There is an informative piece of writing that has been doing the rounds of the Internet over the past few months called Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning It is aimed at the parents of children, as a kind of flag, not unlike those set up on beaches, to let them know that the appearance of drowning is actually quite unlike what you have been led to expect by dramatic representations on film or television. According to the article, drowning is a deceptively quiet affair that can take place before your eyes without your having any idea of what is going on, unless you can recognise the five signs of what is called the Instinctive Drowning Response, as well as a list of other signs to look out for.

Although the article that I have linked to was first published in 2010, it so happens that the first that I had ever seen or heard of it was this year, the morning after I posted the final part of Wide Brown Land which included my account of the day twenty years ago that I witnessed the drowning deaths of my father and older brother. It was a hugely emotional intake of breath to have published that piece of writing, and when I saw the title of the article on facebook the next day, of course I clicked on the link. What I read there made me cry, just a little, not a great heaving of tears, but simply some small gasping tears of incongruous relief, because there, after twenty years, were the answers to some of the mysteries of what I witnessed that long ago day.

Does drowning look like drowning? In the case of Dad and Grant, yes, my cousin and I could certainly see that they were “in trouble” in the water. The turbulent brown water below the drop bar where they died was violent: Roiling and churning. Though I gave a nervous laugh at the beginning, we could not fail to see that the two men were struggling. We never imagined that they were actually in the process of drowning, at the time. We tried to rescue them, but our efforts were in vain. In short minutes, my father and brother slipped below the surface of the water for the last time. The following is a passage from my account in Wide Brown Land:

All throughout, neither my father nor Grant ever uttered any cry for help that I heard. When the rope was finally being tossed towards them they never heeded our cries to them. Their eyes were wide open, but blank of expression; no terror or desperation illuminated them. Their mouths were open as well, as the force of the water took them down and then spat them back up, over and again.

These characteristics were the mysteries, the things that I could never fathom, until the day that I read Drowning Does Not Look Like Drowning. I have included the text of the five Instinctive Drowning Responses and other signs in brackets below the excerpts from my observations  from Wide Brown  Land.

1. All throughout, neither my father nor Grant ever uttered any cry for help that I heard. (1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.)

2. When the rope was finally being tossed toward them they never heeded our cries to them (4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.)

3. Their eyes were wide open, but blank of expression; no terror or desperation illuminated them. (From ‘Other signs of drowning when persons are in the water’ : Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus).

4. Their mouths were open as well. (Also from ‘Other signs’, as above: Head tilted back with mouth open).

5. as the force of the water took them down and then spat them back up, over and again (5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.).

I was haunted for such a long time by the mysteries of why they never cried for help, or tried to grab the rope that we threw, or looked at us, and why they seemed like rag dolls in the water. All of these things and more, and the answer was so clear that you will surely wonder why it never occurred to me: the reason for all of those things was simply that they were drowning. In dying, their bodies adhered to instinct, conforming to a terrible formula, unknown to me and to them too.

Never having expected to learn the answers to these questions, the knowledge came as a bittersweet kind of relief. I still emit those little gasping cries when I read the article, but I am glad that the words are out there for other reasons too, and that is that I can tell you that the points covered therein are absolutely accurate, so read them, remember them and keep a watch on your loved ones in the water.

I hope that you never need to recognise the signs.

The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,

And the short agony, the longer dream,

The Nothing that was neither long nor short;

But I was bound, and could not go that way,

But I was blind, and could not feel your hand

(From Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells)



Linking up with #IBOT over at Essentially Jess today.




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