workers, and dedicated professional rescue workers was our crutch to help us to our goal.

Volunteer swiftwater rescue and dive personnel assist with the search.

You never realize the need for the services of swift water rescue workers until you are in the middle of this type of unimaginable disaster, until it is too late and your loved one is gone.  Our family was very fortunate in that the accident happened in the little village of Keeseville, New York.  One man, Keeseville Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Chief Lenny Martin, had the foresight to anticipate the need for an Adirondack Mountain Swift Water Rescue Team and had struggled to meet this need on the extremely limited funds the poor Adirondack Village could raise.  Many of the members of the Rescue Squad had to buy the necessary equipment out of their own personal funds.  Much of the equipment was borrowed or loaned to the volunteers of KVFD, and training was demanding.

As luck would have it, Chief Martin and KVFD were on the scene of Mark’s accident within minutes of the rescue call coming into the station and they stood with our family for ten long days of search and rescue that later became a recovery mission.  The gifted leadership of Chief Martin pulled together several Local, State, and Federal professional search and rescue groups from the northern Adirondack region, with one goal in mind, to find Mark.

Long vigil – many volunteers aided in the on-going search.

After the initial search had not yielded the results we sought and the professionals had to scale back their efforts, a group of family and friends, as well as my co-workers from the Federal Law enforcement community, SARNAK Search and Rescue, and complete strangers shouldered the load to find Mark.  That group of volunteers later became known as Mark’s Magic, The Band of Gypsies that were identified by their bright yellow safety shirts bearing their logo.

The rescue trailer bought for KVFD by money raised by Mark’s Magic and a $10,000 state grant.

Ten days of intense dawn to well past dusk searching finally delivered our goal by reuniting Mark and his family when the SARNAK volunteers recovered his body and brought him home.  I would spend Father’s Day with my son one last time.

Hopefully you will never need the love and support of family, friends, co-workers, professionals, and strangers like we did, but if you do, pray that you can assemble the team we were fortunate enough to be blessed with.  Unfortunately the highly specialized training and equipment necessary to perform this dangerous search and rescue mission is not high on the priority list of those making the budgeting decisions of our emergency responders.  The dedication to training, practicing, and executing these highly skilled missions is very demanding on the volunteers stepping up to serve the public and all too often under appreciated until disaster strikes.  When you need them just where will you find them?

Picture on the KVFD rescue trailer from Mark’s search.

So as another Father’s Day approaches and I am left with the memories of a much loved son and the heroes that brought him back to me, would you please join me in singing the praises for those who give so much to the field of swift water rescue.  I owe so much to Chief Martin, KVDF, and the Band of Gypsies – more than I could ever hope to repay in my lifetime.  I will never forget all they did for my son and my family that June in 2006, and I pray that I can find the way to thank them for their unconditional act of humanity and kindness.  They are all truly heroes in my book, a tribute to all that makes America the great nation it is.

May God bless and protect them in their duties.

Happy Father’s Day, one and all.

*  *  *

Dedication plaque on KVFD rescue trailer.

Editor’s note: According to local news reports, 28-year-old Mark T. Dragoon went missing in a whitewater rafting accident on June 5, 2006, one day before his 29th birthday.  He was recovered from the Ausable River on June 15, 2006, by a “band of devoted volunteers.”  At about 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Mark’s body was located, ending an 11-day search that was “hampered at times by heavy rains and high water.”  Earlier in the day, every bridge from Keeseville to Lake Champlain had spotters, with many of them wearing neon yellow shirts that read “Mark’s Magic Band of Gypsies,” watching the river in what had become a well-organized search.

Mark’s grave marker paying tribute to Mark’s Magic and the Band of Gypsies.

Posted by: njrigg | June 16, 2012

First Father’s Day After Losing My Son

First Father’s Day After Losing My Son

By Tom Calhoun

Tom Calhoun, with son, Bradley

I try to explain to other people what it is like to go through this thing called grief.  I say it’s like climbing a mountain.  I climb the mountain, knowing that I will never reach the top.

Normally, around the middle of the month, I start to slip and slide down, and by the end of the month I’m at the bottom.

This may sound like I’m going nuts sometimes.  I’m not going to lie, I am going nuts!  I miss my son.  I miss everything about him.  I look around and see other dads doing what I should be doing with Brad.  But I just sit there and can only imagine doing things with Brad, now!   And yes, that drives me nuts.

