Grief, Trauma and Loss in the Outdoors
This week we're exploring themes of loss and injury with two Melanin Base Camp contributors: Founder and skydiver Danielle Williams and competitive kayaker, Adam Edwards. Being an adventure athlete can sometimes feel like you're restricted to positive vibes only content. We turn to adventure sports for an escape after all! While there's nothing wrong with that it's also important to talk about what happens when things go wrong: when people get hurt, or when you lose a friend. How do we talk about grief? What about resilience or coming back from a serious injury?
Have you ever witnessed a traumatic event or injury?
I witnessed my first serious skydiving accident in January 2012. We noticed the jumper hadn’t returned but we kept scanning the sky hopefully. Landing off the drop-zone isn't that unusual. It was only after a tandem instructor advised us that the missing jumper had landed near the road that we sprang into action. That tandem instructor would later die during a skydive in 2017.
I had just sprained my ankle so I hobbled down the road with a friend to see if the missing jumper was okay. By the time I got there a Good Samaritan had already called 911. My friend was lying face up on the ground. His face was bleeding and he was breathing but still unconscious. Someone found a towel so we wiped the blood off his face and waited with him until the ambulance arrived. We were afraid to move him. Later, we had the presence of mind to ask the EMTs not to cut off his jumpsuit (they did) or his parachute (they didn’t) His girlfriend arrived soon after and I baby-sat her daughter while she rode in the ambulance to the hospital. Later we would find out the injured skydiver had turned his canopy too low into the ground. He was lucky. He was treated for a broken pelvis, fractured ribs and returned to the sport a few months later.
Most recently an experienced skydiver broke his neck at my drop-zone. That was a much more unsettling experience. He walked back to the hangar unassisted from the landing area, sat down on a bench inside the hangar and started to cry. Someone offered him a cup of water. It bothered me because his sobbing was evidence enough that something was very wrong. But we were slow to react. It’s not always like the movies where you go sprinting towards the injured person. Eventually someone called an ambulance.
I feel like death or severe injury has been a constant presence since 2012. It’s not uncommon in skydiving; the sport is small enough that most of us know someone who has been severely injured or who passed away. I lost two instructors in separate skydiving accidents in 2013, a jumping buddy was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2014, a military buddy passed away during a horrific skydiving accident in 2015 and a friend died while skydiving at my old drop-zone in 2016. It’s definitely something that stays with you.
I have been fortunate enough not to have experienced the death of a close kayaking partner although I know paddlers who have passed away. I feel deeply for their close friends and families. That is not an experience I can speak to. What I have been exposed to are severe injuries on the river; including missing teeth, dislocated shoulders, broken bones and so on. I’ve patched up a number of paddling partners over the years.
A big part of kayaking is being able to navigate remote areas without much assistance. Even a kayak run that is near a maintained road can turn into a back-country trip because of how long it might take to get to a hospital. That means always having a plan for dealing with emergencies. Once a friend dislocated his shoulder at the end of one of our local classics. We still had to paddle out one mile over a lake because there was no easy egress. So we simply popped his shoulder back in, gave him some ibuprofen and paddled out. He went to the doctor immediately after.
Then there’s the one time I used duct tape, super glue, and butterfly sutures to close a friend's eyebrow that was split from the mid-line to the corner of his eye.
There are two incidents in recent years that made a significant impact:
First, I watched a friend accidentally slip and fall 80 feet off a cliff into a river; bouncing twice off shelves on the way down. That actually may have saved their life as the final shelf flung them out into the main current instead of against the rocky shore. I was waiting at the bottom of the cliff as everyone lowered their boats down from the cliff above. As I got ready to seal my skirt on my kayak I heard a big bang. I saw a boat floating and thought, “oh, they just dropped their kayak; I’ll go get it.”
Time moves slowly in a disaster. As I went to slide my kayak into the water, all of a sudden I heard and saw a second splash. This time it didn't immediately register as to what it was. Then my brain slowly registered the colors of a dry-suit in the water and I suddenly realized what had happened. I started screaming, launched my boat and began paddling toward the unconscious figure as fast as I could. The rapids start barely 100-200 ft from where they landed. I shouted for the other kayakers, then at my friend in an attempt to wake them up as I paddled toward them. Finally my friend stirred and started slowly swimming to shore. I reached them right as they made it into shallow water. A fellow paddler sprinted down the rocky bank and met me at about the same time.
