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EXTRACT: Rosie Batty on how it feels to live through your own child's funeral.

Extract from A MOTHER’S STORY by ROSIE BATTY with BRYCE CORBETT (HCP Australia, Published October 1, 2015)

No mother should have to attend their own child’s funeral. It’s fundamentally wrong: a complete inversion of the natural order of things.

The days that followed Luke’s death were a blur. I couldn’t tell you what happened on any particular day – I was barely aware if it was night or day. I floated through most of it buffeted by well-meaning family members and friends, and incapable of making a decision or much in the way of coherent thought.

My family arrived from England and they stepped into the roles of protectors and providers, gracefully receiving the waves of visitors who continued to arrive while creating a protective cushion around me. All the people in the world who meant something to me had gathered because the one person in the world who meant the most to me wasn’t there anymore. Faces I hadn’t seen for years appeared on my doorstep. The natural instinct was to be pleased to see them, to want to catch up – but I was barely lucid for most of that time. Or if I was, it was only in bursts, before the grief would rise up and engulf me all over again. Thankfully, the school stepped in to start organising the funeral, which was a godsend. I had neither the capacity nor inclination to do it myself.

Read more: On Luke’s birthday, Rosie Batty has a simple message for Australia.

The funeral planners came to the house and, in that softly spoken way they have, ensured my input into the funeral arrangements was relatively painless. Nothing was too much trouble; everything I suggested was a good idea. We talked about yellow being Luke’s favourite colour, and Mick the funeral parlour man told me that a yellow coffin was absolutely doable. ‘A bright yellow coffin?’ I asked, hardly believing it. ‘As bright as you want it to be, Rosie,’ Mick replied. And I remember thinking, Luke would be pleased with this. Then Mick asked me if there was anything of Luke’s I might want to him to wear – and I didn’t hesitate. Since he had been given an animal-themed onesie for his eleventh birthday, barely a day had passed when he hadn’t worn it. He loved that thing.

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Rosie and Luke Batty. Image: Supplied.
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There was no other choice, so I went and grabbed it. And because I didn’t want my boy to be in there alone, I gave Mick one of Luke’s SpongeBob soft toys to go in the coffin with him. Talk turned to music: specifically, which songs I wanted played. It seemed like an odd conversation to be having: what one song can possibly encapsulate a life? Capture a mood? And so I resorted to the songs I had chosen to be played at my own funeral, years before, when I had written out a will. Because it was always going to be me, not Luke, for whom music was going to be played at a funeral.

‘Amazing Grace’ was an easy choice. It was my dad’s favourite hymn and had always held a special place in my heart too. Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ would, I thought, capture something of the innocence and wonder that I felt Luke represented. There was a poignancy to it that I knew would form the perfect musical soundscape to the montage of photos that was being prepared. And finally – in a complete rejection of convention – the Bruce Springsteen version of the Beatles classic ‘Twist and Shout’. It was easily my favourite song in the world. I had seen Springsteen perform it in England when I was younger and it had stayed with me. And while I felt that it was the song I wanted to play at Luke’s funeral, it didn’t seem proper somehow.

Read more: Rosie Batty appeals for more media freedom to report on family violence.

I looked sheepishly at Mick. ‘That’s maybe not appropriate, is it?’ ‘Why not have it on the way out, as we’re walking out of the church?’ he replied. And it seemed like a good idea. It was to be a celebration of Luke’s life, after all. A day or so later, some people came from the funeral home to collect photos to create a montage to play at the funeral. I had forgotten they were coming. There were so many people in the house, I had barely had a second to myself. I was momentarily thrown: suddenly possessed with the importance of this task, wanting to get it right, annoyed with myself for forgetting, panicked that I would choose the wrong selection of photos, stressed with all of the people in my house: people whom five minutes before I had been thanking for being there to support and care for me.

The only constant in those days after Luke’s death was my inconstancy. My moods swung, my patience with people ebbed and flowed, my forbearance wavered. But people were kind and patient with me. I was the bereaved mother. I scrambled through old photos of Luke, curating a selection that I thought would best represent his life. And I began to worry I wasn’t going to get the mix right, that this was somehow going to be a letdown for Luke. It was his day, after all. But finally, I realised that it didn’t matter. Whichever photos they took, whichever they chose to use, they would all end up painting the same picture – a portrait of a beautiful boy gone too soon.

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Rosie and Luke Batty. Image: Supplied.

