Drowning in five acts

Via Wikimedia Commons

Millais’s Ophelia, via Wikimedia Commons

If death by drowning be inevitable, as in a shipwreck, the easiest way to die would be to suck water into the lungs by a powerful inspiration, as soon as one went beneath the surface. A person who had the courage to do this would probably become almost immediately unconscious, and never rise to the surface. As soon as the fluid filled his lungs, all feelings of chilliness and pain would cease, the indescribable semi-delirium that accompanies anæsthesia would come on, with ringing in the ears and delightful visions of color and light, while he would seem to himself to be gently sinking to rest on the softest of beds and with the most delightful of dreams.[1]

Act One: Surprise

This is how you drown.

You drive your red Jeep downtown Chicago instead of class at the junior college. You park near the Adler Planetarium, a few feet away from Lake Michigan. It is March, and the lake is 33 degrees. Still icy.

You have these things in your car: your wallet, your cell phone with no calls yet unanswered, your Chicago Cubs hat, an eight-page note in an envelope, duct tape.

You have anticipated that your body would betray you, which is what the duct tape is for. Your legs and arms won’t keep themselves still at the shock of the near-freezing water.

Where did you tape yourself up? Did you sit at the water’s edge and look across Lake Michigan, to the curve of the horizon? Did you imagine you were at the ocean, endless and blue, instead of in the middle of the city you had tethered yourself to after coming home from your missionary year in Mexico? Did you cross yourself with silvery, thick duct tape at your car and hop to the edge, hop to your death?

You get in the water. The surprise of being in freezing water would be enough to give anyone second thoughts, but you are determined. You gasp when you feel the bone-crushing cold of the water, not out of surprise (nothing could surprise you now) but because your body is locked in a war with your mind. Your bodily reflex is a constriction of every muscle in the torso, forcing air out of your lungs and into a visible puff before your mouth.

Your skin is next. It turns cold and loses color. The blood vessels nearer the surface of your skin go into crisis mode, constricting like an eye exposed to sudden light to conserve heat for your vital organs. You’re okay. You could walk out of the water now and be wet, cold, alive.

Your blood pressure increases.  Your heart is in distress. You need blood, warm blood, you need heat. You need help. Your muscles tense up. Another word for “tense up” is “freeze.” You shiver uncontrollably, which helps your body create some heat but makes you lose any physical control you may have had.


If we could go back in time from that day in March, four years back, we could see two girls sitting together at DiBenedetto’s Trattoria, sharing a cannoli across a table draped in white linen. It was an unusually fancy choice, but we were recently possessed of drivers’ licenses and the whole world seemed a little more grown-up in that light. We talked in the dim candlelight, on a “date” with each other, just like we might have had a “date” with Jesus or with our journals. You sat on the far side of the table, away from the door, tucking and re-tucking your long, straight hair behind your ears. You talked about your boyfriend, Brian. You weren’t “dating,” you said, but courting—which meant that your families were always around when you saw each other, that you were intending to marry one day, that you hadn’t yet kissed and probably wouldn’t until you were at the altar.

We met years earlier, at church. We were part of the same youth group, although I went to a public high school and you were homeschooled until your junior year, when you went to a different public school. Your parents had gotten divorced when you were very young, and then your mom got remarried and you had a stepsister, Kristen, who was your best friend, and then your dad died when you were fourteen, and now you were the star of Student Impact. Naturally beautiful, athletic—you played ultimate Frisbee every week with the guys—and so sure of yourself and your faith in Christ that you deferred your acceptance to a Christian college in Los Angeles and went instead to work with a missions organization in Querétaro, Mexico. You were not my best friend, but you were my close friend. You signed notes—and you wrote a lot of them—with the same symbol every time; a heart, your name, and next to the heart, the words “1 Peter 3:15.”

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

I don’t wonder if I could have stopped you. But I do still wonder if I could have consoled you. If I could have opened my brain and spilled its anxious contents on the kitchen table to make you see you were not alone in feeling odd, in feeling sad, in feeling isolated. I wish I could have held my heart out to you in my hands for you to see, not that our sadness was the same, but that it was shared nonetheless. We were both the product of the same kind of evangelical church, evangelical family, evangelical world. But sometime after Mexico, your worldview took a turn. You never did end up going to California. You broke up with Brian, who had followed you to Mexico that year. You got a job at Starbucks, stopped going to church, took classes at the community college. You got engaged to Scott, who we all knew wasn’t a Christian, and we didn’t reach out to you as much as we should have. We didn’t know what to say to you, since our tight-knit group of friends was bound by the assumption that Jesus was Lord. We all went away to college, so the drifting was natural. My family moved to California, so I didn’t even come “home” during Christmas or summer breaks. I hadn’t talked to you in almost a year when you died.