This is the the first Father’s Day since Brad’s death at age five and a half on July 2, 2011.  I am a mess.

Bradley Calhoun

I have started to speak in public about water safety, telling our story.  I made a promise to Brad when I was doing CPR on him, that I would do everything in my power to prevent anyone else from drowning.  I don’t know what else to do.  I don’t ever want any other father – any other family – to know this kind of loss, to know the emptiness I now feel on Father’s Day.

I have a daughter – Brad’s sister – and I love her to pieces.  We will mark Father’s Day together, now.  And I’ll do everything I can to make holidays special for her and to protect her, as much as possible, from life’s dangers.

But I’m new to this thing called grief, so I’m learning as I go!

*  *  *

Posted by: njrigg | June 15, 2012

Coming Home

Coming Home

When Someone You Love is Missing in the Water

By Nancy J. Rigg

No agency tracks how many people go missing in the water per year, or what decision making standards and operating procedures are used to determine how to manage a search and recovery operation, how long to dedicate resources, and how and when to call in additional experts, including water cadaver dogs and side-scan sonar operators.

Because this is often a gray area of emergency response, when someone goes missing, the burden of mounting a recovery operation too often ends up in the hands of the grieving family after a brief, even perfunctory search is called off by the initial responding authorities.   Many lakes in the United States have a dozen or more victims languishing at the bottom of them, for lack of better protocols and a greater commitment on the part of response agencies to help families reclaim loved ones who have drowned or somehow disappeared in a body of water.

Having someone missing in water is devastating for survivors – there is a limbo of uncertainty, and even though we may mourn the absence of our loved ones, and even though we may feel certain that they are deceased, it is difficult to mourn a death without proof, without the physical body recovered and identified.  The legal tangle often compounds an already tragic situation, although with proper reports on the accident, a death certificate can sometimes be secured through the courts.

Dedicated dive recovery teams can ease a family’s pain, but the lack of standardized protocols sometimes makes access to resources in a timely manner difficult.

There are many wonderful dive-recovery teams and other resources out there, with dedicated personnel who train hard and do everything they can to help families in distress.  I do not want to give the impression that no one cares.  The problem is that whether a family gets the help it needs or not depends on where and in what kind of water their loved one goes missing.  To my knowledge, there are no national standards for water search and recovery, although U.S. Park Service Search and Rescue protocols do not allow a case to be “closed” until a body is recovered.

Search and recovery…

Cold inland water can preserve human remains.  If a freshwater lake or river is cold and deep enough, a victim may or may not resurface, and may languish on the bottom for many years.  Bodies have been recovered from cold, deep water after ten, fifteen, even fifty years.  Technology, with side-scan sonar and other devices, and the aid of specially trained water cadaver dogs and dive-recovery experts, can strengthen the possibility of having someone be recovered even after many, many years.  But because families are usually told by overburdened local authorities, “Sorry, there is nothing else to be done to recover your loved one,” without alternative information provided, most families quit looking for their loved ones and simply struggle to come to terms with having them be “missing and presumed dead.”

Surviving family members may find that this unique missing-in-water limbo makes it extremely difficult for them to recover – financially, professionally, spiritually, and emotionally.  The uncertainty is heartrending and unending, making it a challenge to focus on any of life’s other pursuits…

More needs to be done to aid in recovery operations quickly and safely.  Not just for the dignity of the deceased, but for the healthy recovery of deeply traumatized families and communities…

Our Story:

Earl Higgins

After successfully saving the life of a ten-year old boy who fell into the Los Angeles River in 1980, my 29-year old fiancé, Earl Higgins, was swept thirty miles downstream in turbulent, roiling, floodwater.  It took nine long and agonizing months for his body to be recovered, in part because at the time, no one would mount a search and recovery operation.  No agency had jurisdiction over the Los Angeles Flood Control maze for swiftwater rescue operations, let alone search and recovery.  No one would look for Earl, so for months and months, I searched the entire length of river myself, from his point of entry to the Harbor in Long Beach.  It was a lonely and very frustrating time.

