A drowning death is sudden, unexpected, and traumatic for family, whānau, and friends.
It is also shocking and distressing for those who witnessed it or who tried to rescue or resuscitate the person. A drowning can happen very fast – in seconds – and be a tremendous shock.
In some water accident situations more than one person can lose their life by drowning, often from within the same family or group of friends. Tragically, at times a person can drown attempting to save the life of someone else.
In some circumstances the person’s body may not be found straight away, or perhaps at all, and searching can continue for some time. This intensifies the distress and trauma of those who love them and are anxious about them. Despite the best efforts of rescue and dive recovery teams, some drowning victims are never recovered.
If other people have survived the incident they can often feel deeply guilty that they didn’t do enough to prevent the tragedy, or that they are alive while others aren’t. It can be intensely overwhelming for them. Guilt can be harrowing to cope with and counselling support may be essential.
Sometimes people who are trying to make sense of what happened will look to blame someone, or an organisation. Some people find that they become extremely angry, even if it was an unavoidable accident. When we lose someone very suddenly, we will naturally ask why.
The impact and consequences of a sudden drowning death, or deaths, are very painful and far reaching. Most people will experience both grief and traumatic stress reactions, which can be exhausting.
Help and support is available for you.
Who gets involved and why
After a drowning death, a wide range of people and agencies can become involved. It helps to understand who they are what their role is.
A drowning death will first be responded to by those at the location, and then by emergency services, or surf lifesavers if the location is at a public pool or beach. If the family and whānau were not present, police will advise them about what happened as soon as possible.
In some circumstances, specialist search teams may also be involved in recovering the person’s body. Sometimes family, whānau, friends, and community members may want to be part of the search and police can advise how best they can assist with this.
The information in our sudden death support section explains the roles of the key people you may meet and some of the legal processes that must happen. These people understand how distressing this time is and will work respectfully and with care.
If the incident happened at your home address
In this situation, you may need to find alternative accommodation until the police investigation has been completed and you have been given permission to return home. You might need to stay with family, whānau, friends, or in a local motel for a night or two. A Victim Support worker may be able to support you to find accommodation. Call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.
If you're a tenant in a rental property, you may want to contact your landlord to let them know what has happened. You can ask someone to do this on your behalf. If you're a Kāinga Ora tenant (formerly Housing New Zealand) contact the tenancy manager or call Housing New Zealand on 0800 801 601.
Practical Matters after a drowning
- Our helpful guide After a death: Dealing with practical matters provides information and advice on a wide range of practical matters you are likely to need to attend to after a sudden death, including after a drowning.
- After any drowning in the sea, river, or lake, local Maori iwi may put a rāhui (ritual prohibition) in place for a time to restrict access to the site where it happened. Police work with iwi to allow this customary Māori practise to happen. A rāhui respects the person who has died and their family and whānau. It is established through the karakia (prayers) of iwi elders and tikanga leaders and is enforced by the respectful understanding and acceptance of the surrounding community. It will be set for a certain number of days, after which it will be lifted. You can speak to your local Police contact about any aspect of this if you have questions. They are able to get advice from a Police Iwi Liaison Officer on such matters.
- Also see our sudden death support section for helpful information about:
- Blessing the site
- If the person died overseas
- Managing media interest
- If police decide to charge someone for being criminally responsible for causing the death.
Give yourself time to recover after this traumatic experience
See below for some common reactions that people experience after a drowning death and also ideas for coping with them as best you can in the days ahead.
Witnessing a drowning, or discovering someone who has drowned, is a shocking and extremely distressing experience.
What you saw, heard, or had to do may be difficult to deal with, especially if the incident involved people you knew, or were close to, or if the incident involved multiple victims.
See our traumatic incident witness support information here.
When a body has not been recovered, you just want to know what’s happened to them and where they are. Holding out hope for their safety can continue, even against the odds. As searching continues, anxiety can naturally be very high. As the wait goes on, the level of stress can feel extreme and hard to bear.
The media may take an interest in a missing person’s case and ask for interviews with the family or whānau. This can be stressful, even if a family feels it may help the person to be found. See our helpful media guidelines here.