The administrators at Flinders College, who were doing everything they could to help, had taken charge of organising all of the logistics. They had suggested using the school chapel for the funeral service itself – accessed only by family and close friends – and opening up the school gym for members of the community and public who otherwise wanted to pay their respects. I had no idea how many people would come. I was already overwhelmed by the number of friends and family who had descended – my brain honestly didn’t have room to consider that their ranks would be bolstered significantly by people I only vaguely knew or didn’t know at all.

The school undertook to liaise with the funeral parlour so I didn’t need to get involved, and even managed the media interest. Again, because I had been in my bubble since Luke’s death, I had no idea the nerve it had touched around the country. Since my impromptu appearance for the TV cameras the morning after Luke’s death, friends had worked assiduously to shield me from the subsequent barrage of media requests. I had unwittingly created national interest in my son’s death, and consequently his funeral was going to be big news. I remember waking up that morning and thinking, I don’t know how I am going to get through today. But I know I have to. I have to survive today and I want to absorb and remember this day in its entirety. This is Luke’s day. This is his funeral.

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And I felt that if I let myself go, if I let emotion overwhelm me, I would never collect myself again; I had to get into a zone and stay in that zone, because I wanted to share this day, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be able to remember and embrace it. The house was full of my immediate family: Josephine’s friends and family from New Zealand and my immediate family from the UK had all assembled. Everybody wore yellow. My brothers went out and each bought a yellow tie and I borrowed a yellow jacket. Everyone had a splash of yellow. We looked at the meaning of the colour yellow and it was so poignant – joy, happiness, intellect and energy. It was so special and so right.

As the hour of the funeral approached and we all gathered in the living room, there was a sense that we were all steeling ourselves to face an ordeal. We all knew what we had to do and we prepared ourselves to do it. The British stoicism seemed to kick in. The stiff upper lip. The determination to get the job done and not let the emotion of the moment overwhelm us. To break down would have been to let down the side. A limousine came to collect us and we all travelled in it together, down the hill to Flinders College. It was a damp morning – grey and drizzly. I remember pulling in to the school and seeing all these people walking across the grounds. There were cars parked all up the street, just waves and waves of people making their way solemnly to the school gym. And I didn’t properly register how many people there were, because I was so focused on maintaining composure, but I had a sense of this great body of people already assembled in the gym and scores of people still walking across the oval – all wearing a yellow ribbon, a yellow shirt, a yellow scarf.

Rosie Batty attends the Luke's funeral at the Flinders Christian Community College in Tyabb on February 21, 2014. (Photo: FIONA MCCOY/AFP/Getty Images)
Rosie Batty attends Luke’s funeral. Image: Getty.
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As I walked into the chapel, I saw the coffin and had to steady myself. There he was, my little boy. The bright yellow coffin, crowned by a spray of yellow roses and gerberas arranged in the shape of a cross. Atop the coffin was one of Luke’s large SpongeBob plush toys, and a beautiful portrait of my Luke, the one we’d had taken only a year earlier. Professionally lit and effortlessly handsome, he smiled out at the congregation. I put my head down and made my way to my seat at the front of the chapel.

As we waited for the service to start, I knew I needed to look anywhere but at that coffin if I wanted to keep it together. And so I craned my neck to take in the congregation. The chapel was packed. There were people there from far and wide. People I hadn’t seen in years. People I had no idea had even known about Luke’s death much less known they were going to make the journey to his funeral. There were friends from Darwin, friends from Sydney. I saw friends who lived on the Gold Coast, friends from Queensland. People had come from everywhere to be there for Luke. People from my past, people I’d worked with twenty-odd years ago, people I had only had the briefest of associations with. I didn’t get a chance to speak to all of them but I saw them all, I noted their presence and it gave me enormous strength. There were neighbours, cricket mums, Scouts dads and, of course, Luke’s friends.

Rosie Batty
Rosie Batty outside parliament house in Canberra. Image: Getty.

Read more: There’s one person we really hope watched Rosie Batty on Q&A last night.

The whole school was present in the school gym, mostly in the company of their parents, alongside a good proportion of the greater Tyabb community. Some people had driven for hours, from the other side of Melbourne. They had never met me or Luke, they had never before been to Tyabb. But for that morning, they were connected to this community, shaken by the senseless death of a little boy at cricket practice. My friend Kirsty, who plays with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, had flown down to play a piece on her violin at the funeral. She composed herself, looked at me and smiled then began to play Jules Massenet’s ‘Méditation de Thaïs’. Notes from a single violin wafted out over the congregation – not too forlorn but appropriately melancholy. It was a beautiful, special moment.

