distress signals

Survival Strategies Part 3:
Coping with Death.

by Survival Expert James Mandeville ©2020
(First published October 2017; revised April 2020)

This article is primarily for:
The General Public, Medical Personal and Military Personnel.


Dealing with Death (particularly in a survival situation).

Covid 19 deaths, Gulf News picture

People serving in the military or rescue services are more likely to encounter instances of sudden and violent death than most people. (In the current, 2020 Coronavirus epidemic, Frontline hospital staff in particular are now confronted with a hospital mortality rate not seen in most of our lifetimes. Young nurses and doctors have had to deal with tragic end of life situations on a daily basis. For many of those it is their first experience of repeated and unpleasant death.) All bereavements are traumatic but in a survival situation sudden loss is more traumatic because one is more vulnerable. The loss of colleagues and even those with whom we are not acquainted, hits harder than facing such bereavement in everyday life. This is because:
  • It has happened very quickly and many people may be dead; the deaths may be violent and this compounds one's state of shock and horror;
  • the survivors realise that they could have been killed themselves just as easily as those less fortunate and this may lead to anger and guilt;
  • the events leading to the deaths were likely to be frightening or horrific, which means the survivors are also victims;
  • there is often no time to 'take in' the fact that people have died because personal survival means taking decisive action, such as, clearing up after a flood or moving to safety;
  • in order to survive, it may be necessary to leave behind the body or bodies of one's comrades or loved ones. There may have been no time to see or hold and comfort those dying. This often leads to feelings of anger, sadness, emptiness and loneliness;
  • it might not be possible to follow healing rituals, such as a holding a burial service; the person is literally in your life one minute and gone forever the next, which can lead to anxiety and depression. The suddenness of the bereavement will also serve to underline the feelings of loneliness and fear. These feelings would normally follow later in the grieving process so the psyche is hit with a cocktail of deep emotions that may lead to despair in a survival situation.
People react to death in different ways
There are many people who have to deal with dead and dying people on a regular basis (the police, hospital staff, undertakers, morticians), but the majority of people are shielded from death. Out of all the groups of people who deal with the dead and dying (and maybe have to take life), only the police, rescue services and those in combat situations have repeated, first–hand experience of coping with violent and often gruesome deaths. In a disaster situation it is possible that the survivors may have to deal with violent deaths as their first experience of coping with death at all; this also applies to those serving in the military entering a war zone for the first time.

All death is hard to bear. In a survival situation, the immediate effects of coping with death are compounded. First, there is the shock of the disaster itself and the threat to one's own survival. Second, the horror of coping with badly injured, dead or dying people, and the added prospect of perhaps coping with violent and horrific death of many people.

Violent death or multiple loss of life
On average, it takes 18–24 months to recover the feeling of life being normal again after the death of a family member. It can take much longer when the death was a violent one and the same applies in a disaster situation where death is violent or many people are killed. The long–term effect of such a disaster on the human psyche is that of prolonged trauma.

Most survivors of a disaster say that their worst times were not at the moment of the tragedy. The psyche protects the victim of a disaster and the numbing effect of shock is one of these protections. How long this state exists depends on the individual's psyche. It may last for a period of days or stretch to several months. In a survival situation, the normal grief responses are delayed, although some people go into immediate grief, especially if the dead are family members. In the latter case, people who go into immediate grief are less likely to suffer prolonged traumatic effects.


Coping with death

Whatever else is happening around you, it is essential that you face reality. Death is a fact and we all die. You must accept the reality of your loss. The faster you can do this, the greater your own chances of surviving the situation in which you find yourself. If you are with others, you must talk about the loss until you all accept it. The more you talk about it, the more you will realize that the loss is real; you will accept that the dead have gone and will not come back.

If you can bury the dead and hold a funeral service for them, this gives completion to accepting they will not come back. This sounds harsh and it is, but in therapeutic terms, it is the best possible advice. In terms of surviving what lays ahead, it is essential that you deal with death and move on. If you are on your own, I know of no better way than to talk to God and ask Him for comfort and healing. I have told many young soldiers this over the years and when confronted by violent death, the words 'death is a fact and we all die' helped them to face reality. Knowing they could pray to God for comfort and healing gave them strength. Sharing their true feelings with each other strengthened them and formed a close bond between them, which often stood the test of time.