Lots of our friends have drifted now, too, only now we make sure to hold on tight. Because we lost you, we religiously reinforce the ties that bind, which now have more to do with history than anything. We know the depths that despair can plumb.


Act Two: Involuntary Breath Holding

When you lose your physical control, you have to rely on your mind and your earlier preparations. You are taped together at the ankles and the wrists, glued together while you are coming apart. Your heart will be burning now from a lack of fresh oxygen, because your lungs can only recycle the same old poison. Have you swallowed any water yet? No? You can hold your breath for a minute, maybe two, just getting colder and telling yourself to stay in the cold water. Your brain gets fuzzy as the cold sets in. No new oxygen means misfiring synapses, confusion, slowness. Your skin is cold to the touch, although who’s touching it now? The water won’t know the difference.

You breathe now. You can’t help it; your inspiratory drive is urgent. You inhale the grimy shore-water of the lake, the water we rollerbladed along all those summer days ago in high school. The water passes your open larynx, settles into your lungs, and you cough—you can’t help it, your diaphragm is trying to clear your lungs, your atavistic instincts have kicked in. But a gasp will follow the cough, and you will inhale more water, and that water will circulate through your veins like poison. It is poison, in fact, of a sort. You remember osmosis, from freshman biology. Were you still homeschooled then? The water molecules go to where there are more water molecules, passing through the membranes of intact red blood cells and causing the red blood cells to explode. Hemolysis, the explosion is called, from the Greek: Hemo, meaning blood, and lysis, meaning release. You might as well have slit your wrists.


Was that cruel of me to say? What is the etiquette where suicide is concerned? Were you proud of yourself for thinking of this way, for doing it this way? Pills would have been a fool’s errand, and where would you have gotten a gun? Did you know, in your planning, that only 1.1% of people who kill themselves do it with water?[3] Were you trying to avoid pain? Making a mess? Did you know how bloated your body would be when they pulled it out of the water a day later? Did you know how you would not look like yourself in death? Did you see yourself, Narcissus-like, reflected in the waters before you were submerged?

The hemolysis continues, and now the salt in your red blood cells mingles with the water in your veins, since the salt inside your cells wants the water to be salty, too. Your sodium levels are dangerously low, but since your kidneys have stopped working, they can’t remove the exploded potassium from your bloodstream. The surge in potassium messes up the electrical activity of your heart, and you go into ventricular fibrillation. An irregular, excited heartbeat.


Act Three: Unconsciousness

You are still alive, although by now you have lost consciousness. Your death by drowning is now all but inevitable. You are motionless. For you, there is nothing happening.


Intermission: A Brief History of Perspectives on Suicide

The scholar Eusebius wrote about a woman whose daughters, afraid of being raped by the soldiers who arrested them for their Christianity, “cast themselves into a river which was flowing by. Thus they destroyed themselves.”[5] The mother, a Christian who taught her daughters it was better to die than “surrender their souls to the slavery of demons,”[6] was praised as a paragon of Christian virtue by Eusebius; her actions were commended. So it is that at this point—around the year 300 AD—that suicide was still seen through that ancient lens, and was acceptable even for good Christian people if it meant, among other things, avoiding shame.

Some, like Aquinas and Augustine, have argued that Jesus’ death was a suicide. “His soul did not leave his body constrained, but because he would and where he would and how he would,” Augustine wrote. Yet Augustine was no proponent of suicide. Writing about Lucretia, whose rape brought shame to her family, he said, “She is among those Who guiltless sent themselves to doom, And for all loathing of the day, In madness threw their lives away.”[7] This marked a turning point in the popular conception of suicide as something reasonable (and even good, in certain circumstances). In the Council of Arles of 452, church bishops wrote an injunction against suicide into canon law.[8] Suicide came to be seen not as a way of preserving one’s honor or identifying with Christ on the cross, but a sin, stealing from God what God had created. Centuries later, Aquinas built a three-pronged argument against suicide on Augustine’s foundation: Suicide injures community, it is contrary to self-love, and it violates our duty to God who, since he gave us life, should be the only one to end it. [9] That last tenet grew roots within Christianity, so that since then, the notion that Christians ought to bear our burdens, no matter how painful, has become an important part of our current theology. Judaism and Islam, which was born in between Augustine and Aquinas, also roundly condemned suicide as an offense against the God of life.

