“Kiriana kept me strong, she kept me focused, she showed me love, she connected everyone around her. She was super glue, loved by all. She was our taonga, our precious gift.”
- Libby Martin
Libby Martin still has trouble sleeping through the night.
She often wakes up at 2.07am because that was the moment her world changed forever. There was a knock on the door and three policemen delivered the news no mother should ever have to hear.
Libby’s 17 year-old daughter Kiriana had been killed in a car accident during the early hours of Sunday 19 February 2017. Kiriana was a back seat passenger in a vehicle driven by a young man, traveling down an Auckland motorway at excessive speed. He lost control and Kiriana died at the scene of the high speed crash.
2017 promised much for Kiriana. After completing Year 12 at Selwyn College, she was planning a ‘gap year’ before attending the South Seas Film School in 2018. She had a full time job starting late February and had recently passed her learner’s licence. On that Saturday she had celebrated her brother Eli’s fourth birthday before going out for the evening.
She never came home.
Around 2am that Sunday morning, Libby’s sons Eli and Josh (aged four and six the time) had come into the room where she and husband Mark were sleeping. This was unusual.
“They were unsettled. I took them back to bed and as I passed by Kiriana’s room, I noticed her bed hadn’t been slept in. It was 2 in the morning and she was supposed to be home by 11. I had that sinking feeling something was wrong. Then I thought, well, she’s 17 and does naughty things sometimes. It’s OK.”
Libby got back into bed but couldn’t sleep. “I was lying face in and had a sensation that a child was standing by the bed. I heard the word ‘MUM!’ and turned over. There was no one there and that’s when I knew, I absolutely knew.”
Within minutes there was the knock on the door. “I got up, answered the door, saw the three policemen and I said, ‘Yep, just give me a minute so I can put some pants on’. I woke up Mark and told him he needed to get up.”
Libby remembers the boys getting up again, awakened by her screams of anguish although they didn’t know at the time what had happened. Mark’s parents had arrived and they settled the children while Mark and Libby went with the police to identify Kiriana’s body at the morgue. It was 3am, driving through empty streets, surreal. The police took them home and Libby made two phone calls, the first to Kiriana’s father in Rotorua and the other to her widowed mother, to say her eldest grandchild had been killed.
Kiriana was the granddaughter of the late Sir Howard Morrison. With respect to Māori protocol, Kiriana came home on the Monday evening where she remained until Wednesday when she was taken to the marae in Rotorua.
Kiriana was part of a kapa haka group. Over one hundred people - fellow group members, friends and teachers - lined the long driveway to welcome her home with a haka powhiri. Kiriana’s coffin was placed in the lounge and Libby took her place beside her daughter.
“All of that day, people just arrived. I didn’t eat or drink. I sat with Kiriana in total shock and disbelief. Our little house was jam packed with people moving all around me and I was oblivious to it all. I remember going in to unload the dishwasher and someone said to me, ‘Oh my God what are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m unloading the dishwasher. I need to do this.’ That morning I had stripped all the beds and washed the sheets. I knew the days to come would be insane and I wanted to do some ‘normal’ things before the madness hit.”
Tuesday was ‘open house’. Those who wanted to say goodbye to Kiriana could do so. Members of the kapa haka group and their teacher from Kiriana’s school organised everything from tea, coffee, and baking to the hosting so Libby could stay with Kiriana.
“We had a houseful. Kiriana was only 17. She had lots of school friends and people came from near and far, as happens when there’s a sudden and tragic event like a car accident. On the Wednesday morning we had a huge service at her school and then her Dad drove her to Rotorua in the back of his car where she was welcomed onto the marae for the night. After her funeral on Thursday, we took her to Kauae Cemetery in Rotorua to rest beside her grandfather.
“I managed to hold it together at the funeral. Some people thought I was medicated but I wasn’t. I was determined to honour my daughter by giving the eulogy myself because I wanted people to hear what I’d written about her. Then I shut myself up in a room and went to bed. People were wanting to talk and release some emotion, have a drink but I couldn’t handle that. I didn’t want anyone around me. I didn’t care what anyone else did. Go ahead and have a party if you want but I cannot be part of it.”
Libby’s two sons were just four and six when Kiriana died. On that terrible Sunday morning Libby and Mark knew they had to tell the boys what had happened.