After a quick assessment we decided that it was safe to walk out. We belayed my friend up and out of the canyon and off to the hospital as quickly as possible. I stayed behind to get all our boats out of the canyon. That hour I spent removing boats by myself was both the worst but also a relief. Instead of worrying about things out of my control I simply focused on getting the kayaks out the canyon. On the flip side I dreaded showing up at the hospital not knowing what condition they might be in. Thankfully when I reached the hospital the only injuries were a broken nose and severely bruised hip and pelvis.
One of last severe injuries I witnessed was psychological. My crew and I watched a good friend get sucked into a sieve. A sieve is a dangerous kayaking hazard where water flows underneath a fixed object, like a a rock or fallen tree. The danger occurs when a kayak gets sucked into a sieve; trapping the kayaker underwater. From the time he got sucked into the sieve to the time we were able to paddle upstream and climb out of our boats straight up a rock wall to try to reach him felt somewhere between 30 seconds to 1 minute. During that time we were each planning in our heads how to remove his body. My heart had sunk deep into my stomach. My skin felt cold and clammy in my dry-suit even though it was 70 degrees out.
We made it halfway to where we last saw him when he suddenly popped up; like a breaching whale, downstream 30-50 feet from where he disappeared. We were dumbfounded. Seeing him resurface didn’t alleviate those feelings. I was sure he was unconscious and at least half drowned until he abruptly began swimming. In reality it was only 15-30 seconds before he popped up moving downstream in the calm water below the rapids outflow. Time moves slowly in catastrophe. It still bothers me to think about. The helplessness of it. The what ifs. I consider myself to be a very strong and capable individual and yet, there was absolutely nothing I could have done to save my friend.
How has that experience shaped your perception of your sport?
Each experience affected me differently. I was devastated when our Safety and Training Advisor passed away during a tandem skydive in 2013. He wasn't just an S&TA; he was a father, husband, a pilot, an experienced instructor known for being meticulous and safety conscious. The public is often quick to label skydivers as dangerous adrenaline junkies but he was none of those things. He was a family man and a veteran with a distinguished record of service. My home drop-zone closed permanently at that point and that community, which I loved, fell apart. From the time I received the phone call to his burial in a cemetery in Alabama a few miles down the road from the drop-zone was just a few days.
My boss let me take leave mid-week to fly to Pensacola for the funeral. I told myself I wouldn't cry. Then I couldn't stop crying. His wife comforted mourner after mourner as we paid our respects during the funeral mass which drew hundreds of people. It was the inversion of how things should be. Later that summer I also attended the funeral of a former skydiving instructor (different drop-zone) who died unexpectedly during a skydiving accident in Dubai. I think attending both funerals provided some small amount of closure. Mostly you just want to be around people who also have shared experiences with the person who passed away.
In 2014, an Army jumping buddy was shot and killed in Afghanistan. I was also on a military deployment at the time so I had no funeral to attend and no one to talk to. I left a rambling message on his cell phone. That was it. That was my good-bye. I was also deployed in 2015 when an Army buddy died during a horrific military skydiving accident. I found out from the Operational Detachment Alpha (OD-A) that we were working with which was not a good way to find out. They were from the same military unit but they didn't know him, they didn't care; they were just gossiping. I ended up feeling really sad and angry all the time.
In 2016, when a friend died unexpectedly in a freak skydiving accident I felt guilty for not being at the drop-zone that day--as if I could have changed anything. The experience overall was surreal. Later, a snowstorm prevented me from making it to Texas for the funeral. I was having a hard time. I can't even imagine what his family and girl-friend were going through. Fortunately, my sister is really supportive. Having family nearby has made a big difference for me. She puts up with me showing up uninvited and she also doesn't mind the middle-of-the-night text messages questioning life, death and the purpose of everything.
