Content warning: This story mentions suicide.

Kathy Watarai adored her daughter, Iris. She still does.

“She was very outgoing, enthusiastic, beautiful soul, fun-loving. Just everything,” Kathy Watarai told KHON2. “She had it all.”

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Iris Watarai attended Mid-Pacific from middle school through high school and excelled, according to Kathy. She graduated in 2009 with honors and was involved in performing arts and ballroom dancing.  

Iris had many friends and enjoyed hiking and going to the beach with them. She even tried adventurous activities such as swimming with sharks.

But throughout her adulthood, Iris struggled with multiple obstacles in her life. She worked stressful management jobs, she had relationship issues with significant others and was not close with her father, who currently lives in Japan. She also lamented the fact that she didn’t finish college and felt too old to do so, although Kathy believes it would have never been too late for Iris to go back to school.  

On Nov. 13, 2022, Iris Watarai was found in her Makiki apartment. She had taken her own life. Medical examiners believe she was likely dead for over a day by the time she was found. She was 31.

Iris penned a letter that was left behind for her mother. Kathy sympathized with her daughter over the years, but nothing could have prepared her for this.

“You’d never expect to bury your children. You’re in a daze for a while,” Watarai said. “You go through the stages of grief and you go, ‘Why? Why did you do it?’

“She was such a beautiful person inside and out. Big heart. Biggest heart, but just had a lot of negative things happen in her life that just kind of built up and her not always wanting to talk about it. You can’t release the negative and the problem with her was not being able to talk about it.

“I wish I had known more, that I’d reached out even more. I know it’s not my fault, I know I tried every way. She was a private person in a sense that she didn’t want everybody knowing all her problems. I did just about everything I could to get her spirits up. … Sometimes she would call upset, crying. We’d just kind of talk it out. She’d be OK, but I think everything just built up.”

Kathy and Iris Watarai (Courtesy Kathy Watarai).

When Kathy went to retrieve Iris’ belongings from her apartment, she read some of her journal entries and admitted “I didn’t know she was feeling this bad. There’s only so much you can do. She did see a physiologist for help. For her, it didn’t really help. She had been struggling with a lot of different things. I always wanted her to come over and stay over at my place so we could talk. She and I would talk and have fun and things and I had missed that in the last month. It was nice that she left me a letter. It helped me to understand her pain.”

Kathy was devastated but continued to be strong for her only other child, her 33-year-old son, Andrew, who has autism and requires 24/7 care. Kathy checks in on Andrew often, who lives in a foster home five minutes away from her.

Following Iris’ death, Kathy’s support system tried to uplift her by taking her to various outings, but nothing seemed to work. Still feeling shock and numbness, she went through the motions for months. When others asked about Iris, Kathy would spare them the details.

Then on April 7, Kathy’s brother and sister-in-law flew in from Kauai to take in the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team’s match against UC Irvine at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center. They purchased a ticket for Kathy, and she obliged.

Kathy was certainly familiar with the sport of volleyball before. She had played in the past, positioning herself in the back row due to her self-described lack of height. She also had attended one UH women’s volleyball match and one men’s contest “years and years ago,” long before Iris had passed.

On that fateful April day, things changed for Kathy after she took her seat.

The Rainbow Warriors defeated the Anteaters in four sets, but not before thousands of fans sang Hawaii Pono’i in unison prior to the match and did the viking clap before UH served on every set point.

The ‘Bows played with undeniable flair that night. They played as one. They played with heart, Kathy said. Afterwards, they did their customary lap around the Stan to greet fans.

The program’s global flavor, combined with its local humility, has captivated and endeared itself to spectators across Hawaii and the greater volleyball world over the past half decade. On April 7, Kathy was just the latest addition to its ever-growing fanbase.

During the match, Kathy cheered relentlessly and felt unbridled joy for the first time in months. To her, it was nice just to feel something.

Kathy had seen enough. After the fan experience she just had, no longer was she going to suppress her feelings. She was going to start living her life with gusto again. Additionally, she decided to become more open about how Iris had passed away and become more proactive on what she can do to prevent more cases like hers from happening again.

“That first game I saw on April 7, that was the first time I had enthusiasm for life again,” Watarai said. “I’d be cheering really loud and my family thinks I’m the quiet, reserved one, which I’m not.

“It was just amazing how my spirits got lifted. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but it did.”

Kathy knows that if Iris were in the stands with her, “she probably would’ve been cheering as loud as I was,” Kathy says. “She was just that very enthusiastic, outgoing person.”

The following week, Kathy felt immense gratitude for how the team was able to help her heal from afar, so much so that she decided to email head coach Charlie Wade. Writing the email itself was an emotional release for Kathy. Considering how flooded the inboxes of college coaches get, she never expected to receive a reply.

But she got one.

“I wrote him an email on a Thursday, and 11 something that night, he emails me back,” Watarai recalls. “I was like, ‘What?’ I was really touched when he mentioned the next night about receiving the email. I was really, truly touched by him because I could feel his emotion, too. He asked if he could share it with the rest of the team. Yes, please. I don’t want to hide it anymore.

“If I hide it and sweep it under the rug, who’s it gonna help? Nobody. If we can just keep one person from doing that, her death won’t be in vain. That’s how I feel. It terrifies me to open up and talk about suicide because there’s a stigma to suicide. But the pain that I feel is even greater, the pain of the loss. If I can prevent someone from having to go through that, that’ll really bring a smile to me.