Young Eli had celebrated his birthday the day before and of course Kiriana had been there.
“Mark said we had to tell them so we brought the boys into our bedroom, sat on the bed and told them Kiriana had been in a car accident, she died and was in heaven now. They asked questions and we gave honest answers.”
Josh and Eli saw Kiriana when she came home Monday evening. “There’s nothing like sitting next to a dead body to know that person really isn’t there anymore. No illusion, it was right there. We slept in the lounge with Kiriana that night and when Eli awoke in the morning, he looked over and said, ‘Kiriana’s still dead’ and I said, ‘Yes, she is’.”
Eli was sitting on his auntie’s knee during the funeral in Rotorua and Libby remembers him bursting into tears. “He cried and cried tears of absolute grief, saying ‘My sister’s dead, I love her, I love her!’ His heart was broken. I’ve never seen a four-year old cry like that. Usually they’ll cry because they hurt or can’t get what they want, but on this day, Eli had just had it and he understood completely what had happened and that his sister was gone.”
Josh had said very little but he was broken too. “He was internalising his feelings. He didn’t cry until the end of 2019 when he was nine.”
Josh and Eli were seeing Kenzie’s Gift psychotherapist Lorna Wood by this time, and it was at one particular session, after Lorna read from Helen Browns’ book Cleo, that Josh finally cried.
“It all came out. He said to me, ‘Why did you let her go out?’ and I asked if he blamed me and said I was really sorry if that’s how he felt. He said he didn’t. Both boys knew it was the driver’s fault. They had seen us go through the entire court process, zombies traveling to the High Court every day. We didn’t involve them in any of that but they knew what was going on. Eli asked me what happened to the driver and I said he wasn’t allowed to drive for a long time and was on home detention.”
Libby and Mark tried to piece their lives back together. Most people were supportive. Some didn’t know what to say and others avoided the family completely.
“I didn’t blame people and I probably would’ve avoided me too. I thought if one more person tells me to ‘stay strong’ I’m going to punch them because if there was ever a time to break down, wouldn’t now be it? I do understand though. It’s worse when a child dies. A grieving mother is an awful thing to witness. It’s raw and uncomfortable. We put on a smiling face so they won’t feel awkward, say everything is fine and we carry on. It’s bullshit. There is such a stigma attached to death and grieving.”
Libby and Kiriana had worked together on weekends at the Parnell market, a job Libby did not go back to after her daughter’s death. A month before the accident, she had been offered employment at a home childcare service, supporting new mothers and their children, her first ‘real’ job after six years of being a full time mum to her boys.
“I was to start a week after the accident so Mark called them and explained what had happened. They were wonderful, saying I could start whenever I was ready. I was often told ‘Kiriana would want you to be back at work’ or ‘it’ll be good to have a routine, get on with life’ and I felt some social pressure to work again. I started the job but soon realised it wasn’t the right fit for me.
“Mothers would ask, ‘How many children do you have?’ and I didn’t want to tell them one of mine had died. What a conversation stopper that would be. I could never admit I had two so pretended Kiriana was still alive and said ‘three’. I couldn’t tell them what had happened because these young mums didn’t need to hear that stuff.
“I said I had three kids because I had to acknowledge Kiriana. I struggled on, watching as my co-workers showed off photos on a Monday morning of their gorgeous teenagers after the school ball that weekend. How could I say I had spent the weekend in Rotorua viewing my daughter’s headstone?
“Kiriana was an enormous part of my life. I was a single mum with her for ten years. We were alone in the world all of that time until I met and married Mark. Kiriana was a magnificent and amazing kid. I am incredibly proud of who she was and to be unable to acknowledge that was impossible.”
Libby left the job after about nine months. It was too tough, being with mothers and their children because she thought of her own daughter every day and lacked the emotional strength she knew her clients needed.
The family were like ‘zombies’ as they navigated their first year without Kiriana. For Christmas 2017, Josh and Eli asked Santa for a time machine so they could go back and save their sister. The family celebrated Kiriana’s 18th birthday with balloons and cake at Bastion Point.