Although I grieved Earl’s absence deeply, for me, it truly was the serendipitous recovery of his body nine months later, during a harbor dredging operation, that allowed me to fully honor and mourn his death, and start to come to terms with the profound changes in my life.

When Earl’s body was finally recovered… it was like he had died twice.  But at least there was certainty, legal proof, and closure.

I share this excerpt from my grief journal, on behalf of all families who are dealing with this difficult kind of loss and trauma.  I wrote it three years after Earl disappeared, after I was finally allowed to view the forensic photos taken of his physical remains for the Coroner’s inquiry:

1983, Los Angeles:

The body.  They say that it is merely a “vehicle”, which our spirit occupies during its journey through life.  Yet it goes without saying that it is through this body that we experience life — all the sensations, the emotions, the struggles and joys, the psycho-physical existence.  And it is through the body that we know one another.

Today I viewed photographs that were taken of Earl in the examination room at the Coroner’s Office, three years and one month ago today.  Two color photos of his body lying on a gurney.  Human remains against cold, blue metal, near a green tiled wall, above the while linoleum floor.

My first and overwhelming sensation was profoundly deep sorrow.  A sorrow beyond tears or weeping.  I was saddened silent.  There it was.  Front view.  Back view.  I say “it”, because that which I gazed upon was not “Earl.”  No.  And yet it was Earl!  Even in that state of extreme decomposition, I recognized him.  Vague aspects here and there.  The overall shape and size.  The reminiscence of such a fine, perfect form.

I studied the photos in silence for a long, long time.  And although he seemed anxious, Dr. Frederick, my trauma counselor, had enough sense to leave me alone.  When I finally spoke to him, my words sounded hollow and distant.  I’m not sure what I said… something reassuring, so that he knew we had made the right choice to view these photos.

Although there were similarities to what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye those nine months when Earl’s body was missing, to my surprise, that which was pictured here was even worse than what I had envisioned.  I always thought that I had envisioned a worse horror than what was, but no…

I flashed on the keys that had remained with Earl’s body all those months in the water.  The colors.  And the smell.  Earl’s body looked like those keys, corroded, discolored.  In certain places on the chest, the arms, the back, and the head, bone was exposed.  White.  So clean and white.

The overall shape was distorted, the chest and abdominal area slightly distended, the arms and legs shrunken.  There was no close-up and in the photo the head wasn’t very clear.  But there was no face, no hair.  Clean and white was the jawbone beneath the teeth.  I could see through to the spinal column supporting the skull.

Three ribs on the right side were exposed, as was the long bone of the right arm.  And the cranium, as seen from the back view, formed a clean, ivory-colored, perfectly shaped cap.  No toes.  Only discolored stumps at the end of the legs.  I tried to find fingers, but could barely distinguish arms resting against the chest.

The fleshy parts… therein was the horror.  And a paradoxically haunting beauty.  In full view, the remains looked like newly mined malachite — copper mineral embedded in its native granite.  Blues and greens, shades of gray, and black.  A mottled effect overall.  In the image in my mind’s eye, I had never envisioned the many colors.  I had always seen Earl’s form in a single, ghostly hue.

The body looked mummified.  Like a statue.  But not in statuesque perfection.  A Giacommetti, not a Rodin.  Shock provided distance and my study was somewhat removed, emotionally, in an attempt to keep my heart from bursting right then and there.  Nancy the Forensic Scientist made her thorough study of the evidence.

There was no doubt that this was Earl’s body.  The destruction of the face, and his back, which looked charred, as though the process of cremation had been started then abruptly stopped.  The chest, legs, arms, everything, oh, so agonizing to see.  As I struggled to relate all this visual information back to the autopsy report, I found myself increasingly thankful that Dr. Bucklin was the coroner who performed the autopsy — a man of great compassion and abiding respect for the human body, which he quietly said is “not a man-made thing.”

Summitville, Colorado – ghost town in the Rocky Mountains

Haunting beauty.  Again that thought emerged and floated across the whirling surface of my mind.  I’m not certain how to explain it.  But I kept drifting back to those summers we spent high in the Rocky Mountains when I was a kid growing up in Colorado.  We lived in an old ghost town called Summitville.  Like gazing at one of the more dilapidated old houses, there was such a haunting beauty in this unoccupied home.  A serenity and peace embracing it.  Invisibly shrouding it.  A sweet melancholy aura.