Skydiving can seem callous, or at least impervious to grief. When someone dies or is seriously injured the prop keeps turning, loads of jumpers keep going up, the drop-zone stays open. People grieve differently. Some need to go back up (skydive) right away, some people walk away from the sport and never come back. I keep jumping. I can give up skydiving for a little while but never for very long. And who else to talk to about the person you've lost than other skydivers. I feel like most other people don't get why you risk your life in the first place. I've had people say "well what did you expect?" or "he had it coming." Most people view climbing, hiking, snowboarding as acceptable risks. When someone dies doing those things it's considered a tragedy. When someone dies skydiving the Internet trolls really come out en masse. That taught me not to share my grief with non-skydivers.
Since that experience happened relatively recently I can’t say it has fully shaped my experience. But it has brought other behaviors into sharp relief. It is an incident I replay a lot in my head, thinking of ways to try to make it better, more survivable. I try to create a scenario where we don’t have to rely on luck for him to get out of the sieve. I actively practice my rescue skills.The experienced exposed flaws and shortcomings and I’ve been working to improve those.
How has your reaction changed over time?
I don’t think my reaction has changed much over time. At least for me it’s a pretty horrible experience whether you have six months in the sport or six years. It definitely affects you. One thing that has changed is I used to feel pretty angry whenever a skydiver died or suffered serious injury and the plane would keep flying; everything would continue as if nothing had happened. Now I’ve grown accustomed to it. Even if I don’t agree I realize that I’m privileged in that my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I don’t run a payroll or depend on modest profit margins to pay the tandem instructors, the videographers, the front desk staff, the janitor or the guy refueling the plane. I try to be more understanding and to judge less. We also all handle grief in different ways. I still feel pretty helpless when someone dies. Injury is different. That is often an opportunity to be useful. My jump bag has tourniquets, gauze, bandages. I'm also grateful to jump alongside so many adrenaline loving EMTs, travel nurses, ER doctors and Special Operations Combat Medics.
I’ve always been a bit of a boy scout. Over prepared, over ready. Becoming a kayaker was a bit of a culmination of that for me. I have always engaged in the outdoors from a guiding perspective rather then a recreational perspective. My training comes from other outdoor sports with the same solo vs. team component like mountaineering, climbing and surfing to some extent. That background has allowed me to stay realistic about death and injury. Over the years I’ve noticed an increased ability to compartmentalize in the moment, and act without doubt. I often use the mantra improvise, adapt, overcome to keep myself on task during rescue situations. Even more so, I try to keep those things from happening by planning moves several steps ahead whether in or out of my boat..
Have you ever been seriously injured?
Danielle: Not seriously. My own injury was back in 2011. I had been a skydiver for less than four weeks when I flew my parachute into a tree (at a tree is more accurate). Afterwards I had a few beers around the picnic table while new friends laughed and taught me how to properly "crab my parachute" in a cross-wind. Apparently my technique was no good! Later that evening two other skydivers decided I should probably stay up all night just in case I had a concussion so we sat up talking and drinking. Looking back we had a lot of heart even if all of our decisions weren't medically expedient. I drove home slowly on back roads the next morning with a mild case of vertigo (also not medically advisable). Two days later, when my hand started turning black and blue I was diagnosed with a fracture and got my hand and forearm casted. The hand healed and the bruises and scars faded but for weeks after women would approach me in the grocery store and at the Family Dollar to ask if I needed help leaving a abusive relationship. Everyone makes mistakes as you grow and progress in the sport. I think I was lucky in that mine wounded my pride more than anything. Some of it does come down to luck; I've done some dumb shit over the years.
Adam: I have a acquired a fair number of injuries over the years. The only severe injury I've had resulted in a crushed nerve in my back and leg. A CT scan and several chiropractic sessions later it was sorted out. I still have to focus training to keep those problem areas in good condition; otherwise it aches. That is the only severe injury I've had which was the result of swimming out of my kayak. I've also broken bones in my face and my nose racing and running large waterfalls.
Is it enough that people die “doing what they loved?” Or do we owe more to family and friends?
