Sunday, November 29, 2009

Man Traveling with Family Dies at the Grand Canyon

A man fell more than 200 feet from the south rim of the Grand Canyon on Saturday and died.  His name has not been released pending notification of family members, and it is not clear how this happened.  Some of his family members, however, already know. He was visiting the park with his son and daughter-in-law and "other extended family."

If we assume this man was not pushed, there are two possible scenarios, both truly awful to contemplate.  The first is that the victim was either looking out over the edge or hiking when he fell, in which case he was almost certainly with members of his family who saw him die.  The second is that he spent the holiday weekend with his family at the park, and then went off by himself and jumped.  Obviously this is a tragedy either way, but it seems to be even more of a tragedy because his family was there in the park.  Why is that?  Why is it worse to have a loved one die while you are traveling with him than while he's off with some tour group?

Having someone die before your eyes has a particular impact.  Our naive but deep-seated belief is that we have control over what we are close to, and particularly what we can see.  When we see someone die, it very much shakes up this understanding of how the world works.  Having this particular belief shaken, furthermore, is especially damaging because trauma makes us feel helpless as it is.  It's bad enough having to deal with the notion that trauma happens and we can't control it.  It's more distressing when it happens in a way that, on a visceral level, we feel like we should be able to control.  Feelings of helplessness and loss of control are, as any mental health professional will tell you, warning signs of depression and red flags for suicide risk.  As much as traumatic incidents always put people at risk, this sort of event may be even worse.

If this were a suicide, on the other hand, it might be even messier.  Suicides leave behind a lot of guilt about what survivors could have or should have done to stop it.  They leave that sense of helplessness that can make suicide contagious.  If this man completed his suicide while traveling with family, however, it adds the additional sense that people have that they are responsible for one another when they are traveling together or even just engaged in an activity together.  "I should have known" becomes "it was my personal responsibility to know."

There are two or three deaths by falling every year at the Grand Canyon, and most of them are accidents.  In all of 2006 there were only 11 violent deaths in the entire National Park system, and only one was a suicide.    Two were people being pushed over cliffs, so, at least that year, a fall from a cliff was more likely to be a murder than a suicide.  Anecdotally there are many more suicide attempts by jumpers or people wanting to leap into the geysers at Yellowstone.  When we imagine the final scary moments for a visitor who falls into the Grand Canyon, we tend to imagine the fall itself -- particularly if we're afraid of heights and have peered nervously over that edge.  Sometimes we forget that every visitor has a family, and sometimes they're watching the tragedy first hand.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive