Sharing the loss of a loved one

By Carly Gibbs

One rainy November night last year, Debbie Warne said "I love you" and walked out the door.
She went for a drive. A chance to cool off. She never came back.
Her daughter Erika, on her way to school the next morning, would find her.
As the 14-year-old weaved over wet ground in the family avocado orchard on I'Anson Rd, she came across her mum in the family Nissan.
A cigarette had fallen from Debbie's slender fingers and landed on the passenger seat. The 44-year-old had fallen asleep and died from smoke inhalation.
It was a tragic accident.
In the days following Debbie's death, Erika, her older brother Corey, and their dad and Debbie's husband Stephen, would take what little comfort they could find, from a stranger.
She was a woman called Anna.
Six months on and Stephen is still getting phone calls from Anna, a Victim Support volunteer.
Grief he says, comes in horrendous waves.
"She was there one night and gone in the morning," he says of his wife and childhood sweetheart.
Stephen is telling his story from his computer at Mr Rental, the Tauranga business he purchased with Debbie seven years ago.
There are reminders of Debbie here. The positive affirmations that flash up on the computer screen-saver. The twinkling crystals and angel figurines placed strategically around the building and a pile of photo-copied photos. One shows a beaming Stephen and Debbie with the words "soul mates" printed above their heads.
"She put those up there," he says guiding my eye to three black and white photos of the couple, tacked on a window.
"She was a gorgeous lady, loving and caring."
Together for 28 years, Stephen met Debbie at an Auckland rugby club when he was 18 and she was 16.

