Posted by: njrigg | August 10, 2010

Coping After A Sudden And Traumatic Drowning Death


By Nancy J. Rigg

US Coast Guard rescue, Hurricane Katrina, August 2005

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
  • Denial
  • Restlessness
  • Isolation
  • Resentment
  • Sense of failure
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Deep sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Crying
  • Mood swings
  • Short attention span
  • Inability to make decisions

Physical reactions:

  • Lack of energy
  • Heart palpitations
  • Blurred vision
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Changes in appetite
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Sleep problems
  • Muscle weakness

Behavioral changes:

  • New or increased use of alcohol or substances
  • Absenteeism at work
  • Keeping busy to avoid feelings
  • Conflict

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.

NEW ORLEANS (Sept. 6, 2005) – Members of the Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Disaster Response Team and the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team search for survivors of Hurricane Katrina

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

Please do not reprint any portion of this article without securing permission, thank you


  1. Thank you for creating this website. It’s been three years for our family since we lost our 24 year old daughter. As a healing exercise our family visited together the lake where our daughter died. She was missing for over 5 weeks before her body was found. We also visited the places where she worked, lived and played. It did bring comfort, especially to the members who had never seen these places. I look back on the first year and I wonder how we got through it. It is especially hard to read about other families going through the agony of having a child missing in the water for any length of time.

    • I’m soooooo sorry! I lost my 24 yr old daughter to a rip current in Los Cabos, Mexico, Aug 4, 2019. We r beyond devastated.

  2. Fantastic article Nancy!!

  3. For New Jersey emergency service responders – police, fire, and EMS, the New Jersey Crisis Intervention Response Network, Inc., a non-profit 501c3 corporation, provides peer support and referral service, if necessary, to any emergency service responder(s) – individual or group – who become affected by a traumatic or critical incident. The Network is comprised of 3 teams which cover the state and its volunteer members, all of whom are all emergency service providers, are all trained in crisis intervention. The Network is one of 3 mental health crisis response groups recognized by the Mental Health Association of NJ. For emergencies, call 732-394-3600. For non-emergencies and information, call 732-202-1904.

    • Thank you, Eric. Are there similar programs for families who have lost loved ones? Thanks for the information.


  4. Fantastic article. We try to help support blog sites such as yourselves to spread the message of water safety and the impact drownings have on the victims family and friends…

    • Thank you, Wayne.

  5. On July 2nd, 2011 I decided to take my family to a beautiful lake in the next state over. I had planned some fishing, kayaking, grilling and ..swimming. We were at the lake 25 mins when I decided to let my oldest son.. my middle child of 3, change into his swim trunks and go to the man made beach located 25 feet from me. When I walked to the lagoon 10 min later.. after changing my youngest son.. I went into a full on panic attack at the fact that I could not find my son. It was compounded by the fact that we were the only black people at the lake so he would have been very easy to locate. We searched the grounds frantically hoping he was in the bushes… he was not. He had.. slipped into the deep and I had not put his life jacket on him. After 12 hours he was pulled from the water.. and I have a feeling like a long knife is stuck in my stomach. I cannot understand why I had to lose my son. I am an overconscientious mother… I just wonder how it happened. I am even wondering if some mean evil white person used the opportunity to drown my son. I guess im in the shocked and angry level of grief.. stunned and heart broken is how I describe it. I got online looking for counseling but.. I cannot afford it.

    • Oh, Rashi, I am so, so sorry to hear about your son. We offer free peer support to families who have lost loved ones to drowning and other tragedies in the aquatic setting on the DROWNING SUPPORT NETWORK. I will send you an invitation.



      Here’s the link for reference:

    • Rashi,
      I’m sorry to hear about your loss. There is support for you no matter the circumstances.