As both psychologist and ex–soldier, I know very well that if feelings are not dealt with they will cause greater problems later on. Even the toughest soldiers I trained knew how to cry (not a fashionable picture of an elite soldier but real life). You must allow yourself to feel the pain of grief. In any loss, you must accept the painful reality and finality of the loss. If you don't, your grief will keep resurfacing throughout your life and interfere with a healthy, emotional state of being. You have to feel the pain. You can't avoid the pain. It will hurt. You will feel awful but this pain must be felt in order for you to work through it and heal. If you push the pain away and refuse to feel it, it will fester for years and affect your entire future. Be aware that it may take up to two years to get over the grief of losing a dear one.

The five stages of grieving:
  1. Denial. 'No, not me. It can't be happening to me.' This is a typical reaction when a person faces a loss. This introspective stage functions as a buffer after the unexpected happens. It allows you to collect yourself, and in time, to find a way to cope.
  2. Anger. 'Why me?' When the first stage of denial passes, it is likely to be replaced by anger, rage, envy and resentment. God is often a target for anger, especially in natural disasters. You may also resent people around you who didn't suffer as much loss as you did.

  3. Bargaining. 'Yes, me, but…' Once you have the anger under control, you may enter the bargaining stage. You may promise that you'll be good or that you'll do something in exchange for what you need. Bargaining can be a positive way to deal with stress. Whether you bargain with God, yourself or others, it provides comfort for things you cannot control. It allows you to 'frame' the crisis so you can manage it. Bargaining may help you cope with feelings of sadness without experiencing deep depression. Good bargaining skills allow people to see the bright side of even the most difficult situation.

  4. Depression. 'This is a hopeless situation.' A crisis entails loss, which is followed by sadness. If you are absorbed by the sadness, you can become depressed. Signs of depression include changes in usual eating or sleeping patterns; constant moodiness or irritability; lack of energy; feelings of helplessness, loneliness and hopelessness.

  5. Acceptance. 'It's all right now.' Once the preceding stages have been completely worked through, you will finally be able to accept what has happened and you may even be mentally stronger than you were before the disaster occurred.
What does grief feel like?
Most people feel numb. Numbness is the brain's way of protecting itself from mental pain that threatens to be overwhelming. Sometimes the feeling of numbness may be so pronounced that it becomes difficult to think clearly, confusion can set in and there may be disorientation.

Grief is often accompanied by a loss of emotions; it is difficult to express feelings of any kind. In an emergency, it is this 'dissociation' that enables a person to keep going, moving away from the disaster area, searching for a lost person or engaging in the rescue of others.

If the loss of emotions continues after the disaster is over, it becomes a problem requiring professional help. Usually this reflects the fear that, if we do not keep our feelings firmly under control, they will take control of us. Fear that one will crack up and become a helpless wreck. At the first possible opportunity, the victim of a disaster should give in to the feeling of loss and allow his or herself to cry. The feelings will not take control, the victim will not go crazy and crying out of grief is the fastest route to recovery.

Dealing with grief during and after a disaster
If you have lost family, comrades or a close friend, there will be a feeling of loss and emptiness but you must keep going. All hurts heal and all bad times pass. Eventually, the fond, happy or good memories you hold of that person will dominate the feelings of tragedy and loss. This may take years, but your life has to go on and the pain will go. It is only a matter of time.

When you are out of your grief, it is good therapy to return to places you visited together with the person or people you have lost. Each aspect of your life has to continue without that person. It will be hard. You will need to discover ways to assume responsibility for your own life; again, professional help can speed up this process. You have to learn to function without the person at home and in your everyday life. In other words, you must keep going. Some people, stricken with grief, withdraw from the world but they are inflicting suffering on themselves that they do not need to bear. The first time you go to a favourite place, experience a holiday without them or do an activity you once shared with them, will be the worst. After that, it will get better. Remember that time is a great healer.

It is essential to permit yourself to grieve all you need to grieve. A vast amount of emotional energy is expended when grieving. If, after a reasonable amount of time, you constantly relive your relationship with the person or ones you have lost (frequently going over 'what I did wrong' and 'what I should have done differently) and refuse to try to move on with your life, you are investing too much energy in your grieving. The support and encouragement of a loving family and a good support group is necessary in order to move on with your life. New friends and new interests are important. The time will come when you will have to get on with your life.