I looked at the “house” that once held Earl’s spirit and recalled happier hours, when the candles in the windows burned brightly, when there was a welcoming fire dancing in the hearth, when laughter rumbled forth from the joyous depths of the life that filled it once, not so long ago.  Visions of moments remembered.

Now this house lies quiet and empty.  The beams that gave it such strong and lofty support are exposed now.  The walls are peeling.  Oh, sweet home.  The hearth is cold.  The candles gone.  Everything decayed.  Gone.  Gone.

And yet, in these remains, there is no bitterness.  No remorse.  Just silence and calm and infinite stillness.

Earl’s final resting place – after nine long and agonizing months, he was finally laid to rest…

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Year Six – the Calm after the Storm

 By Andrea Corrie

Last summer, the job that I have held for 11 years came to an end with the retirement of my employer, a hospital consultant, and I found myself with several weeks to fill before I took up a new post within the hospital.  The run up to closing the practice was a very stressful time and by the end of it all, I felt as though I had a surfeit of energy to dispel.  I am no athlete, but having previously trained for charity power walking challenges I knew I would benefit from exercise induced endorphins if I went out walking early in the mornings.

You may well wonder what this has to do with grief and its relevance to the sixth year since we lost James to a tragic accident when he was 19; but as my exercise regime evolved I began to observe a significant correlation between that and my grief path and ways in which it has altered with the passage of time.

The summer mornings were warm and still. After a few outings of pounding the streets at a brisk walk, one day I found that what I really wanted to do was to go faster.  I picked up pace and broke into a tentative, clumsy, run.  I felt terribly conspicuous, certainly as though everyone must be watching me as I passed the houses along the suburban streets, but I carried on.  Soon my legs were aching, I was gasping for breath and I needed to stop, but I felt an incredible sense of elation.  I had managed to run for only a few minutes, but the point is that I had managed to do it.

How like the early days of grief when every breath was torture and you had to keep reminding yourself how to do it:

How  like the early days of grief when your legs were leaden and the slightest movement was a Herculean effort, when to get dressed, drag yourself out – perhaps to the local shops where you dreaded seeing anyone you knew, lest they should ask – or not ask – about what had happened – was as much as you could manage:

How like the early days of grief when you felt as though you had ‘bereaved parent’ tattooed onto your forehead and that everyone could see your pain:

How like the early days of grief when a single insensitive comment could literally stop you in your tracks.

As the days went by, I challenged myself by whatever means made me run a little further.  Some days I counted lampposts.  Other days I ran to the length of tracks on my iPod.  Gradually I found that I could sustain the pace for longer and longer, without so much effort.

How like the early stages of loss, of getting from one milestone to the next … so many dates hold special significance when you have lost a child.  Each one is tough to approach, but once you have passed it, recedes slowly behind you into the distance.

My leisure time over, I started my new job, but I continued to run regularly.  My running became a work in progress in the same way as my grieving is a work in progress.

Andrea Corrie – ready to run.

I signed up for a women’s Race for Life 5K challenge for the following summer so that I had a six month goal towards which to work.

How like the goal of working through the recognised stages of the grieving process, each one of them a target to be met, however long it takes and in whatever order.  Since James’ passing,  I have experienced almost all of them at least once in the six years – denial, anger, bargaining, depression. But I still – and suspect I always will – struggle with the final stage in the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross model, that of acceptance;  for I do not believe that parents can ever accept the loss of their children, being as it is, out of the natural and expected order of life’s cycle.  Assimilation is, for me, a far more accurate description of how I view the way I have learned to live with my loss, which does not now feel like a separate entity but has become an intrinsic part of my being.

In the winter months, I retreated from the pavements to the gym and pounded treadmill instead of tarmac which was somewhat monotonous.  It was wonderful to be able to resume running outside when the spring came.

How like the gradual emergence from the dark, grey, tedious days of grief I remember from around the middle of the third year, when I could once again notice and take pleasure in the colourful circle of the seasons – that butterfly-like transformation into the way of life that is best described as new normality.

As my stamina increased I found I was more easily achieving the distance targets I set myself, without being exhausted afterwards and jogging along at an even, comfortable pace.