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The pastor, a man called David who had been recommended to me, led the service and hit all the right notes himself. It was a perfectly balanced ceremony: with enough of a religious overtone to suit the surroundings, but not so much that it became overbearing. After years of being exposed to Greg’s extreme religious convictions, Luke had developed his own relationship with God. He had believed in God, and spirituality had been an important part of his life. It seemed appropriate that God figured prominently in his funeral. Josephine had suggested including the poem ‘Reason, Season, Lifetime’ in the funeral booklet, and I found myself focusing on it as David spoke.

11 year old stabbed
Luke Batty. Image: 9 News.

Somehow – and I don’t know how – I was able to stay composed. It wasn’t easy but I did feel that huge need to stay in control of myself, because I really did want to be able to look back and know that I was present, that I was fully there, that I absorbed every single moment of that day. I came close to losing it completely when the first bars of ‘Amazing Grace’ were struck. I felt a wave rising in me, a wave I knew would drown me completely if I allowed it to crash, and so I pushed it down. Inside, I was howling – wrenched apart with pain. On the outside, I maintained composure. I held it together for Luke. Josephine took to the lectern and spoke beautifully; my brother Terry did too. I got up and read Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’, the same psalm that had been read at my mother’s funeral. It was important to me that my parents contributed to the funeral proceedings; I wanted them to feel that they had a voice too. It was their goodbye to their grandson as much as it was my farewell to my son.

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Matthew, my friend Leonie’s husband, spoke brilliantly. The school principal gave a moving speech. The school made a video of the ceremony, something I have never watched. Perhaps one day I will. One of the teachers photographed the entire funeral and put together a beautiful album. At first I thought it was a macabre memento but I’ve since come to appreciate it as a sensitive record of this most important occasion. By the time we stepped out of the chapel, it was as if we had been transported to a completely different day. The grey clouds and drizzle had given way to blazing sunshine. Luke’s coffin was carried from the chapel by his uncles and our neighbour Chris. I walked in step behind them, reaching my arm up to touch the coffin as it went. I don’t know why. I just felt this urge to touch Luke – to make sure he knew I was with him. And then there were the moments where I felt like it wasn’t happening. That this couldn’t be happening. Surely this was some sort of silly nightmare from which I would wake in a cold sweat. No mother should have to say goodbye to her eleven-year-old boy forever. It didn’t seem possible to me that Luke – my Luke – was really in that yellow coffin. My little boy, wearing his onesie, clutching SpongeBob – being carried aloft by his uncles on the way to being cremated.

We got into the car and followed the hearse as it wound its way steadily towards the crematorium. As we drove, my family made small talk around me as I just focused on Luke’s coffin up ahead. SpongeBob smiled goofily out the back window at me, and it made me smile. It seemed so appropriate, because it was just a little boy in there, a gorgeous little boy who still enjoyed SpongeBob and hadn’t properly left his childhood behind. Upon arriving at the crematorium we were ushered into a little chapel and invited to say our final goodbyes. I had said a hundred final goodbyes at this point and was determined not to be overcome by the emotion of this moment. And so I approached the coffin, laid my hand gently on it, closed my eyes and said a silent farewell. A brief ceremony was held, none of which I remember. It was just immediate family and some very close friends. We were asked if we wanted to say anything and there was silence. There was so much to say, but no one felt able to speak. Finally, I spoke.

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Rosie Batty with Luke. Image: Supplied.
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I don’t remember a word of what I said: just a simple goodbye to my son. And a reminder that I loved him more than life itself. I couldn’t stand and watch the coffin disappear behind the curtains. It was too painful to even contemplate. And so, as I had done in the morgue only days before, I took a deep breath, turned and walked out. The wake was held at the Tyabb Cricket Club. The club had kindly given over the premises for the occasion, and it could not have been more perfect. Everyone was there. People from the local community, all the friends and family who had travelled from far and wide. The sun was belting down and people spilled out from the clubhouse and onto the oval itself. Local cafés and restaurants had donated all the food, a brewery had donated kegs of beer and Mornington Peninsula vineyards supplied wine. The generosity was overwhelming. I remember feeling so touched and thinking, how can I ever repay these people? How can I ever repay them for what they’re doing for me and Luke today and have done since his death?

