As she speaks, Rosie Batty unwittingly thumbs a delicate pendant around her neck, randomly flipping the silver love heart over in her fingers revealing the name ‘Luke’ engraved on the back, the side that rests closest to her heart.
Her little boy is always with her.
“There were things that I got rid of fairly quickly after Luke died – the cubbyhouse, the trampoline,” Rosie says, pointing to a neat corner of lawn where 11-year-old Luke loved to play at their home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
“In the early days after his death I was like a woman possessed giving things away: ‘Here’s his school uniform, here’s this, here’s that’. Of course, I’ve kept things that are important, but the pain of seeing things, like the tub of ice-cream in the freezer he’d never get to finish, was too much.
“Sometimes it’s so surreal, it feels like it never happened, but then of course, there’s reality.”
A kookaburra breaks the silence as Rosie searches for the right words, her voice choking ever so slightly.
“It’s horrible for people to have to deal with this stuff.”
It’s been nine years since that stifling February morning when Rosie Batty walked out her front door and calmly stood before the wall of television cameras camped outside her home.
The evening before, her son, Luke had been murdered by his father, Greg Anderson, during an under-12s cricket training session after school.
Luke died instantly, Anderson died in hospital later that evening from police gunshots and self-inflicted stab wounds.
Rosie intended to politely ask the waiting media to respect her privacy and move on, but in the moment, the guttural instincts of a broken woman arose and she delivered an impromptu and impassioned speech that stopped the nation in its tracks.
Rosie found her voice.
“No one loved Luke more than Greg. No one loved Luke more than me,” she said with an almost ethereal sense of calm and grace given the horrific circumstances.
“What triggered this was his dad having mental health issues.
“If anything comes out of this, I want it to be a lesson to everybody: no matter how nice your house is or how intelligent you are, family violence can happen to anyone – and everyone.”
With those profoundly eloquent words, straight from her heart, Rosie Batty ripped the band-aid off ‘Australia’s dirty little secret’ and unwittingly ignited a national conversation about domestic and family violence, which “just snowballed from there”.
Less than a year after Luke’s death, Rosie was named Australian of the Year 2015 in recognition of her determination to shine a bright light into the dark places of domestic and family violence, but in truth, she was only just warming up to show the world what she could achieve.
She didn’t waste a minute of her tenure, speaking more than 250 times in that year alone, about the undercurrent of violence in Australian homes.
Her relentless advocacy ultimately led to a historical Royal Commission into Family Violence. She was made Deputy Chair and Foundation member of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and became the inaugural Chair of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council for the Victorian government.
A tidal wave of policy, practical and political changes followed in Rosie’s wake, not least of which was the federal government’s announcement of a $100 million package of women’s safety measures.
Her portrait was hung in the National Gallery, and in 2019 she became an Officer of the Order of Australia, formally recognised for her ‘distinguished service to the community as a campaigner and advocate for the prevention of family violence’.
Such is the profound impact of Rosie’s work, it’s been studied by academics and dubbed ‘the Rosie Batty effect’.
She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Sunshine Coast.
It’s impossible to calculate how many women and children she has helped, and how many lives she has saved but championing such causes 24/7 takes a toll.
By day Rosie was a warrior woman who won hearts and minds all over Australia, but by night she was curled up in her little boy’s bed, a mother battling the suffocating grief of losing her only child.
“I didn’t prepare to be a public face. I had no experience. I found myself catapulted into a world that I’d never been part of and behind all of that is because of a horrific tragedy. So, how do you sit with that? There’s a weird form of ‘celebrity’ created around you,” she says. “I still feel very uncomfortable with it because it’s not real. What is real is the grief, the loss, the tragedy, that I’m no longer a mother and the life I have to recreate. That’s what’s real.
“People say, ‘oh, you learn to live with the grief’, and I’d often hear ‘time’s a healer’ and I hated those words, but actually it is a lot to do with time because, as the years pass on, I’ve worked through various things.
For the first few years, I never not thought of Luke – never not thought of him,” she says. “Every moment was horrible pain.”
After years of advocacy and campaigning at a frenetic pace, in 2019 Rosie made the decision to step back from the public eye and reassess her life.
It was time to focus on her own wellbeing, a task she’d deftly avoided.
Unwittingly helped by the COVID-19 lockdowns, she retreated to take stock, catch her breath and properly grieve Luke’s loss.
She mustered the courage to finally choose an urn for his ashes, and sort through the boxes of schoolbooks and belongings that she had previously shunned.
“I had to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘it’s okay Rosie, you can do this, you can look’.
“When I look back, I can see the way I coped was avoidance and distraction. I threw myself into my advocacy and campaigning and people would say to me, ‘you need to make time to grieve’, and I would think, ‘I honestly don’t think I can bear to grieve any more than I already am!’
“I put on a brave front, I was measured in my interviews and stood up in a strong way to say what I needed to say, but I went to bed every night sobbing, and there was a pain within me every moment of every single day that I didn’t think would ever go.”
She bravely shares the story of a sliding doors moment when she arrived at an event in Sydney where she was the guest speaker.