I’ve been in this position where I’m not quite sure what to say to a father or sister or partner of a friend who has just died. I try to stay away from cliches. I imagine that if I die in a skydiving accident my last thought won’t be 'well at least I died skydiving as opposed to cleaning gutters or at home surrounded by loved ones.' I have no way of knowing what that moment will be like so I try not to make assumptions on behalf of others. You'll never hear me say "at least he died doing what he loved." Conversely, I have other friends who like to remind me that we all die eventually. Fact. I can't argue with that. Death is a natural part of life. I try to keep that in mind, although most of us aren’t trying to die tomorrow. So my mindset is somewhere between "Whatever happens, happens" and "why do people have to die?" on any given day. I'm human. I'm a millennial human. I'm a Christian millennial human and all of that affects my worldview. I will say that if you ever find yourself in the position of talking to family members of a friend who has just passed away my advice is this: take their lead. If they're sharing funny stories of their daughter, or sister, listen. And laugh at the appropriate moments. If they want a shoulder to cry on, guess what?--today you're that shoulder. You can't change what happened and it's not your fault. You can be a good friend. We owe that much.
That sieve swim scenario isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like that, or even the first time I’ve seen that happen at that specific spot. A year earlier we had a incident in the same spot but I was able to reach the paddler before they were sucked into the sieve. I say this because the reactions of both paddlers were markedly different. One of the paddlers' personal truths was that they would’ve been happy dying doing what they loved; although they did not wish to die. They didn’t want us to feel like they had lived a life unrealized if it had gone that route. The other paddler felt differently: happy to be alive, and excited to have more time to do things other than kayaking.
If I pass away my friends in this sport will likely understand. I’d venture most of my friends and family who aren't kayakers would also understand. But that doesn’t mean that I do not owe them the knowledge that I tried everything--and I mean everything--in my power to avoid that outcome. That knowledge affects my decision-making. Maybe I don't run the super stout, dangerous rapid several hundred miles from medical care. Maybe I don't run the easily walkable stout rapid that's roadside an hour from my house. We owe our loved ones our discerning judgement. They need to know we made every decision possible to avoid a negative outcome.
How do we justify the human cost of our sport? Are we required to?
In skydiving we have a saying called Blue Skies, Black Death. You hear it whenever someone dies. Instead of Rest In Peace social media is suddenly inundated with the phrase. BSBD connects the beauty of skydiving with the untenable: the sudden, inexplicable loss of a partner or friend. It’s a dangerous sport. Because it’s gotten safer over time, because the equipment has become more reliable, because I've been skydiving for 6.5 years it’s easy to become complacent. Every time we leave the plane we are putting our lives at risk—some would argue unnecessarily. For me the level of risk required is definitely the source of some of the best aspects of the sport: the closeness you feel with other skydivers, the openness and compassion that really set this community apart. Whether that justifies participation is really up to the individual. I think that’s a question each skydiver has to ask herself before every jump. And that answer might change over time. It’s a lifelong sport but not everyone does it their entire lives. People take breaks to raise a family...or they might not. It just depends.
I don’t know. If you read the American Whitewater incident reports most drowning deaths are drunk White males near water without a personal flotation device. That’s preventable. I believe an reasonable justification may be when a paddler takes every precaution to prevent injury or death from happening. There is of course those who will ask why take the risk in the first place? The answer is because we have trained and are skilled enough to do so, and are taking every precaution to avoid injury or death. I think it is our responsibility to honestly assess our skill level before. You get a driver license to drive a car, but that doesn’t mean you automatically would take it on a race track.
Where do you personally draw the line?
I’m not sure. I want to keep learning and growing in my sport. I think if it comes to that I’ll know but I’m not there yet. My job stresses composite risk management and I really try to take that to heart. Sometimes that means removing myself from jumps that I’m not qualified to be on or being observant and sitting a load out if the winds are too high. I do appreciate that in skydiving the responsibility is on the individual to make those decisions. Until recently, I used to conduct static line parachuting for the Army. Back then, the responsibility was on the Jumpmaster or Drop-zone Safety Team Leader to make those decisions for hundreds of people. It’s just a different dynamic. In skydiving and static line parachuting there’s always an element of chance or a chain of unpredictable events—mostly out of your hands—that can still lead to death or severe injury. I try to maintain a healthy appreciation for that. I guess it’s what separates us from Wednesday night bowling. Otherwise we both color coordinate and compete for points.
When I started kayaking 7 or 8 years ago, I said I would never run a large waterfall. I’ve run many since then. I don’t know where I will draw the line. There are some rivers and drops I have no interest in running. Others call to me. I dream about them. I try to never run something if I am not absolutely sure I will be able to maintain the line I want. But chaos happens. I do my best to assess potential risk and obstacles and compare that to my skill level. At the end of the day though I listen to my instinct on whether to run something or walk it. That feature will be there in my lifetime. I can always come back another time. But not if I get seriously injured.