To this day, I still don’t know how it all came together – who had organised it, which people had driven it – because I still wasn’t in a place to really take it all in. It all just happened. The mood was, if not ebullient, at least upbeat. Luke had touched so many people in his short life, this was a celebration of him. It was a cleansing of this place too, of sorts. A reclaiming of it from the horrible cloud that hung over it.I remember having so many people come to me to talk that I never got into the clubroom. I know there was no point at which I didn’t have a glass in my hand. And I didn’t get around to speak to everyone, because it all happened in such a blur, but I noted all of the people who had come from far and wide and will be forever grateful to them for their support.

In the weeks immediately following Luke’s death, I was inundated with flowers and cards from people all over the country. People I had never met before but were moved by mine and Luke’s story to send flowers, a note or a sympathy card. Every day for weeks I would get huge piles of cards in the mail. Some were addressed to ‘Rosie, c/- Tyabb Cricket Ground’, others to ‘Rosie, Flinders College’ and many still bore the simple address of ‘Rosie, Tyabb’. Every single one of them reached me. As did the hundreds of bouquets of flowers, some from the top local florists, others hand-cut and hand-delivered. More flowers than I had space to accommodate. There were flowers on the back patio, the front patio, all over the house. And more cards than I could read. I used to scoop them up and put them in a special basket that someone had given me expressly for that purpose. In the fullness of time, I would sit down and open and read each card. Beautiful poems, heartfelt messages of sympathy, complete strangers pouring out their hearts, writing lengthy letters about how deeply affected they had been by Luke’s death and my apparent stoicism in the face of it. If only they had seen me behind closed doors.

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Rosie Batty at Luke’s funeral. Image: Getty.

I tried my best to send a personal, handwritten reply to each card and bouquet of flowers I received. I just felt such an enormous debt of gratitude. I wanted everyone who had reached out to me to know that I didn’t take any of their kindness for granted. Even now I still feel that I haven’t told enough people how much I appreciated what they did. That I’ve missed people out who I should never have missed out. That I still need to thank every single person even if I don’t know who they are because every single one of their gestures, no matter how large or small, made the world of difference to me. At some point during Luke’s wake, I became aware that numbers were thinning, and I became aware that the junior players were arriving to start their regular, scheduled cricket practice. And I took a moment to stand and watch quietly as training began. And while it could have triggered a rush of negative emotion, I derived a sort of comfort from it. Comfort that this summer ritual continued. It was a perfect summer’s evening on a nondescript oval in a tiny corner of this sprawling country, and cricket practice was underway.

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Just as it would be underway on countless other ovals in countless other towns all over the country. And I felt happy that people were getting on, that normal service was being resumed, that despite the fact my world had been shattered irreparably, everyone else’s was continuing to turn. There was, oddly, a sense of comfort in the constancy of it all. It was now early evening and as I looked around, I noticed my family had all retreated home, as had the New Zealand contingent. Even Rosemary, a friend of mine from Sydney who had come down expressly for the funeral and was staying at my house, had headed back with them. A core group of my Tyabb friends were settling in, and it was only when Rosemary came back to the clubhouse to find me that I realised I ought to head home. It wasn’t fair to leave her to deal with the extended Batty clan on her own.

So I gathered together a handful of friends and we went back to my house, where we carried on drinking and sharing stories. Evening turned to night and one by one, people left. Rosemary excused herself, saying she had an early flight the next morning, and went to my room to go to sleep. I sat up talking with my brothers, all of us becoming increasingly loud and unintentionally belligerent. And I guess there was a point where we had been talking and emotions had been stirred up, and I remember being really upset and angry and shouting at them. All of a sudden my dad came storming out from his bedroom, telling us all to get to bed. We were suddenly five years old again, shrinking from his raised voice and skulking off to our rooms. After a day spent holding it in, my outburst with my brothers had been little more than a release. An irrational emotional response to an imagined slight over which I ultimately had no control. And so I crawled into bed after everyone had gone to sleep. I had just buried my son. I had just experienced my own son’s funeral.

Rosie Batty’s book A Mother’s Story is available now.

And I felt so desperately alone, so desperately alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself here alone in the dark, finally unable to keep it all at bay. No more distractions, no more people, no more events. Just me and the darkness. And my friend Rosemary had anticipated this. That’s why she had come from Sydney and offered to sleep in my bed. Because when everyone else had gone to sleep, she was with me on the night of my son’s funeral, and she held me while I sobbed. We went to sleep holding hands. That closeness I’ll never forget of being with someone rather than having to be alone – that was special.

©Rosie Batty; This is an edited extract from A MOTHER’S STORY by Rosie Batty with Bryce Corbett; HCP, Available in print and ebook.