It isn't supposed to happen

When a diver dies

by

Dr. Gary Ladd, R.Psych.

It isn't supposed to happen. But it did. A diver has died. Not just anybody. He was your dive buddy, your student, your friend or a member of your family. He died. But not in his bed, not of old age, not of cancer or a car crash. No. He died diving. It isn't supposed to happen.

It does happen. That's the first thing your mind needs to grasp. Denial and disbelief insulate or protect us from feeling badly about lots of things we have no control over. People are often shocked or stunned when someone they know dies in a dive incident. It is as if you never knew it was possible for somebody to die diving. Past news items about other fatalities seemed to have never registered in some important part of the brain. Or how about "I knew divers died every once in awhile - but I NEVER thought it would happen to _____!" It is as if what can happen to a stranger can't happen to our friends or family members. Bad things like this are supposed to be prohibited from happening to them.

You may have heard the news from a mutual diving friend. Or you may have gotten a call from police or medical staff. Your friend or family member's death may have occurred a few hours before you found out or several days. Or you may have been there when it happened. Your system treats the news as a threat. Even while it is being assaulted with the news, it tries to contain the impact so your body and mind don't get completely overwhelmed and shut down. People frequently talk later about having gone into a kind of "survival mode". After the initial shock, they become emotionally numb and go about doing what is needed to "take care of business". This can involve making funeral arrangements, informing others of what has happened, dealing with officials.

Sooner or later you start to thaw out. This is a gradual process that happens in bits and pieces. You may experience strong emotion e.g., sorrow, weeping, moments after you get the news of the death, not until much, much later or, for some folks, never. When it happens, the sadness will often well up inside of you quickly and wash through you like a wave. This can happen many times over. It can be in response to the simplest reminder of the person or dive incident or for no apparent reason at all. You may find yourself dragging yourself through the day. It may be much harder than usual to do things that are routine.

As you begin to thaw out you will find yourself trying to sort out what happened and why it happened. "OK, _____ is dead. But how could that be?" Your mind needs to somehow understand or make sense of what has happened. This often involves going back and thinking about, replaying or trying to reconstruct in your mind the events that lead up to your friend or family member's death and the efforts that were made to save him.

Depending on your involvement and the circumstances surrounding the death, you may find yourself feeling guilty, blaming yourself or blaming others for what has happened. If you were somehow involved with the dive that day, it is possible that you or others are, at least partly, responsible for your friend or family member's death. However, you may find yourself blaming or at least questioning yourself even though rationally you know you didn't do anything wrong.

The closer you were to the person, the more likely it is that you will have some kind of strong reaction. If you were on the dive, at the scene or involved in the rescue attempt or body recovery, it is common to have some kind of reaction. This is the case even if you didn't know the person well. When the diver's body is not recovered the questioning, anguish, blaming and misplaced sense of responsibility for what happened is compounded.

Sometimes, even with very little or no accurate information, we are quick to blame the diver for her or his own death. This can offer a kind of protection to the living. It can be a way of distancing ourselves from the death itself or the possibility that we could also die while diving. We don't want to believe it can happen to us too.

Sometimes a person's death can bring up something else that is going on in your life. In the aftermath of the death, it may be evident there is something important that is wrong or missing in your life. Sometimes something troubling from your past resurfaces that you thought you had gotten over or had nicely tucked away in the back of your brain. Thoughts, feelings, even images related to these troubles can impose themselves on you in the midst of your day or at night in your dreams.

Consider giving yourself a chance to talk. Even if you don't consider yourself a big talker, this can be helpful. It can be a psychologist or professional counselor. But it doesn't have to be. If you let them, a close friend or a supportive family member will often welcome the opportunity to help you out by talking with you about what happened. Ideally, talk to people with whom you feel safe. Talk to people who will listen without judging or being overly protective of you. Look for people who aren't scared of you showing some emotion or talking about death. Try to talk about what happened and what is happening with you now in the aftermath of what happened.

Consider formally observing the diver's death at a public or private ceremony. This may include attending funeral or memorial services. As an alternative or in addition, consider setting aside a private time for formally acknowledging his or her passing. Select a specific time and place. It could be where the dive incident occurred or a place you know was a favorite (dive site or otherwise). Consider including a personal memento or some other object that holds personal meaning or is of symbolic value. Even if there is nobody else there with you, try speaking aloud as you reflect on the death and your loss. A formal observance of some kind is even more important when the diver's body has not been recovered.

It is useful to notice changes in how you have been thinking, feeling and acting since the death. Ask yourself if it possible that you are reacting to the death or some other aspect of the dive incident. The connection may seem obvious. However, some people don't make the link between what happened and how they are behaving or feeling. Some people know right away by how they are reacting that they are in for a rough ride. For others, it takes much, much longer for them to realize they are in trouble.

If you find yourself feeling worse as time passes or if your reactions continue to interfere with important aspects of your life (i.e., work, family relationships, sleep, etc.), it is worth considering seeking outside professional help. While it can be useful to have some familiarity with diving, it is more important that the counselor know something about grief counselling and reactions to sudden death.

For most people, eventually the reminders won't be as upsetting, the waves of emotion won't be so strong. If you allow yourself to acknowledge and sort through what has happened, you will settle. The pain will fade. If, in the midst of the diver death, you lost your interest or enthusiasm for diving, this will return. And when it does - go for a dive. Live.


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