If a search is called off, families, whānau, friends, and the community will often continue to search, and hope.
Those who have been through this difficult situation suggest that these things helped them:
- Maintain hope. Keep positive as best you can and take things one day at a time,
- Keep busy with routine things as much as possible – this is especially important for those with children.
- Do things that get you physically moving and things that help you unwind some of the tension – you need both physical movement and rest.
- Even if your emotions are extreme for a time, you are not going crazy. Remind yourself that you’re experiencing normal reactions to a terrible and traumatic tragedy. You are under tremendous stress.
- Reach out to others. Find people to talk to. Accepting practical help from others can often make a real difference. Spend time with others but give yourself time alone too when you need that. If there are a lot of people around or contacting you, consider having one person managing visitors, messages, and phone calls for you, to decrease the stress a bit.
- Look after yourself well. See a doctor if any of your physical or emotional reactions are concerning you, such as flashbacks, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, or chest pains.
- See a counsellor if talking things out with them might help, especially if difficult thoughts or mental images go round and round in your mind and cause you acute distress that is ongoing.
After a drowning death, most bereaved family, whānau, friends, and communities find their reactions to a sudden death are very strong. Some can find them overwhelming at times. People commonly experience both reactions of grief and trauma, due to the frightening and overwhelming nature of what happened.
Everyone’s different and will react in their own way
People will often first experience shock, numbness, and disbelief. So much can be happening so fast that it’s hard to take it all in. Many say the experience left them feeling many different emotions. These include feeling helpless, powerless, frightened, horrified, overwhelmed, angry, blaming, regretful, guilty, despairing, and deeply sad. If other deaths have been avoided there is often also relief and gratitude, but the impact of a death can be harsh on all affected. The grief that follows can be intense.
As we try to make sense of what’s happened, we can find ourselves asking why questions, such as Why did this happen? Why didn’t they get help fast enough? We can have lots of ‘what-if’ questions going round and round in our minds. Some people may blame themselves or others for what happened, or for a lack of response. Personal guilt or accusations from others can become very difficult to cope with.
You might also find it’s hard to concentrate on other things because you’re preoccupied with what happened. It may come into your mind often, uninvited. You may be more distracted and forgetful than normal. It might be harder to think clearly. You may feel more edgy and jumpy, in case there is another traumatic event.
Often people find that certain sights, sounds, smells, sensations, or feelings remind them of the incident. Reminders could be, for example, an ambulance speeding by, coverage of a another drowning on the news, photos of the person who died, or having conversations about what happened. Some people can find they have ongoing and distressing flashbacks to what happened. See our info sheet on Dealing with Flashbacks.
Physical reactions often include having difficulty sleeping or having changes in appetite. Other common physical effects are being shaky, tight chest, a racing heart, difficulty breathing, body aches, nausea, upset stomach, or headaches. Existing health conditions may get worse because of the stress.
These kinds of reactions are all normal after a traumatic death, or deaths
However, they might not feel normal and may affect you more, and for longer, than you expect. See tips below for coping with the impact of your loss, and your reactions.
- See When you are Grieving information for more about grief experience.
- See Coping with Trauma information to understand more about your trauma reactions.
If children or young people have been affected by the death
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.
See below for suggested ways to cope with your reactions.
The loss of someone by drowning naturally has a big impact. Coping can be challenging. Recovering after any intense, traumatic event often takes longer than we expect. Our overall health and emotional wellbeing can be affected. Gradually the intensity of our reactions will lessen, and life will slowly begin to move forward once again. It naturally will take time.
Looking after yourself is important
In the middle of a crisis we can easily forget that taking care of ourselves is one of the best things we can do – both for ourselves and for others relying on us. Some helpful self-care tips to consider are:
Take it one day at a time. Keep up routines and get good rest and sleep, as best you can. Eat healthy food. Drink enough water. Do some simple exercise. Take some slow, deep breaths. Spend time with people you can relax with, or with a pet. Spend time in nature. If you find keeping busy helps, find useful tasks to do. See a doctor if you’re unwell, extremely anxious, or are having difficulty sleeping. Draw on any cultural or spiritual beliefs you may have. Accept caring offers from others if that would help. Remember what’s worked for you before in stressful times and do those things. Draw on your inner resilience. Encourage others who have been affected to look after themselves too.