Because the individual experience was emphasized above the collective during the time of the Protestant Reformation, suicide was seen less as a way of responding to a community in crisis and more as one person’s response to his individual circumstances. The Renaissance revival of interest in ancient stories led to multiple versions of Lucretia’s story being retold through painting—Botticelli, Titian, Dürer, and Rembrandt all contributed their interpretations. The story of Lucretia, which in ancient Rome had been mostly a footnote to the creation of the Republic, was now in the spotlight. This fascination with suicide—especially the suicide of a woman, to preserve the honor of her household—belied a thick anti-suicide attitude that ran through Renaissance times, mostly because the notion of killing oneself for honor was fading into the dark annals of history. Shakespeare’s long poem The Rape of Lucrece calls her suicide a “mistake” when the narrator speaks to Lucretia’s husband, Collatine:


Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds?
Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.[10]


Not so long after writing this poem, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the play that would come to be revered for, among other things, its staggeringly beautiful soliloquy about “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/and by opposing end them?”[11] The prince himself, of course, does not die at his own hand. It is his love, Ophelia, who famously takes her own life by falling into a river and drowning. We never see Ophelia die. We only hear her death told by Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and it sounds like the most peaceful thing—she sings to herself, looking like a mermaid (someone whose natural habitat is the water, after all), as her clothes spread out and pull her down to the river’s muddy bottom. Yet Shakespeare’s other plays are peppered with characters whose considered suicides never happen—Hamlet, for one, Gloucester, and Imogen—or those whose suicides are the stuff of tragedy—Romeo, Juliet, and Cleopatra. So we are left to wonder: does Shakespeare think suicide is peaceful, entry into a world of dreams? Or is it a distortion of reality and the will of God?

Possibly, for Shakespeare, it is both. The importance of a good literary device cannot be overstated, and suicide is one of the most dramatic of them all. But Ophelia’s suicide, off-stage and set in the water, is less violent in its portrayal than Romeo’s or Cleopatra’s. She was mad—“incapable of her own distress”[12]—singing to herself and wearing flowers. It seems that, for the Bard, this suicide, though tragic, could be beautiful because of its inevitability. Suicide driven by madness couldn’t be avoided; all other kinds of suicides should be avoided. In the worlds of Foucault, “the sacrilege of suicide was annexed to the neutral domain of insanity.”[13]


Act Four: Hypoxic Convulsions

Your brain has been deprived of oxygen for several minutes now, and you enter cerebral hypoxia. Another Greek word, of no consequence now. You would be severely brain damaged if you lived, perhaps unable to speak, perhaps unable to recover. You start a series of hypoxic convulsions. They are mini-seizures, caused by abnormal brain activity brought on by lack of oxygen. You may foam at the mouth or bite your tongue. Your skin is turning blue, especially your lips and nail beds.[17]  Your body is still fighting, taking blood from where it is not needed to send it to where it is most desperately needed. But the blood has no fresh oxygen in it, and your vital organs begin to shut themselves down.

Your body is rigid, stiff. Your heart is fibrillating wildly, but your lungs have stopped expecting breath. Ironically, one of the treatments for cerebral hypoxia is the cooling of the body’s temperature. This has the effect of slowing down the action of the brain cells, which makes them need less oxygen than normal. Did you know this? Did you know that your death would be prolonged because you had put yourself in the freezing water, had given yourself to the hospital of the icy lake? It didn’t help you, of course—you were too far gone, too unreachable. Your phone rang in your car. How far were you then? How deep in the water?

People say that suicide is selfish. I might have said so, too, before you did it. But you weren’t a selfish person. I have to wonder if something irrational can accurately be said to be selfish. Your brain—that selfsame brain that, lacking oxygen, shot tremors through your whole body—was thoroughly kind when it was well. You were quick to give. A year younger than you, I was the grateful recipient of your offers to drive me home, your castoff clothing, your notes of encouragement. You weren’t selfish in life, and I can’t say you were in death. Your judgment was clouded, or perhaps it was crystal clear. You took something that others valued immensely when you killed yourself, and that wasn’t the most decent thing to do. I wish you hadn’t done it. But it wasn’t selfish.

Act Five: Clinical Death

Even though your skin is blue, you are not at risk for hypothermia. You are not alive long enough for it to set in.

Now you are not cold anymore. Your heart stops pumping blood, your watery attempts at breathing cease, your brain shuts down. You, who were so beautiful in life, you are dead. You are outside the reach of CPR or defibrillation. You are gone.

This is how you drown.


