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


  1. Why did I receive this 2007 article?


    • Carol, you must have somehow asked for it, because we never distribute our articles and information beyond what people ask for. Don’t know what else to say, but I hope this sorts things out…

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