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Question for SAR, paramedics, any first responder

Original Post
Pam D · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 5

Have you ever held the hand of a stranger as he died?  How did you cope with the sadness?  No jokes please,  I held his hand, stroked his back, talked to him and watched him die.  I am having some trouble with such profound sadness. If you've ever experienced this, please tell me...what did you do to cope?  I am heading to the brew pub with some friends to anesthetize, but I know that's only temporary.  Help me.  

Tim Stich · · Colorado Springs, Colorado · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 1,470

Everyone is different, Pam. Going to the pub with friends sounds fine. I prefer to be by myself. You did all you could and good on you for that. Take care and try not to overthink it.

Em Cos · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 5

Sounds like you could benefit from some counseling to help you deal with the stress and trauma of this experience. If this was in the context of EMS or SAR work, your agency should have some resources for you. 

For me it helped to recognize that whatever bad thing happened, it was going to happen, and while our presence and efforts weren't always enough to bring about the outcome we wanted, it did improve things - the outcome, or the slightly better odds, or just knowing that everything that could be tried, was.

Holding someone's hand may not feel like much, but even a few moments of comfort make a world of difference when they are all the moments left for someone. I'm glad you were able to do that for this person, and hope you can be glad for that too. 

It's tough to ask for help - thank you for being strong enough to ask. Keep asking, and reaching out for the support you need. 

Peter Beal · · Boulder Colorado · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 1,750

I have never been there and never want to be but that's incredibly brave posting here about the experience and asking how to cope. Best wishes. We are all here for you in some capacity. Thanks for reaching out.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 525

I've been in that position twice Pam.  Both times I think I suffered from what nowadays is called PTSD for a while.  Not sadness, but an obsessive replaying of the event with continual questioning about whether there was something I could and should have done to prevent the outcome, as well as whether what I did do was sufficient and appropriate.  This was somewhat before the concept of therapy for such things emerged, and I did the best I could to deal with it on my own.  Fortunately, I never tried to do anything to "anesthetize" myself, which is, I think, the most worrisome part of your post.  You can't forget such experiences, but you can use liquor and/or drugs to drive them deep into dark places where they can endure and take root, unacknowledged and unprocessed.   In my case, the obsessive reviewing eventually subsided, but I think in general such events  are incorporated into who you are and who you wish to be; they become a part of you, but not in a way that has to be burdensome. 

The (very) good part is you asked folks for help.  Continue with that and understand that the processing takes time.

Pinkdog777 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 0


Did this experience occur in a professional capacity? I.e, are you a rescuer, or was this in your everyday life? 

I am a climber, Mountain SAR member, EMT, and RN. I have much experience with this and would love to assist you any way I can. 

Pam D · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 5

Thanks for the kind words.  I have to admit that I was reluctant to read any responses in fear that someone would be cruel. So again, thanks for being kind.

Pinkdog:  No, I am an accountant...not SAR, EMT or any other type of rescuer.  I asked how folks like you handled this kind of thing because without some advanced coping mechanisms I doubt you could do your jobs.  I am experiencing what RGold described:  replaying the event, feeling like I should have done something different, why didn't anyone help, why didn't I tell them to help.  In your training for SAR, EMT or RN were you taught specific methods for coping with death?  Thanks for your offer to help.

curt86iroc · · Golden, CO · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 63

Pam - Though i have not been in your exact situation, i have recovered bodies as part of my SAR team.  the best advice i can offer is seek professional help as soon as you can.  PTSD for first responders is a real problem not to be overlooked, and the longer you wait, the more your feelings will start to affect your everyday life.  Best of luck.

FosterK · · Edmonton, AB · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 43
Pam D wrote:

  I am experiencing what RGold described:  replaying the event, feeling like I should have done something different, why didn't anyone help, why didn't I tell them to help.  In your training for SAR, EMT or RN were you taught specific methods for coping with death?  Thanks for your offer to help.

Hi Pam,

As SAR responder, we're not taught specific methods to cope with death. We do conduct incident debriefs and critical incident stress management discussions after the fact; however, we know that this may be insufficient for some personnel some of the time. Our tasking agencies generally have counselling services available to us, and the subject's family can generally access these counselling resources through "Victims Services". You may want to reach out the responding department to see if these resources are available to you.

Regardless, you've taken the first big step by recognizing you're having trouble coping and that is a strength. Keep building on them - talk to someone you can confide in about your concerns. I will reiterate what other have said - seeking professional counselling will help you cope with this.

Derek DeBruin · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2010 · Points: 585


I'm saddened to hear of your experience. Witnessing death is not an easy affair. I'm a guide and  SAR volunteer, so I've seen my share of accidents as well as a handful of deaths as they happened.

For coping, I"ll echo the sentiment of professional assistance--this is immensely helpful if you can access it. As this incident was recent, you may be experiencing acute stress disorder, which can potentially lead to PTSD later. Intervention sooner than later can certainly help with this. The unfortunate reality is that coping with these incidents is not a skill that's typically taught or necessarily easily acquired. My opinion based on my experience is that coping well has much to do with mindset, which can be learned.

In the meantime, coping strategies for such a large stress are not so different than what you might use to cope with stress in general. A visit to the pub is not unwarranted and can take the edge of, but as others have noted, you must be quite careful with this strategy. If you're the kind who practices yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, prayer, etc., avail yourself of them. Make it a point to be active if at all possible; it doesn't have to be much, but even just going for a walk can lighten your mood and provide some time to reflect. Find a trusted friend, mentor, other responder, faith leader, etc. to talk with and process your feelings. Eat good food, the kind that's tasty and also nutritious. Sleep if you need it and if you can. Listen to your body and respond to its cues as you're able. These have all worked for me in various capacities in the past.

I'll also say this: death happens, and sometimes we cannot stop it. This is okay. Understand that no matter what your situation, you did everything you could to help this person at that time. If there was anything more you could've done at the time, you would have done so. 

Finally, know that throughout history, humanity is often judged based on how we treat the dying and the dead--providing comfort to the dying is one of the most merciful things you can do. I know from personal experience that this gesture does not go unappreciated. 

I wish you the best as you move forward. Feel free to PM me if you feel that would be helpful.

Pinkdog777 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 0


1. It is very important to give yourself permission to feel how you do. Hiding emotions is unheathy in regards to coping. 

2. Talking to others who were there or who have been through similar is helpful because you can feel safer in a community if joint experience. 

3. Seeking professional counseling help early is very helpful. In my work, this is available 24/7 and required on large scale disasters or really traumatic calls. 

4. Praying and seeking comfort in God is helpful because we know that he is still in control when life seems to be out of control. 

5. Confronting your own beliefs about death and afterlife is helpful once you have done some if the above. You become more aware of your otherwise tacit worldview and can move forward. 

Repeat as necessary as often as needed. 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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