A Burning Man death

Please be aware: This article recounts a story with graphic content and discusses topics related to suicide. This could be triggering for some people. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please contact emergency services in your area. Or contact a support service in your region. A list of national mental health services can be found here.

Alternatively, the strategies I discuss in this article, to process traumatic experiences, are also available without the recount of the story by clicking here. And a powerful and insightful resource for understanding trauma is available here.

Processing Trauma from Burning Man

There is an image I can’t get out of my head.

As he bounded across the dust, his long legs taking long steps, he drew closer to the 40 foot flames. Surely not. Surely he didn’t intend to run in. Some of us held our breath. Some of us screamed.

The firemen, wearing heavy protective equipment only meters from the flames, stood as the last barrier of defence between him and the Burn.

He easily evaded them. He was too nimble.

Jutting at all angles from the ground, he ran straight past the flaming planks of wood. Only steps into the fire, he quickly turned and ran out. Whether it was a change of mind or the extreme heat, we collectively breathed a sigh of relief that he was now running from the fire rather than into it.

The firemen moved as swiftly as they could to restrain him but it looked like a shuffle compared to his long fluid strides. He ran a wide circle around them, circumventing their desperate lunges. He then pivoted, took a direct line at the Burning effigy and ran straight into the flames. He dived. He disappeared.

Seconds later, the burning structure collapsed to the ground. Those who had witnessed it, were in shock. Those who hadn’t, screamed with joy. This was the eponymous moment of Burning Man. The pinnacle.

With little regard for their own safety, the firemen immediately ran into the extreme heat and took him from the flames to an awaiting ambulance.

We walked away in shock.

We walked showered in fluorescent lights. The music from hundreds of sound systems blurred into a cacophony of psy-trance, deephouse and hip hop. LED’s shone brightly into the sky, flashed sharply across the dust and glared into our teary eyes. People cried with joy, danced in ecstacy, hugged, loved, drugged.

Safety third.

Aaron Joel Mitchell (Joel to his family), passed away the following morning from his injuries.

Out of respect of for his family, I will not speculate as to the reasons behind his actions. As detailed in a Daily Telegraph article, some of the main reasons for this type of action are: those seeking attention, such as streakers; people who are high or intoxicated to the point where they don’t understand the danger; and the suicidal.

In this article I’ve attempted to reflect on my own processing of this traumatic experience and present an honest recount of how I am working through the experience (it is an ongoing process). This is based on my experience with processing traumatic events in my past as:

  • A Registered Nurse — being present during the last moments of people’s lives
  • A community first responder — being present during the last moments of people’s lives
  • A researcher working with victims of trauma
  • A community advocate and researcher in male suicide prevention

However, I am not a trauma expert and I don’t pretend to be one. I only hope that this article provides people a basis for processing their own experience from the burn. There are a lot of resources to assist with processing trauma, please use the ones that help you work through this experience.

Processing what happened

As I walked back to camp, I felt a diversity of emotions. I felt anger, sadness, shock, sorrow. I cried. I got infuriated. I was infuriated.

How could he?

Why did he?

In front of everybody?

In front of children?!?

How could you put those firemen in danger? How could you?

But what was he experiencing?

Could I have done something?

Did I see or speak to him?

Was he in emotional pain?

Was he just high?

Was he just playing around?

Was he trying to kill himself?

***This post from one of the fire performers, expresses some of the anger that I felt but can’t seem to bring myself to write about.

I felt confused by all of these questions. I went to bed that night and cried. I was angry, but sad, but confused. From a medical perspective, I consoled myself that he would have passed out quickly from smoke inhalation. Hopefully he would have only momentarily felt pain. I needed to tell myself this. But it was little consolation.

The next day, we all decided to leave. Whether to escape the memory or because this was just too much for our first Burn. But I couldn’t leave with that as my last memory of him or of Burning Man. I rode out to the centre of the playa, to the remaining ashes from the previous night’s fire. I took a beer. I stood there, spoke briefly to the Ranger, cracked the beer and took a swig. I thought to myself “Mate, I don’t know you. I don’t know what you were going through, but I honour the life that you lived”.

“I don’t know if you were in pain, if you were struggling, if you thought this was the right way to go for you, if you just wished to fuck with people, I don’t know. I may never know. I will never know.”

These thoughts and more have passed through my mind on many occasion. I am no closer to an answer. I have accepted this fact. Whilst it is difficult not having an answer, acceptance is key to processing my trauma.

Dealing with it

Your trauma is yours to own.

You don’t need to compare yourself with others. Take the time you need.

Whilst it is yours to own, you are not alone.

Burning Man is built on the concept of Radical Self Reliance — this makes a lot of sense in the context of a Burn. However with trauma, be sure not to confuse self-reliance with isolating. One of the biggest risk factors for mental health issues is social disconnection. Reach out, talk, connect. Listen to Burning Man: “Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins, and sleep.”

What we run from, can define us

The things we avoid can become our shadow. It follows us and can influence our actions. With your trauma, try to step gently through the pain, rather than run or suppress it.


Try not to rush your healing.

Three years after being present at a traumatic event, I was triggered and had the emotions rise again. The trigger was going through a break-up. The break up was completed unrelated and wasn’t something I was expecting to be a trigger. Triggers often aren’t where you expect them to be.

Whilst it is important to process your experience, you also can’t rush the process. Often ideas take time to mature. This can take days, months or years and can be triggered by all sorts of experiences.

Try not to rush your healing. Be present in the sensation and feel how you are reacting. Then take action to deal with it.

Talking is one of the strongest things you can do

But it needs to be on your own terms. Don’t feel that you have to answer people’s curiosity about the event. Find the right person to talk to about it. Someone who will listen, won’t judge your emotions and instead will help you process them.

Some of the best people to do this might initially be strangers to you. Mental health professionals — counsellors, psychologists, phone support services — will help you through your process. Call one of these support lines. I have called help lines. I have spoken to psychologists and counsellors. There is strength through speaking.

How to support others

The most fascinating experience of my burn was the temple. A place of public grieving. It is rare to have such public places to express sad emotions. The thing that struck me was the collective experience of loss, grief and sadness. This is part of the human condition. However we often bury our sadness the same way we bury our dead. Deep and hidden from view.

We all experience grief, we all experience sadness.

Sadness is an emotion just as is happiness.

Crying is to sadness, as Smiling is to happiness. One of these is socially accepted whilst one is not.

But sadness, grief and and loss are normal parts of the human condition. Pain is normal. If we hide it, we stigmatise it. If we stigmatise it, we hide it.

Trauma can be a solitary experience, just like your Burn. But just like your Burn, there is a power in the collective experience. You can’t prescribe someone’s Burn, just like you can’t prescribe how someone should process trauma. Instead be supportive. And check in regularly.

If you are worried about a friend, follow the advice of RUOK Day (which happens to be today) — Ask. Listen. Encourage Action. And Check-in.

What we experienced at Burning Man was undoubtedly traumatic. We can only honour the life he lived. And live good lives ourselves.

Look after yourself and look after your friends.

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