The memory brings about a fleeting moment of euphoria for the 46-year-old.
"I hooked up with her there," he chortles.
He finds it difficult to describe what it's like losing his best mate and wife. They travelled the world together and lived in Indonesia before making their home in Tauranga.
Only one person next to Anna and his children can really understand the grief, Stephen reckons. And that's Debbie's sister, Rosita Finau.
In an ironic and tragic coincidence, Rosita's husband Craig Finau, died 20 days after Debbie.
Craig died in Tauranga Hospital after a motorbike crash near Kawerau. He'd been travelling home after having lunch with Rosita in Whakatane.
It's been a rough few months for the family.
"Erika found [Debbie] in our car on her way to school. Debbie used to go out quite a bit in the car and let off steam; bit of stress relief," Stephen explains.
"She went out the night before, just to let off steam. We'd been discussing stuff. She said 'I love you'. She had the stereo on and it was raining.
"She was sitting in the car and essentially what happened was she had a cigarette, which is quite unusual because she never smoked inside. She fell asleep while having a cigarette ... Because all the windows were shut there was no fire as such. It just smouldered away and lack of oxygen asphyxiated her. She didn't wake up in the morning."
Stephen says Erika knew straight away her mum was dead because smoke had "blackened everything".
"I'd come to work not knowing where she'd gone. She'd been out before and quite often fell asleep in the car ... She always came home, perhaps a bit worse for wear the next day."
Erika ran to the family's nearest neighbours. The neighbours called 17-year-old Corey, who "powered" down to his mum on a quad bike. "They were all there with her, found her, and alerted the authorities."
Two police detectives arrived at Mr Rental to break the news to Stephen. It's a moment he struggles to re-tell with ease.
After a long pause, perhaps to build up courage, he takes a gulp of coffee from a red mug with a cat on it.
Debbie loved cats.
"It just floored me," he says his voice breaking. "... I said 'you're joking?' They were really, really good. Fantastic actually. We were out the back there and had a cup of tea. They took a statement."
After that, Stephen says he wasn't sure what to do. And that's when Anna, a Tauranga Victim Support volunteer with 10 years' experience, stepped in.
"Your head is a mess when it happens, it's all over the place and having someone just to prattle on to and talk about all sorts of stuff was [helpful]. She understands the grieving process."
Anna, from Te Puna who we only know by her first name, as per Victim Support policy, visited and phoned Stephen and the children every few days immediately after Debbie's death and still rings "out of the blue". now.
"It was a bit strange at first but she more listens than talks," Stephen says. "You can say all sorts of things and there's no judgment."
Anna also helped organise schooling exemptions while the children grieved.
Stephen says he has thrown himself into his work to cope but struggles during quiet times.
"You think you're getting over it but then something will happen and it's just waves of grief; remembrance. Weekends are the worst," he says.
Easter was hard because Debbie traditionally held an annual Easter egg hunt and the family would always attend the Jazz Festival. Stephen and Debbie's wedding anniversary has passed, as has Erika's 15th birthday.
They remember Debbie or "Debs" as she was. Her things remain as she left them that rainy night. Her hand-written notes still cling to walls, including one on the ranch slider informing everyone not to feed the cats on the doormat "thank you very much".
They have learnt to cope the hard way. Stephen and the kids take turns cooking during the week now.
As a family they are closer. Stronger.
"Debbie was very spiritual. She'd been getting closer and closer to her spirituality more recently," Stephen says. "Just connecting with her higher self. She was happier than ever and then this, a bolt out of the blue."
Corey and Erika, who were brought up by their mum to be independent, are coping well, and Stephen says he's "so proud".
"Debbie was a big exponent of 'live in the present ...' Appreciate things right now, today. Don't live in the past. Don't live in the future - it may never happen."
IN HOMES throughout Matua and Greerton, Bethlehem and Papamoa, ordinary Western Bay of Plenty men and women are sharing the grief of strangers.
They are making cups of tea in foreign kitchens; consoling those they do not know; and taking time out from their life to help those whose world has crumbled away.
Anna, the volunteer who helped the Warne family, has experienced it all. Homicide. Cot death. Suicide. Car accidents. Sexual abuse.
But none of them in her own life.
On average she works with five victims a week but she's not a woman who walks around burdened.
She has cried on occasions. So have police officers, she says.
"There are times when you'll go to a case where perhaps it's an informing job, where you're there for the reaction from the family and the friends," she says. "I've seen them get upset and I've seen tears from the police and Victim Support as well. We're all human."
For the most part, Anna keeps it together. "You put protection steps in place ... I try to keep one foot out and one foot in, so to speak.
"When I return from a callout I get out of my car (and) I take off this," she says pulling her Victim Support ID necklace from around her neck.
"When I'm doing calls at home I tend to use one particular phone, so I sit in my study and do phone calls there."
Anna's voice is calm, quiet, and steady. There's an empathy there.
There are 38 Victim Support volunteers in the Western Bay of Plenty, the youngest is 18 and the eldest late 60s.
Together they are responsible for comforting victims of all manner of crimes and tragedies, from burglary to common assault, car break-ins and suicide.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, they have also been comforting evacuees setting up new homes in Tauranga.
And a fortnight ago they worked with a Japanese man who has taken refuge in Tauranga after the Japanese tsunami.
Anna, who is a primary school teacher and former Lifeline counsellor, can still remember her first "face to face" as a Victim Support worker a decade ago. It was a call to an elderly lady in Greerton.
"Some youths had come in and picked all the flowers in her garden and up the driveway," she says.
"I went out to see her and it turned out once we got talking her husband had died two or three months beforehand. They had been married for 60 years and the garden was his garden.
'So we talked; I think we had a drink. She talked about her husband and there were some flowers still retrievable off the ground so we made a vase of flowers."