How like the evolution of the grief process from the jagged peaks and troughs of the early rollercoaster of emotions into something more measured and calm.

Running for June, a friend who has tackled her treatment for breast cancer with remarkable positivity and humour.

When the day of the Race for Life event dawned I felt excited and nervous but ready for the challenge.  I was running for June, a friend who has tackled her recent treatment for breast cancer with remarkable positivity and humour. When I arrived at the venue, my daughter Stella’s words of advice were ringing in my ears,

“Don’t look at everyone’s back sign when you are running, mum.  You will well up, your throat will tighten and you won’t be able to get your breath.  Read them before the race, or afterwards”.

I didn’t really understand what she meant, but I soon saw that each sign pinned to the back of its owner’s T shirt told its own story.

That day at Kempton Park, three thousand women ran, jogged or walked the distance for their mums, dads, grandparents, siblings, sons, daughters, stepfamilies, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, friends, neighbours, colleagues – indeed, for anyone and everyone affected by cancer.  Seeing this, and knowing that similar Race for Life events are held all around the UK over the summer months was incredibly moving and really brought home to me how many lives are touched by loss.

Race for Life challenge.

How like the gradual realisation in grief that the ripple effect of loss in a family reaches far beyond those who are immediately involved, expanding beyond the nuclear family to friends, peers, colleagues and the wider community

How like the compassion and empathy that I have encountered from my family and friends, and from other bereaved parents, through organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement support, all of which play a supporting role on my grief path.

How like the human spirit – indomitable by nature – to somehow find the strength to reach out to help others in pain and distress.

After Race for Life, I signed up to another event in the Autumn, not for sponsorship this time but to try to improve my running time and ensure that I build on the foundations I have laid down with my initial training.

How like the nature of the grieving process which actually turns out to be a constant in your life.  It is always hard work but ultimately it carries reward with the understanding that it is possible to live life post loss in a meaningful and positive way.

Andrea Corrie at the finish line.

On some of my runs, I feel spiritually uplifted, not just physically stretched.  Pounding the ground early on a Sunday morning, with no distractions other than having an awareness of my surroundings, I regularly think of James, and I am able to process the emotions surrounding his passing and our resultant loss, with equilibrium.  Indeed, it often feels as though he is running in my shadow, encouraging me to push myself that little bit further.

Listening to some of his favourite music tracks on my iPod has enabled me to hear them again without distress. Simply to imagine how he would chuckle at me jogging along to his music is enough to lift my spirits.

Sometimes, too, there will be a feather on the path or a butterfly flitting by that brings James to mind as though he is giving me a nudge.

How like an emphasis that our children are still with us, residing within our hearts wherever we go and whatever we are doing.  As time passes, it becomes even more important to ensure that their names are spoken and their lives are not forgotten. Our memories of them become ever more precious.

The seminal message in managing my grief at this six year stage is a need to challenge myself, to keep building my confidence through trying new projects, and to frequently reach a point where I say to myself,

“Wow, who would have thought I would be able to do that?”

despite what has happened.

My self belief has changed from ‘Perhaps I can do this’ to, ‘I know I can do this’ and that applies equally to my grief path and to running, in fact to all the challenges that I face day to day.

Achievement of any kind is empowering.  Empowerment goes a long way towards restoring the confidence that is inevitably shattered following the loss of a child. Given sufficient support and motivation, we are able to rise phoenix like from our trauma and distress to be stronger than ever.  Guidance and help can present themselves in many forms, from formal religious settings to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing; I believe we are drawn to whatever will help us move forward in our understanding and assimilation of the tragedy and shock of untimely loss.

As a family we are fortunate to have had a positive year; with the arrival of a granddaughter, such a beautiful little soul! – and we have family weddings to look forward to. It is such a joy to be able to face the future with optimism and anticipation, something that seemed unthinkable in the beginning.

Despite the ever present background sorrow of loss – which in itself does not diminish – I hope that my positive messages are inspiring and useful to others who are travelling the ever changing, undeniably tough, road of grief.

Written in loving memory of

James Edward CLARK

11.09.85 – 28.07.05

Always loved, forever in our hearts

Butterfly – a symbol of transformation.


Tribute gallery at

Andrea Corrie  July 2011


Photos: courtesy of Andrea Corrie, all rights reserved.

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