Eli was in day care, Josh was in year 2 and it wasn’t until year 3 that Josh began to show symptoms of a deeper emotional trauma. He was anxious, often at the school sick bay with earache or other ailments for which the family doctor could find no medical cause. He wasn’t sleeping well and was afraid of the dark. Libby and Mark knew they had to find some help for Josh but had no idea how or where to turn until one day Libby was scrolling through Facebook and saw an advertisement for a talk by Kenzie’s Gift Ambassador and well-known psychologist Nigel Latta.
“Below the ad in small print it said, ‘All proceeds to Kenzie’s Gift’ and I wondered what that was so I looked at the website and knew this was the answer I’d been searching for.”
Nic Russell from Kenzie’s Gift responded to Libby’s enquiry and arranged for the boys to see Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Lorna Wood. “I cannot describe the relief I felt. Lorna is amazing and her help couldn’t have come at a better time. It absolutely saved the boys. It was a gift. I cannot thank Kenzie’s Gift enough.” Lorna met with Libby and Mark to share her observations and conclusions. She said Josh was sad and angry and the emotions lay just below the surface all the time. “Lorna explained that children up to age ten live in a world where parents will save and protect them from everything. That security was taken from my boys in a heartbeat. They went to bed happy and woke up to the news that their sister was dead. That’s the heartbreak behind it. The loss of security happened so fast. “I remember driving with Eli one day, looking over my shoulder and seeing the belt of his car seat had popped open so I pulled over to fix it. He asked why he had to wear the belt and I said, ‘If anyone crashes into us you could be hurt without it’ and he said that didn’t matter because if he died he could go to heaven and see Kiriana. Eli was like this I’ll-run-out-into-the-street-and-it-doesn’t-matter-because-I’ll-go-see-my-sister and Josh was beside himself, crying, don’t-leave-me-because-if-you-die-I’ll-be-all-alone. It was awful. They were just insane little creatures.”
It saddens Libby that her children no longer have the Mum they started out with. “I am not the same and I know it. Good friends have told me this too. I try not to upset the boys with my sadness. They miss Kiriana and ask questions about her, Josh especially. She was 11 when he was born and 13 when I had Eli. So we have quiet moments were we remember together and talk about her.”
Kiriana’s father lives in Rotorua and she is buried there so the two families spend a lot of time together now. Eli and Josh have ‘a million new aunties and uncles’ and the families share a mutually held grief that enables open conversation, crying, comfort, remembering, and the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries.
Libby and Mark have remembered Kiriana’s 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays. There is always cake and balloons and the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’. In 2020, Kiriana would have been 21 and they are wondering how to celebrate the occasion. They also remember the anniversary of her death. Eli’s birthday was the day before so remembrances on these occasions are bittersweet.
“It’s hard. Some of her friends still visit and keep in touch. I see them planning their 21st parties, moving on, doing all of the things they should be doing and Kiriana is stuck in our memories at 17. At what point do you say ‘enough’?
“When people say her name, for the most part I don’t fall to pieces and I’ve never felt like I’ve been wrapped up in cotton wool over her death. I’ve never had a morning when I didn’t get out of bed to do whatever I needed to that day but I haven’t slept an entire night since she died. I still wake up sometimes at 2.07am because I am pretty sure she came to my bedside that morning. It’s devastating. It breaks you.
“Kiriana’s death is the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me. As parents, we were so bereaved that we could not give our children what they needed.
You’re just holding it together yourself and you don’t want to add to their grief by falling apart. The children are broken too. They need help and that often comes from someone who is skilled and trained to talk to young children. When that happens, you don’t have to worry about holding it together. That’s what Kenzie’s Gift has done for us and I am so grateful.”
The boys see Lorna on alternate weeks and enjoy going for their ‘one on one’ time. They know they see Lorna because she helps children who have lost a loved one. The benefits of the therapy are obvious to Libby and Mark. “Josh is sleeping better and Eli understands far more and has fewer tantrums. They know they are safe with Lorna and can tell her anything. I truly believe the work they are doing now will help them in years to come as they grow into young men.”
Libby and her family want to treasure, remember and honour the gift that was Kiriana. “She was so loyal, kind, and understanding. Kiriana was fun, intuitive, a shining talent and her star was bright. She taught me about love, dignity and strength, and how to be a mother but she has taken a part of my heart and my soul with her. My world will never be the same again but she is in my heart, my beautiful baby, always and forever.
“First and foremost, I will always be Kiriana's mother.”