Is there ANY advantage to engaging in high risk adventure sports?
I would definitely say yes. There are all sorts of intangibles. I feel like I’m a more mindful person. Yes, drinking a cup of tea can also improve mindfulness, however, skydiving keeps me centered on the here and now—out of necessity. Before that my first love, trail running, sort of had the opposite effect. The work-out was great but my mind would wander all over the place. Jumping disconnects me from my phone, from social media, from my thoughts, from living vicariously through other people’s experiences and plunges headlong me into Nature. It teaches resilience, camaraderie, risk management, and confidence! Skydiving introduced me to a tight-knit community of amazing individuals that range from the youngest drop-zone kid to octogenarian skydivers who taught me the fundamentals of human flight. I’ve naturally drawn towards individual sports so to end up in a very social, group oriented activity felt like a total accident—but worthwhile. It also gives me a sense of joy and deep appreciation of life: always the good with the bad, like BSBD. Life is short and very beautiful but death is also inevitable so let’s appreciate every day we have. It’s not a bad way to live your life.
The downsides, other than death and injury, are probably equally salient. Skydiving is addictive. There’s got to be some chemical component to explain how overwhelming the impulse to jump can feel. We jokingly call it an altitude adjustment, or “cheaper than therapy” but for we who jump there is an urge to return to the skies time after time. It’s not something you can easily let go of. Skydiving every weekend can obviously limit your bandwidth for other things in life. Life is full of adventure and deep experiences; they’re not exclusive to the drop-zone.
The automatic closeness you feel from a shared near death experience can also complicate things like relationships. Skydiving is a relationship accelerator: it can definitely create strong feelings of attachment while requiring very little work. At the same time if your partner doesn’t jump it may do just the opposite: create a false sense of alienation that wouldn’t otherwise exist. So it’s complicated.
I like running whitewater before I go to work or school. We call it dawn patrolling (early rise kayaking or whatever sport you like). It sets the tone for my day, de-stresses me from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Running whitewater connects me to nature and my own mortality. It gives me a greater appreciation of my body's strengths and weaknesses and how it feels in each moment of exertion. So yes I think there are advantages. But it doesn’t have to be high risk. You can enjoy the same benefits on less dangerous runs. Different strokes for different folks.
Still, high risk sports can teach people valuable life lessons beyond the usual "no pain no gain" "yolo" and other click-baity t-shirt slogans. You learn to trust yourself and advocate for yourself. You learn just how far you are actually capable of going when the shit hits the fan. It also teaches you to trust others, with your life. In extreme sports you are your first, second and third line of defense. Your friends are your “oh shit” button and the final safety. You need to trust them. And they need to trust you will do everything to a) keep yourself out of danger b) keep them out of danger. I think that self and group reliance is hard to come by outside of high risk activities. I have friends that I’ve met only 3-5 times in my life, that I trust implicitly; that I care about enough to call friends in an article; because we have shared that bond.
What advice would you give?
I am not a grief counselor. I have no training in that field. I can only share from my own personal experiences. It’s okay to grieve. In fact if you don’t you absolutely will not be okay. But grief looks like different things to different people. Make a space where you feel comfortable and fill it with friends who are also grieving or friends who can empathize. That may mean climbing or skydiving again the very next day. That may mean drinking with friends and sharing stories about the deceased (skydiving tradition). That may mean attending religious services which (hint) may be a very important way of showing respect and support for the deceased’s family. Look out for friends who are not doing okay. Remember that grief takes time. Death may also mean the end of other things: the end of friendships, of places (like my home drop-zone) or of periods in your life. Ultimately, you can’t go back; only forward.
If you are experiencing physical or mental trauma from an incident seek help. Talk to your friends. They may be feeling it too, or at least they can help you understand what you're feeling. If possible arrange to see a grief counselor or trauma counselor. If you responded to an serious injury or death I can't emphasize enough the importance of seeking counseling. Otherwise, unprocessed grief and anxiety may lead you to take inappropriate risks and behave in ways you might not otherwise. Unprocessed trauma could put yourself at risk and your friends at risk. Save yourself save your friends. Get help. We are all between swims.