Some good advice on handling grief
When people ask you how you are doing, don't always say, 'Oh, I'm OK.' Let some people know how terrible you feel. You may feel angry, so talk about why you feel angry. Sharing a hurt is a good way of healing it. Talking with a true friend or other survivors can be very helpful, which is why survivors' support groups are so invaluable. Those who have been there speak your language. Only they can really say, 'I know; I understand.' You are not alone; you are all going through similar memories and emotions.

Of course, we should all be grateful for surviving a difficult situation but often we are not. What you went through may seem unfair and unjust; if you feel this, you are feeling anger. Anger is a destructive feeling if it is bottled up. Often depression is a cover for anger.

Find ways of releasing your bottled–up anger. If this is not easy for you, consult a professional for help. Take time to experience the feeling of being a victim. It may be necessary to spend some time feeling sorry for yourself but do not fall into the trap of feeling sorry for yourself forever.

A truly strong person is well rounded emotionally and it's all right to cry, to question, to be weak temporarily, without letting these feelings become a habit that takes over your life.

I covered helping others as a survival strategy and this is also invaluable in coping with loss. Reaching out and trying to help others in some, small ways may help prevent you from dwelling on yourself.

Many times of crisis can ultimately become times of opportunity. In the middle of your grief, this may not seem too obvious; however, your faith in yourself, in others and in God can be deepened through crisis. Seek out persons who can serve as symbols of hope to you.

Many people shy away from consulting with a psychologist and see this as some sort of stigma. A psychologist is a doctor who deals with problems of the mind. Find a professional who is skilled in grief work and counselling people who are in bereavement.



In a desperate survival situation it is possible for some people to feel so depressed that they contemplate suicide. Below are some suicidal thoughts that may enter one's head in the stress of a survival situation or in the aftermath of one:
  • I am too overwhelmed by this situation and I can see no way out;
  • no one really cares about me anyway so no one will miss me when I'm gone;
  • no matter how hard I try, I never seem to succeed;
  • I can't face the mess I'm in;
  • everyone has abandoned me, including God;
  • I'm so unhappy, what's the use;
  • I'm in too much pain and agony to go on;
  • I'd rather die than face the future;
  • I'd rather quit than go on;
  • every attempt I make to get out of this mess ends in failure for me, so why bother;
  • suicide is an act of courage and it takes great strength to do it;
  • I see no reason for continuing to live.
Suicidal thoughts come to people when they are feeling depressed and without hope. If you have the means to kill yourself and the survival challenge gets very hard to bear, there may be a temptation to take one's own life. To deal effectively with this it is important to act on these thoughts immediately. Failing to do so may lead to suicidal thoughts becoming a preoccupation and then a final act of desperation. Remember that suicide is a one–way trip; it is a final desperate act. Once you have killed yourself there is no way back! The best way to cope with suicidal thoughts is to make a pact with oneself:

"However bad things get I will not take my own life."

Whenever suicidal thoughts creep into the mind, repeat this pact aloud then think of other things. Remember something in your life that was good and gave it meaning. Concentrate only on good, positive memories. Telling yourself a joke (the more corny and absurd the better), the sort of jokes that children tell, helps to focus the mind on something other than the morbid.

If you believe in God, remember the scriptures and repeat them. Many have found comfort in the Psalms. Even if you cannot remember all the words, just repeat over and over to yourself the words you can remember. Do not forget the power of prayer in times of despondency.

If you do not believe in a higher power, try to distract your thoughts by singing. Even singing the words in your mind will help. Soldiers will tell you that they often use this comfort technique when they are carrying out an unpleasant duty — I used this technique when on long marches in difficult terrain, carrying a heavy pack. Often, just one tune sticks in the mind and replays itself like a continuous tape. When the mind is occupying itself in this way, there is no room for suicidal thoughts or other thoughts focused on the discomfort of one's current situation.

If you are with others, remember that your suicide will make things even worse for them. You may be 'out of your misery' but the tragedy you leave behind will seriously harm other survivors. Your selfish act may lead to others dying or suffering because of you. You may leave behind survivors needing years of therapeutic help to overcome the impact of your suicide.

You might burden survivors with intense guilt, self–doubt and self–recrimination, believing they could have done something to stop you. You might leave survivors who believe that since you committed suicide they are also destined to do so themselves in the future. Your suicide is taking away from them hope that everyone will survive. You might influence others who are sitting on the fence to go ahead with their suicides, since you have succeeded in ending it all.


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