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Dealing with Sudden Death

posted July 14, 2009
by Charlie Walbridge

Sudden death is a charged emotional event. With each death people go through 5 phases of grieving. Denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. Although Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross's book, ON DEATH AND DYING is now almost 4 decades old, the information is still on target. Sudden death is often compounded by trauma among those who witness a drowning accident or try to rescue or resuscitate someone. This may also occur when there is a complex and prolonged search and recovery phase, regardless of whether or not the body is recovered. It is made all the worse if the remains are not found.




Unfortunately, anger or displaced anger towards rescue and recovery efforts are not unusual. Few people realize how little time you have for a successful drowning rescue. The sad facts are that unless a drowning person is pulled out within 6-10 minutes of going under, their chances are almost nil. Exceptions include cold water drowning and hypothermia and this tends to be limited to the very young or very small. Even this is next to zero after an hour. Those of you who work with survivors on scene need to keep these facts in mind and impart them in a way that is firm, but compassionate. It is difficult to communicate this information to the bereaved family members who are frequently in a state of shock or denial. It is not taught to EMT's or paramedics, technical rescuers, fire service officers, and incident managers.


Nancy Rigg, founder of the Higgins and Langley Awards for swiftwater rescue, writes, "I could NOT believe that after a mere hour, they were calling off the search - with NO plans for any follow-up search or recovery effort or anything - when my fiancé, Earl Higgins, was swept down the flood-swollen Los Angeles River, after trying to rescue a child who had fallen into the water. Remembrance of that moment is still distressing - when I was literally abandoned more than two miles downstream, at the river's edge, in pouring rain, by the very system I had been taught to depend on, without any way to get back to our new apartment - or any way to get into it, since our keys were in Earl's pocket. Trauma that sudden and intense is enduring."


Excellent Resources for managing SUDDEN DEATH GRIEF AND TRAUMA can be found on the Higgins & Langley website. These pamphlets, created by the Royal Hospital Foundation in Belfast, Northern Island, can be downloaded as needed




The pamphlets are organized into three sections: for FAMILIES, for PROFESSIONALS, working with families who are facing sudden death bereavement, and for SCHOOLS to help them deal with children who have endured a sudden death in the family or the group after a classmate or teacher has died suddenly.




Traumatic grief in early childhood (Ages 0-5 years) http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0308early.pdf


Traumatic grief in middle childhood (Ages 5-10 years) http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0310middle.pdf


Traumatic grief in adolescence (Ages 10-18 years) http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0309adolescence.pdf


Traumatic grief in adults http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0307adults.pdf


Traumatic grief - anger management http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0301anger.pdf


Traumatic grief - dealing with intrusionshttp://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0302intrusions.pdf


Sleep disturbance in adults and adolescents http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0305sleepad.pdf


Sleep disturbances in children under 10 years of age http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0306sleepchild.pdf


Guidelines for immediate response to children and families in sudden death situations http://higginsandlangley.org/files/PG0303guidelines.pdf


Self-care for professionals working with traumatically bereaved children and families




Thanks to:


Norm Rooker

Ouray County EMS, CO


Nancy Rigg

Higgins and Langley