  6. We went on vacation on July 5th to Myrtle Beach. We took my sister and her two boys and our daughter and son.We were having a great time, until July 7th when My husband, son, and nephews went and got the boogie boards and went out to the beach around 7pm. Lifeguards were off duty. I went out a few minutes later. I saw them playing. I kept wanting them to come in closer so I could go out there with them. My oldest nephew brought in his brother. I asked what’s wrong and he said they are too far out there. Then my nephew came back and got the other boogie board and said they were too far out there and couldn’t get back in. I had noticed my husband didn’t have his boogie board anymore. I should of hollered for help right then, but didn’t know how serious the situation was. Then my nephew saved my son and said he couldn’t save my husband. I noticed that I couldn’t see my husband anymore in the water. The waves were terrible this day. I started screaming for help and nobody heard me. Then I saw a man run out in the ocean and he got my husband out. He was blue and had very faint pulse. No one knew CPR for several minutes. A man who finally came up, did know it. He was an EMT, but he was vacationing and had a out of state license. He wanted to put a tube in his throat to help him breath but Myrtle Beach wouldn’t allow it. He said it might of saved his life, but he passed away that day. I started dating him when I was 13. We dated for 4 years and were married for 18. He was my everything and my life will never be the same. The kids and I will get through this with God’s help.

  7. I just recently learned of another death.. very close to the death of my son.. it has opened wider the wound of loss and re freshened my grief. I only wish to say that ..if he went during family time then that was not as bad as being taken by a stranger and never being ale to say goodbye and I love you.

    I hope he shows you soon how powerful your love is beyond the chasm of life and death. My son blesses me everyday…I literally see has work in my life, since he has been gone, EVERYDAY. I am sorry that your hurting.. and I hope the fact that you are not alone helps…

    • Rashi, forgive the delay in responding to your message. These painful reminders are sometimes referred to as “trauma triggers,” in that they rekindle our own tremendous sense of loss and trauma.

      I am so sorry for your loss,

  8. Hi, My name is Mia. I am a grandmother of 17 children ranging from age 11 months to 15 years of age. In the year of 2010,me and my family experienced a tragic accidental drowning of one of my grandsons Keionn, who was at that time 3 years old getting ready to turn 4. Keionn drowned on April 1, 2010, funeral service was held on April 10, 2010, and birthday was on April 11, 2010. Since his death the feelings that are expressed in your article, (“Feelings, thoughts and emotions that have felt overwhelming at times…”) all of my family members have been suffering with the same symptoms. We as a family never received counseling and it really hurts us. We have also been trying to put together a Foundation in his Remembrance to help families that experience the same incident in which we have.
    We as a family would like to try to do programs, picnics, and other activities to give our families hope. It has been hard.

  9. Dearest Mia, I am so sorry to hear about Keionn. His death must be even more painful, based on its proximity to his birthday!

    There are many community mental health organizations that offer grief and trauma counseling for free, or at a low cost. If anyone actually witnessed the accident, including any aspect of Keionn’s death, we do recommend seeking professional support, especially as it relates to the sudden death trauma – if symptoms are still persisting…

    Support from members of the Drowning Support Network – a peer support group – is also available:

    And the Drowning Support Network Advocacy group (DSN Advocacy) may be of use as you form your charity or remembrance group, honoring your grandson:

    Again, we are all so, so sorry for your loss!

  10. Please have someone call me .we have resources to help anyone that’s been affected by a drowning or near drowning with pool fencing nationwide which seems to be or main focus .has a dad whom has loss his two twin boys to a residential pool I just want to help others with my grief. please help me in doing so.we also have a great network page two words justagainst childrendrowning check us out and pass it on .I have been able to reach and been contact by many dealing with grief either from drowning or other loss please allow or help us pass on this information that you have here also my number is 941-626- 7106 looking for any data that you have and resources that we can bounce off one another in helping others with drowning awareness and education to create prevention our email help us get our resources out to everyone and in doing we hope they well reach back

  11. I recently sent a group on a mission’s trip. My 20 year old son was also on this trip. After doing 3 days of street ministry, dramas, feeding the homeless children, etc., the group had scheduled some “down time.” They went swimming in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. The boys in the group were only swimming in waist deep water. Suddenly a rogue wave was upon the boys and they immediately found themselves in 20 ft. of water. My son and a friend of his helped 2 of the boys to shore. Realizing there was another one of the boys still in the water, my son returned to help him. After struggling with him to get him to shore, another boy, and some surfers coming with surf boards reached the 2 boys. They got made it to the one struggling and got him back to shore, but he did not make it. Since this time, my son has struggled with many of the symptoms you have mentioned. We did have Hospice come and give some counseling, which proved to be very helpful. My problem is… me. I did not know the boy who drowned very well, but the fact that we sent a young man on the trip to never return and my son, along with the group has been so traumatized, is absolutely haunting me. I cry just about every day and it has been over a month. My husband doesn’t really understand, since I didn’t know him very well, but I work full time for the church and the mission. My Pastor, (group leader for the trip) is devestated, and really, for me, I find it hard to move past this. Any advice?