Talk about what happened
When you’re ready, talk to those you trust about what happened. It could be to a trusted member of your family, whānau, friend, doctor, counsellor, respected elder, rangatira, or a Victim Support worker. If any aspects of your story are particularly disturbing, speak to a professional. Talking honestly about how things are can help you release some of the stress and emotional tension that’s built up inside.
Need to talk? Here is a range of helpline options if talking to someone you don’t know if more what you want right now.
- 1737 Call or text 24/7 for free support from a trained counsellor
- Victim Support 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker
- Lifeline 0800 543 354
- Call or text Youthline 0800 376 633, free txt 234 , or Webchat https://www.youthline.co.nz/
- Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254
- To find a counsellor, see the Mental Health Foundation’s tips or see this Talking Works directory
- For other specialist helplines, go here
Flashbacks and nightmares
Flashbacks and nightmares can be common for people to experience for a time after a traumatic accidental drowning. A nightmare, or bad dream, happens when a sleeping person feels strong emotional responses related to the fear, anxiety, sadness, or despair the death caused. It can be distressing enough to wake them and may, or may not, be remembered. A flashback feels like you’re back in the middle of what happened or reliving some aspect of it. This can be in vivid detail. During a flashback it can be difficult and confusing to connect back to the present and to what is real. To better understand flashbacks and ways to manage them, see our information sheet Dealing with Flashbacks.
More tips for coping with your reactions
To understand more about trauma and grief, and to find some ways to cope with your reactions, please see:
- our section on coping with a sudden death
- Coping with Trauma
- When you are Grieving
- Using your resilience
If your reactions trouble you
- Visit your doctor. They can do a health check and support you with any ongoing issues, such as sleeplessness, weight changes, anxiety, depression, or suicidal thinking.
- Consider talking with a counsellor or psychologist. They can help you work through your reactions and the consequences the crime has had.
- If you need to find a local doctor, counsellor, or psychologist, please click here.
If children or young people are affected by the drowning death
It’s common for children and young people to experience significant distress and on-going anxieties after the death of someone close to them. Many remain worried and on alert in case another accident or death might happen. Some may be clingier and upset when they’re separated from parents or other family members. Some can be more moody, irritable, angrier, deeply sad, or completely overwhelmed at times. Our information sheet for parents and caregivers Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event offers helpful insights into what a child or young person may be experiencing, depending on their age and stage. It also offers ways you can give them good ongoing support.
Remember that parents and carers are a child or young person’s main source of security during this time of sudden shock and change. Keep your focus on helping them to be safe and feel safe. Be there for them in the weeks and months to come as they emotionally react and adjust to the changes. Avoid talking to them about your own fears and worries and find an adult you trust to talk to instead.
We are here for you 24/7
Our Support Workers are available to support you personally, or as a family or whānau, for as long as you need us. You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.
Our support is completely free and confidential, and available throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.
What we can offer
Our Support Workers can support you with:
- someone to listen, talk with, and support you to cope through trauma and loss
- help to understand your rights and make informed choices
- information and help to answer your questions
- help to access local support services and counselling to suit your situation
- information about possible financial assistance from ACC after this accidental death
- if criminal charges are laid after the accident
- someone to assist and support you at court trials, hearings, and dealing with police and other government agencies
- help to prepare Victim Impact Statements and attend family group or restorative justice conferences (if it was arson)
We are committed to providing quality support to strengthen the mana and well-being of all those affected by drowning.
If English is your second language
If you require support in your first language, Victim Support can use Ezispeak to connect with an interpreter over the phone. Call us on 0800 842 846 and let us know. We will try to match you to a Support Worker who speaks your language.
The most important thing you can do to support anyone grieving a sudden loss by drowning accident is to be available, non-judgemental, and kind. Let them know you care and are there to help and support them at this time.
Please see this information in the Sudden Death section of our website for helpful suggestions for family, whānau , friends, and neighbours.