As she pushed the cab door open to get out, a bus swept past and took the door off its hinges. She sunk back in her seat, unsure of whether to feel relieved that she was still alive or disappointed the bus didn’t take her too.
In her darkest moments, she turned to alcohol to self-soothe.
“It was three years after losing Luke that I wanted to die – I really wanted to die. I didn’t think of how I would kill myself. I just wanted to die because I honestly didn’t think there would ever be a moment in any day where I didn’t, not just think of Luke, but feel the pain of his loss, and that pain is beyond comprehension. It’s not a physical pain, but a pain that is worse and I could see no end to it.”
When The Weekly catches up with Rosie, she is still ironing out the muscular niggles from hiking the Overland Track, a 65km trek through the heart of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park in Tasmania.
At almost 61, through trekking and savouring the small moments in life, she has found joy and contentment.
And pushing herself physically, spiritually and emotionally has offered profound healing.
The latest walk, a six-day wilderness trek raising money for the Australian Childhood Foundation, of which she is a patron, follows previous efforts conquering the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, the Coast to Coast in the UK and West Highland Way in Scotland.
Being immersed in nature, and the company of like-minded, spirited travellers has been a salve for Rosie’s soul.
“You’re in spectacular scenery, you’ve got the camaraderie of like-minded people, and all you’re doing every day is getting up, having a hearty breakfast and walking, whether it’s 10 kilometres or 20, or whatever. Raising money for a wonderful organisation adds another dimension to the walk and gives you an extra reason to push yourself.
“It’s challenging in a physical and mental way and it’s very meditative, it’s a safe challenge. It’s one that you can do with people, but have your own space and be on your own journey too, so I think there’s a lot of healing elements to it.
“Trekking helped me realise that I can still enjoy life and experience moments of wonder. In between, there will be pain and loss, but those moments are further apart and I’m not waking up every day and going to bed every night desperately in pain with the loss of Luke.
“I don’t want to get to 80 and regret not doing things, I want to push myself out of my comfort zone to do things.”
Although her feet haven’t quite healed from the last trek, Rosie is already planning her next adventure – a pilgrimage of sorts across Cornwall, England, later this year.
In re-assessing her life, she made a conscious decision to focus on projects that inspire and enrich her soul, such as her work with the Australian Childhood Foundation, The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, Good Shepherd and Monash University’s Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre.
She is passionate about helping others to find their own voices, particularly Indigenous women.
Last year she hosted a series of the ABC’s One Plus One programs, interviewing ‘accidental heroes’, and has found great satisfaction in new forms of media such as podcasts, where she can engage in longer, in-depth conversations about the issues confronting women and children in Australia.
She continues to speak with community groups, corporations and anyone who will listen about issues of domestic violence, gender equality and the role children play in policy and decision making.
Shamefully, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner in Australia.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, and we are the worst at not listening to children,” she says passionately.
“Their voices are often not heard or taken into consideration. What I hope for next, and want to be more involved in, is amplifying the voices of children.
“We should have a Minister for Children, and children should be around the table where decisions are made. If we are to break the cycle of transgenerational violence, children are integral to the conversation. I’m probably in a place now, which was too painful previously, where I can do more in that space, and I want to.”
Arguably, finding a shard of contentment in the darkness has been Rosie’s toughest challenge, but she’s reached a place in her life where joy comes from the small moments – a walk along the beach with dogs Spencer and Nelson, or the company of friends.
“I’m actually more content than I ever thought possible,” she says. “Contentment is something I’m only going to have briefly because there’s always going to be a new challenge or quest I set myself.
“Life felt so overwhelming for a long time – it was blurry and intense – but I’ve been trying to be present and more mindful. Contentment is something that you have to slow down and recognise.
“I’m trying to keep the balance of being generous in spirit and kind. I want to be more of that, more kind, more generous, more thoughtful, more compassionate, more of those qualities that I have.
“I’m getting better at knowing my limits, knowing I’m enough. I am enough.”
A striking portrait of Luke, a gift from artist Anh Do after Rosie appeared on his ABC series, Anh’s Brush with Fame, sits over her desk, ensuring her day is filled with the warmth of his bright blue eyes and cheeky smile.
She still sleeps in Luke’s room. It brings some comfort, even though she’s changed the furniture and given the room a makeover. It’s a space in which she feels close to him.
Rosie still wrestles with how to honour Luke’s presence without “living in a shrine”.
“I’ve got beautiful pictures I need printed, but I get overwhelmed by it. That’s a work in progress,” she says.
“I recently gave away a bookshelf that had a bunch of Luke’s things displayed on it, like his favourite Lego pieces – they’re dotted around the house now.
“I don’t want to erase him and it’s not about that, it’s about where I find meaning and how I find meaning with him each day. There’ll always be some discomfort being here. For a long time I avoided driving around the area during school pick-up times because I couldn’t bear to see all the kids coming out of school. I could see Luke walking home in his yellow sports uniform. I still have an image of that, but I can drive past the school now and it’s okay.
“I’m really okay at this point in my life.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800 RESPECT.
Read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now