    • Dyanna, what a terrible situation! We are all so, so sorry!

      What you are feeling – what your son is feeling – all of this is totally normal. It is normal to develop some measure of post-traumatic stress, especially your son and anyone who was there that terrible day.

      These brochures are excellent – they really offer sensible suggestions and are age-appropriate. There are three sections: the top is for families, the second section is for pastors, counselors, etc., and the third section is for schools. VERY good brochures.

      If the impact of the trauma and grief begins to disrupt your son’s ability to function normally – if he has nightmares, flashbacks, flashes of anger and frustration (beyond “normal” emotional levels), you may want to find a specialist in post-traumatic stress to do some sessions with.

      Let us know – we can help guide you to possible resources.

      Thanks for posting!

  12. My 12 yr old was in an accident june 28 2014 not even two hrs of being at our family reunion he was my baby boy sweet and humble full of love now I feel so alone and lost im angry im disappointed in myself restless and heartbroken

  13. i recently watched my puppy plunge off the edge of a reservoir and drown when she slipped her lead. I tried to reach her but was unable to. I feel so angry and ashamed i didn’t jum in to rescue her as i feared for my own safety. i relive it daily and miss her very much she was my baby.

    • Oh, Rose, how awful! As difficult as this is, you likely made the right decision, otherwise your family may have been grieving for your puppy and you! And you were doing everything right, keeping the pup on a lead/leash near open water. I am so, so sorry… such a sweet life lost! I’ve sent you a private email, so please keep an eye out for it… Again, I am deeply sorry for your loss.

  14. This is so well written! Thank you!

    • Kelly, thank you.

  15. Hello, last week I lost my boyfriend. He was my 2 1/2 years old daughter step-father. He drown in front on me. We were in Cape Verde waiting for his Catamaran to arrive to cross the Atlantic. He decided to fight the rough waves to show me how strong he was. He was 29 years older than me.

    Here is a letter I wrote a day after he passed.

    Hans Nef
    2.16.44 – 11.29.19

    I’m still in Cape Verde to make sure your body is treated with the honor and respect that you deserve. The same honor, respect and love with which I treated you from the first day we met (10.1.16). It was love at first sight.

    Unfortunately, I witnessed everything that happened. The images are horrible, I am trying hard to erase them, and replace them with the thousands of happy images and memories that I have with you. I was with you all the time during the tragedy, I did not abandon you, and I will be here until we have to say goodbye for the last time, I know it is very soon.

    I try to keep the smile I know, it made you crazy, but it’s very difficult since you were my source of happiness. I have never experienced so much pain. My heart hurts.

    In the hotel room, I hear the roper of the ocean waves, the same ones that ripped you out of my life. A torture for me, but here I am, because I love you. Our love always was and will be, pure and true love.

    My eyes never saw, nor my body never felt, your physical age. You were 100% the perfect man for me. I will live in love with you, this nothing, nor can anyone tear it from my heart. My loyalty and loyalty to you, was always unwavering.

    For VA you will always be, Papa Hans. For me you will always be my King, my big baby.

    Thank you for making us so happy, for taking care of us, for making sure that nothing is missing. Especially for teaching me to be an exemplary mother to my daughter. You were my mentor.

    We remain mortals to live in a world that will not be the same without you.

    We love you too much, VA, and your Queen, me, Keila Mulero.

    November 30, 2019

    I miss you more than ever and I don’t know what to do
    I wake up in the morning and I remember you
    Wait another day to live without you
    The mirror doesn’t lie, I look so different
    I miss you
    People came and came always the same
    The rhythm of life seems bad to me
    It was so diferent when you were here
    Yes, it was different when you were there
    There is nothing more difficult to live without you
    Suffering waiting to see you arrive
    The cold of my body asks for you
    And I don’t know where you are
    If you had not left I would be so happy

    • Keila, I am so, so sorry to hear about the death of your beloved. Hans Nef. We have a peer support group on Facebook for those who have lost loved ones to drowning and other aquatic tragedies, if you would like to join: The Drowning Support Network ~

  16. This is a very informative blog, thanks for sharing about coping after a sudden and traumatic drowning death. It will help a lot; these types of content should get appreciated. I will bookmark your site; I hope to read more such informative contents in future.

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