“When you’re down like that, you really don’t think about enjoying yourself. But if someone buys you a ticket and they come down from Kauai and they wanna take you, it’s like, OK, I’ll go. But I ended up cheering and had a good time and just wanted to let Charlie know that hey, you’re such an inspiration. The way they play, they play with heart. It was just so enjoyable. I was very shocked that Charlie had emailed me back and it was awesome meeting the boys. They were great.”

Wade thanked Kathy for her message and invited her to meet the team prior to their senior night match against UC San Diego on April 15.  

On April 14, Wade read Kathy’s message to the team, fueling a four-set win over the Tritons.

“For me, I can’t even imagine losing a child,” Wade said after the match. “We talk about how much the fans mean to us. They mean a lot. They help us a ton. It’s nice to know sometimes, the fans need us as much as we need them.

“Really, the message for the guys was, look, we all got people in our lives that we should tell them we love them more, we should hug them a little more often, we should reach out to people in our lives that might be struggling with something, somebody that’s going through a tough time and don’t say anything to them and you should. We live here on this island and we need each other. … If you know somebody’s struggling, reach out to them. Go give them a hug or tell them that you care, tell them that they’re important, that they matter. I don’t think you can err on the side of doing that too often.”

To the players, Kathy’s message was a reminder of the ecosystem they inspire.

“It was pretty eye-opening, honestly, how much our team can really impact the community,” outside Kana’i Akana said afterwards. “I know we always talk about it, but hearing a story like that, it makes us want to compete and really show up for all the fans who love watching us play and support us when we play.”

Added middle blocker Cole Hogland: “You don’t know what everyone’s going through, what’s going on at home, so I think it’s a big responsibility for us as players to actually show up every night and show that if we’re having a bad day, it’s much bigger than us. It’s for the people of Hawaii. Just seeing someone that has a story like that is really empowering and motivating for us.”

When Kathy got to meet the team before its match, her mood was lifted to an even higher degree. She was greeted by countless long and warm hugs from players on the UH roster and had them sign a poster board she made. She took pictures with multiple players, including her favorite of them all, star senior setter Jakob Thelle, the eventual 2023 AVCA National Player of the Year.

Kathy Watarai and her favorite player, UH star setter Jakob Thelle (Courtesy Kathy Watarai).

“Meeting the men, it was the most impactful thing ever because when they hugged you, you could feel they were genuinely empathetic for what I was going through,” Watarai said. “They could’ve just given me a small hug, but no, they gave me huge hugs and also took pictures with me and that’s etched in my memory forever. That’s something that was so positive that made me decide that I’m not going to mope anymore. By hiding it, I’m not helping anybody else. … The men’s team, the coaches, they were just so, so nice. They treated me like family. That meant so much to me.”

Kathy Watarai and UH middle blocker Cole Hogland (Courtesy Kathy Watarai).
Kathy Watarai and Hawaii opposite Dimitrios Mouchlias (Courtesy Kathy Watarai).

Kathy continued to follow the team’s 2023 season, which ended with a loss to UCLA in the NCAA title match in Fairfax, Va. over the weekend, thwarting Hawaii’s attempt at a three-peat. Regardless of how the season ended, she became a fan for life on April 7.

Since meeting Wade in person, Kathy has continued to have conversations with him about how Hawaii can enhance its support system for suicide awareness and prevention.

When Iris’ personal issues began to mount, she tried going to therapy but it didn’t seem to help. Kathy wishes her daughter had more options. She says after Iris died, the help she received from local resources left a lot to be desired.

“I told Charlie I would like to start some sort of program, something online that would really help those who lose loved ones. Not just by suicide, but accidents, other reasons,” Watarai said. “I know they suffer as much as we do, but to have someone to talk to, especially if it’s local. I did one Zoom meeting. I know there’s a couple of organizations here but aren’t really supporting when you need them in the first weeks or months. They have activities once a month and I had asked in December to get a little package for the survivors of suicide and that was in December and I just got that one to two weeks ago. That’s how long it took for all this to happen.”

May happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Kathy hopes that by sharing her story, she can help prevent similar instances of it.

Not a day goes by where Kathy doesn’t think of Iris. She mourns her every day, but she also wants to celebrate her. She recently decided to organize a celebration of life for Iris that will take place close to her birthday in the fall.

Hawaii’s 2023 season may be over, but fans have used the days since as an opportunity to express their appreciation for the magical run of two straight national championships and four consecutive NCAA title match appearances.

In Kathy’s case, she has the team to thank for how they helped get her life back on track with a new outlook. While she’ll never forget the pain of losing her daughter, she’ll always remember the sense of hope the Rainbow Warriors provided her with.

“I’m gonna remember that forever,” Watarai says of seeing the 2023 Rainbow Warriors. “I’ve been sending those pictures to my family and they’ve been so encouraging. That’s when I decided, after that game, that I am gonna do a celebration of life (for Iris). I’m going to remember her for all the positives she’s had in her life. We’ll do a butterfly release. I’m just grateful. Like Charlie said, sometimes they need the fans, they don’t realize that the fans need them, too. If I hadn’t gone to that game, I don’t think that my spirits would be this up. I wouldn’t be feeling joy again. There’s still a huge hole in your heart, but when you got this many people caring about you, it gives you a better perspective on life.

“That spark of joy, I want to celebrate her life. That’s what we’re looking forward to right now. The men’s team has helped me emotionally more than I think they know.”

Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider calling or texting the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or visit the Lifeline site here.