I avoid looking at your casket during your wake. The line snaked around the church basement; someone said there were a thousand people there that afternoon. We had all suspected kidnapping at first, when we heard you were missing. No one could believe that you, of all people, would kill yourself. Sure, we hadn’t talked to you in a while. It had been a while, we all said. Too long.



When I think of you now, I think of John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia. I saw it in London, when I was visiting my younger sister a few years after you died. It is terribly romantic; apart from her slightly open mouth, Ophelia might be caught in a moment of whimsy, floating downriver in gown of gold and white. She lies on her back, eyes half-shut, torso folded into the water, legs and head above. Her pale face still has a rosy glow and her hands, bent at the wrists, are out of the air and angled so that she might be holding some invisible sign or book. Her hair isn’t blond, like yours, but red—almost exactly the color of my own.

It is cliché to say the flowers are strewn around her, but there isn’t any other word, they really are strewn. They are crimson and pale blue and butter yellow and pink and trail from her right hand down to her feet, sloughing off her dress as her body floats. She wears a strand of violets around her neck and above her head is a weeping willow tree, which is the kind of tree Gertrude reported Ophelia to have been sitting on before a branch cracked and she drowned. There is green all around Ophelia’s lifeless body, but she is surrounded by black water. It is a study in contrasts.

You were like Ophelia, but not this Ophelia. You were like Icarus inverted, flying down toward the deep, knowing that the burn would come and your wings would not hold. You taped your wings down tight so you could not fly.





[1] Internet Archive of Popular Science Monthly. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_13/May_1878/The_Question_of_Pain_in_Drowning (accessed November 2, 2013).

[3] Suicide.org. http://suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html (accessed October 31, 2013).

[5] Eusebius Pamphilius, The History of the Church, trans. Valesius (Cambridge: John Hayes, Printer to the University, 1683), 146– 47.  Quoted in Hecht, location 652.

[6] Ibid

[7] Augustine, City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009), 29. Quoted in Hecht, location 652.

[8] Hecht, location 728.

[9] Hecht, location 788.

[10] The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/Poetry/RapeOfLucrece.html (accessed October 31, 2013).

[11] William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York: Thomson Learning, 1982), 285.

[12] Shakespeare, 406.

[13] Michel Foucalt, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random House, 1965). Quoted in John Weaver and David Wright, eds., Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 92.

[17] Poseidon: The Lifeguard’s Third Eye. http://www.poseidon-tech.com/us/patho.html (accessed November 2, 2013).

10 Responses to “Drowning in five acts”

  1. Alison Strobel Morrow March 1, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    Wow, Laura. Wow. Beautiful and heartbreaking. Mostly heartbreaking. I didn’t know you knew her that well. I remember that day she was found and being so devastated and confused. I can’t believe it’s been that long.

  2. Leigh Kramer March 1, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    Powerfully written, Laura. I’m sorry for your loss.

  3. Sarah Bessey March 1, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    I won’t ever forge this. Thank you for writing it. I’m terribly sad and sorry and shit what a terrible terrible thing it is.

  4. Rachel Karman March 2, 2014 at 12:54 am #

    Wow. Thank you for this powerful account. I really appreciate your words regarding the “selfishnessess” of suicide. As you stated, it’s perhaps not the most unselfish act, but it’s hard for me to refer to one as selfish when they feel death is their only way out,, rather my heart just hurts knowing they felt they had no other choice.
    May your story provide comfort and insight to others who have been hurt by lost loved ones to self-indicted death, to know that if nothing else, that they are not alone. I am so sorry for your loss, but profoundly encouraged by your honesty and vulnerability.

  5. Daniel March 2, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Heartbreaking. Very brave, Laura.

  6. courtney bareman March 7, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    This was beautiful and haunting, and so well written and brave. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Thank you for creating this. Well done, Laura

  7. Bronwyn Lea March 8, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Oh Laura, how heartbreaking. I’m so sorry. Your grief honors her.

  8. Kelley Danahy March 9, 2014 at 6:56 am #

    Thank you, thank you for writing this. It is heartbreaking, and beautiful, and I’m so sorry about your friend.
    And thank you for articulating that suicide isn’t selfish. As someone who did struggle with suicide for a long time and then felt even worse about myself for my “selfishness,” even though I couldn’t see any other way out, I think I needed to hear this.

  9. kristin smith March 2, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    You write exactly how I think. It’s so painful to read, having had multiple losses in my life. Dad at age 7, brother at 10 mo, brother at 21. I agonize and rework and imagine every detail that lead to the deaths of those I loved. My 21 year old brother is the hardest, because it was a car wreck where he was in pain for a while. I am feeling for Laurie’s family and hoping you ran this by them, first.


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