Anna says today Victim Support's role is different due to the volume and seriousness of crime that has developed.
The Victim Support office at Tauranga Police Station is small. But there's a lot that goes on from behind this door.
There's a board on the wall with half a dozen volunteers' names written on it. Beside the individual names it says: "Time out - until further notice."
All the volunteers have the right to say "no" to jobs. Taking on grief can be difficult. The crisis calls that are the most difficult to attend are suicides, Anna believes. "The effect it has on the family and the unanswered questions that will always be there."
So what do you say to the broken-hearted?
Sometimes you don't say anything, Anna says.
"I've had a situation I can think of where I attended a sudden death of a woman. The husband was waiting for family to arrive from Auckland and I was at the house for probably four hours before they came. He was in shock. There was a time in that four-hour period, where for 45 minutes neither of us spoke.
"Are you all right?"she asked him. He said "I want you to stay. I don't want to be by myself."
"I say to victims 'you will get through this. It's going to take time, it's going to be hard but you will get through this'. If it's appropriate for me to say that, I say that."
Anna doesn't see herself as doing anything remarkable. As far as she's concerned, she's just doing what she can to help her community.
If anyone should get a plug, it's emergency services, she believes.
"Some aspects of their work are pretty tough and they have a passion for helping the community as well."
Nobody who has been helped by Anna is likely to forget her. She has helped transform those in their darkest hour into butterflies again.
"You gradually see them start to regain their strength and start to make plans for the future, just little tiny things," she says smiling.
"They come to that point where they are able to start thinking 'I'm going to do this' and that's something they quite often talk about and that's what Stephen's talked about.
"They appear to turn a corner and they reach that point where 'you will be all right'."
Tauranga Police acting area commander Inspector and Tauranga Moana Victim Support committee member Karl Wright-St Clair says he doesn't know what police would do without Victim Support, with whom they have a Memorandum of Understanding.
"They are hugely valuable to us and are often called to crisis situations where they take control of the victim and allow police to get on with the task of investigating or holding the offender to account."
Police call on volunteers several times a week in the Western Bay.
"It is a huge commitment from them and a selfless thing to do," Wright-St Clair says.
Service co-ordinator for Tauranga Moana Victim Support, Maree Nicholson, spent two hours on her knees the first time she comforted a stranger.
The victim was an elderly woman and her son had just been killed in a motorcycle accident.
Nicholson got down on her knees and the woman cried, told stories about her son, and cried some more. Nicholson, a single mum of three, has been the service co-ordinator for Tauranga Moana Victim Support for almost a year.
Prior to that she was a clothing sorter at Savemart and prior to that, the facilitator and administrator for Youth Line Bay of Plenty.
While she's never needed the services of Victim Support herself, she has been a victim. A victim of domestic violence - twice.
Nicholson has just returned from a few days off and the work is piling up. Volunteers see about 30 to 40 victims a week.
It is surely tough work. Draining work. And highly emotional.
Nicholson says volunteers are trained to cope with all of this and turnover isn't as high as you'd expect.
"If they stay for more than a year, they stay," reports Nicholson. "Our longest volunteer has been with us 12 years and two have been with us for 10."
Tauranga, she says, is lucky to have such a strong community spirit.
The screening process is stringent and volunteers are matched to the victims as best as possible.
"We wouldn't send a male to a domestic violence incident if the victim was a woman," Nicholson says.
The 49-year-old has a endearing cheerfulness to her voice and says a volunteer's main role is to listen, comfort, and offer advice, including information on victim assistance schemes. Volunteers are asked to keep their cases confidential.
"They do share a special bond because they do go through a traumatic time together," she says.
But, says Nicholson, it's important a professional balance is kept and judgment used. "It's about performing roles within our guidelines and not about creating a dependency - that can happen if you go too far."
Victim Support aims to have a volunteer with a victim within 45 minutes of a police callout.
Volunteers are asked to go to all sorts of locations, from a road where a fatal crash has occurred, to a house, or Tauranga Hospital.
Volunteers' dealings with a victim can vary from a single visit to an ongoing four year relationship.
"It makes you realise you're not on your own," says Nicholson of why Victim Support exists.
ON November 4 this year, it will be a year since Debbie Warne died.
Life carries on but will never be the same.
On the anniversary of Debbie's passing, Erika plans to return to the spot in the orchard where her mum died. And this July, Stephen will take Erika and Corey to England.
They will visit the 1000-year-old St Peters Church of England in Dunchurch, where Stephen and Debbie were married while working overseas in the 1990s.
They will stay in Dunchurch Inn where the couple had their reception, visit Rugby, the place Corey was born, and visit nearby Thurlaston, where Stephen and Debbie made their first home.
"Debbie always wanted to take the kids back," Stephen says.
"She would want nothing less than for us to move on; to enjoy life to the full and live life for the day. I am absolutely positive she wouldn't have wanted it any other way. "Debbie had all these dreams and aspirations of helping people. I think she's probably helping from the other side."
CONTACT 0800 86 58 68 or log on to
Another way to help
Join the local committee and help fundraise and provide resources for volunteers.
- Source: Victim Support New ZealandYOUR TIMEYou'll need to commit about 4 hours a week on the roster to be available to visit or call victims. The service is 24/7. Hours are flexible and can be arranged to suit you.

After filling out an application and undertaking an interview, new recruits complete a training programme. You will undergo an internship first and be buddied up with an experienced volunteer.
- Source: Victim Support New Zealand

- Bay of Plenty Times

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