Father's grief after running over and killing his toddler daughter

A portrait of Annie hangs on the wall of Chris Guerin and Mark Toomer's home. Photo: Supplied

A portrait of Annie hangs on the wall of Chris Guerin and Mark Toomer's home. Photo: Supplied

There's a door that Mark Toomer returns to often in his mind. It also confronts him physically every time he leaves his house.

The Christchurch man ran over and killed his two-year-old daughter, Annie, as he reversed a car down the driveway of his home.

It happened 15 years ago, in December 2000, but grief still grabs his thoughts.

"Annie, then aged two, died in a driveway accident. I was the driver," Toomer says. "Polite words can't adequately express what I thought, felt and said then. The event was like a tsunami which turned our family's lives upside down and still has ripple effects today."

Annie Toomer died 15 years ago in a driveway accident. Photo: Supplied

Annie Toomer died 15 years ago in a driveway accident. Photo: Supplied

He was getting ready to take Annie and her brother, Rowan, to school and preschool. As he'd done hundreds of times, he went out the front door of their 1930s home and walked down the driveway to the garage.

"I went out the front door and I must have left it open, that was my first mistake," Toomer says. "Like a lot of old houses the garage is at the back, so the car goes past the front door to get to the street."

"I looked in the mirror before I reversed but the boot was high. I backed out. I heard a bump. When I looked under the car ... Annie had run out after me.

"Toddlers are so unpredictable, in hindsight I should have checked the front door."

It is still painful, but he can talk about it now.

"The first 10 years were the hardest," he says. "I've learned to cope... well, as much as you can."

Annie and her brother Rowan were on their way to school and preschool when she was killed. Photo: Supplied

Annie and her brother Rowan were on their way to school and preschool when she was killed. Photo: Supplied

He had met his wife, Annie's mother, Chris Guerin, in 1987, when the pair sang together in a church group.

"My daughter Annie's death has been the most devastating experience of my life," she says. "It has taken years to adjust to the reality of life without her."

After Annie's death, the couple separated for nearly three years.

"That was tough but we are together now," Toomer says.

Guerin believes it has strengthened their marriage and who they are as people.

"But you'd never say that's a good way to get there," she says.

They still live in the same home in Barrington.

"We decided to stay here," Guerin says. "Maybe one day we will sell the house but there's a connection to Annie."

Guerin says she made a decision "early on" not to blame her husband for their daughter's death.

"Someone challenged me about that very early on. I made a decision not to play the blame game," she says. "There was no point anyway, as tempting as it may have been. It is something that could have happened to me, or anyone."

The couple actively memorialise and remember Annie in an ongoing way.

Walking around her kitchen, holding a plate of homemade bread, Guerin stops to look at a family photograph of Annie at her second birthday party in August 2000, just four months before she died.

"She'd have been a stroppy teenager," she says.

Guerin knows that she and Toomer will grieve for their daughter for the rest of their lives.

"Society is not geared up to continually remember what we've lost and the continuing effects of it," she says.

"Why have a close bond with your child and when they go it ends? It makes no sense at all. Society has a squeamishness ... you're a bit spooky if you keep talking about the dead person."

Annie's death became a defining moment for Guerin in terms of her relationships with family and friends.

"It's like your whole life is a bucket of all types of people," she says. "The bucket gets tipped upside down and you go back to the basics. What have we got here? What relationship adds to my life and what takes away?"

She believes that the first two years after such a loss is a "sacred" time.

"You can't relate to people who take away or add to the burden that you're coping with."

In the months immediately after Annie's death, Guerin actively avoided any social situations, noting that any situation involving other people was fraught.

A family wedding, mother's day, father's day, anniversaries, a friend's new baby; such occasions are difficult, emotion-filled days no matter how many years pass by.

"Not long after Annie died I remember seeing someone I hadn't seen for a while. She knew nothing. There is that awful thing of 'oh...'," she says. "She was so happy and had a whole string of kids behind her. I didn't want to ruin her day. I chose not to tell her."

An important moment in her grieving process was a ceremony on the spot in the driveway where Annie died.

"People came together, there was someone with a flute, petals," she recalls. "Where Annie died was such a scary place for me. At the ceremony people held hands, my father prayed. It was just acknowledgement of facing ... for me, the garage was scary. To me the ritual helped."

Toomer says his belief in an afterlife has offered him comfort.

"Thinking that my daughter is in heaven, that probably is a big thing, that sense of hope," he says. "If I didn't have that I guess I still would have coped, it just adds that extra dimension...

"I will see her again one day."

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