Kathy and Ralph Kelly to speak at 2019 Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice suicide awareness event

The Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice was started in 2013 by the Survivors of Suicide and Friends as an opportunity for the community to gather on the longest (and often coldest) night of the year, June 21.

Now in its seventh year, the event aims to shine a light on suicide, grief and mental illness and start a community conversation, without shame of stigma.

GAPING GRIEF: Solstice speakers Kathy and Ralph Kelly with photographs of their sons, Thomas and Stuart, forever lost to them. Picture: FAIRFAX

GAPING GRIEF: Solstice speakers Kathy and Ralph Kelly with photographs of their sons, Thomas and Stuart, forever lost to them. Picture: FAIRFAX

Kathy Kelly apologises as the sound of a muffled scuffle comes down the phone.

One of her dogs is leaping up to grab a bone off the kitchen bench, she tells me, laughing indulgently at her naughty "puppies" - a 14-month-old golden retriever and 20-month-old beaglier.

"They've saved me," she states simply. "They are the only ones that forgive me when I'm horrible."

With that begins our hour-long interview (it feels more akin to a chat with a good friend) about an unimaginable journey.

For seven years Kathy and her husband Ralph have talked a lot (endlessly, it seems to her at times) about the death of their sons.

Thomas Kelly, 18, died after an unprovoked attack at Sydney's King Cross in July, 2012.

In the aftermath of his death, the Kellys became the public face of a campaign to end drunken violence in Sydney's major nightspots, to introduce the controversial lock-out laws and tougher sentencing for 'coward-punch' deaths.

But coping with one unthinkable tragedy was to sow the seed for another.

Four years after Thomas' death his younger brother, Stuart, took his life after what the family believes was a violent "hazing" ritual on his first night at the University of Sydney's St Paul's College.

Kathy will share some of this journey with Border residents as one of the keynote speakers at this year's Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice event on June 21.

SHINE A LIGHT: The Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice is on June 21 at QEII Square.

SHINE A LIGHT: The Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice is on June 21 at QEII Square.

The couple recently appeared in a compelling and devastatingly raw television interview with Andrew Denton.

Kathy, 57, admits at times it can be exhausting to constantly re-live the horror of their story but at the same time "talking about our journey is a way of keeping the boys alive for me".

"I sometimes think they would both be mortified if they knew we were still talking about them," she says.

But there is still work to be done on their crusade to keep all our children safer.

"(That's why) I am looking forward to coming to Albury and talking specifically around the theme of suicide and bullying because I feel compelled to talk about the signs we didn't see in our own son," Kathy says.

"I have no doubt if Thomas had not been killed, Stuart would be here."

A FATHER'S LOVE: Ralph Kelly threw himself into the work of the Thomas Kelly Foundation to make Sydney's streets safer after his son's 'coward-punch' death. Picture FAIRFAX

A FATHER'S LOVE: Ralph Kelly threw himself into the work of the Thomas Kelly Foundation to make Sydney's streets safer after his son's 'coward-punch' death. Picture FAIRFAX

After Thomas' death, his parents established a youth foundation in his name which includes the Take Kare (to reflect his initials) program and "safe spaces" to help young people get home safely.

It's the "sliding door moments" that can mean the difference between a young life continuing as normal, or disintegrating.

In the wake of Stuart's suicide, the Stay Kind (his initials) movement was born to reduce bullying, substance abuse and suicide in young Australians.

Kathy says the mission is to build a culture of kindness in communities across Australia.

"We wouldn't have bullying, violence, depression, suicide ... all the things that make people feel so little of themselves ... if we could be kinder to each other," she says.

At the solstice her message will be, simply, to try a little kindness.

"I will encourage parents to have a dialogue with their children - to really listen and not just talk at them," she begins.

"(Because) once you lose them as a captive audience, well they can be gone."

The outspoken and self-confessed highly volatile mum and wife openly admits sometimes it's hard to practise what they're preaching.

"I think at times Ralph is in awe of me and other times he is mortified; I'll say anything and he'd probably like to put gaffa tape over my mouth," she laughs.

While Ralph threw himself into the foundation to combat his grief, Kathy was thrown into lonely despair - on those bad days she still struggles to untangle herself.

THE SPACE BETWEEN: Kathy and Ralph Kelly will be guests of this year's Albury-Wodonga Solstice on June 21 where they will speak about the loss of their two sons - in terrible, tragic - and separate - circumstances. Picture: FAIRFAX

THE SPACE BETWEEN: Kathy and Ralph Kelly will be guests of this year's Albury-Wodonga Solstice on June 21 where they will speak about the loss of their two sons - in terrible, tragic - and separate - circumstances. Picture: FAIRFAX

"I need to be reminded to be kind on so many occasions," she says.

"I have a lot more anger inside me than I need to. I can push people away who care about me; I hate that part of me."

But Kathy "can't be kind" thinking about Thomas's killer, Kieran Loveridge.

"Perhaps if showed some remorse..." she trails off.

With heartbreaking honesty Kathy told Denton "parts of me crumple every day".

And she admitted: "There have been times when I thought I just can't do this anymore."

Only her daughter Madeleine, now 23 and shunning the spotlight to forge her own career, pulls her up savagely short.

"She knew I felt like that and she said, 'Mum if you do something I'll be right after you'," Kathy admitted to Denton.

Most days she would "like to disappear" - at the same time she's torn by a compelling desire to inspire communities to step up to demand change.

"Nobody will do anything unless it happens to them," Kathy says.

"Everything we did was to fight for our boys.

"As a parent you have to turn over every stone (to find out what went wrong).

"But at times I've wanted to say to Ralph, stop saving the world and save our family."

One of the problems for Kathy is she can't let go of the circumstances leading up to Stuart's death.

"He didn't take his life to be with his brother," she states emphatically.

The Kellys have always claimed they believe their youngest son was subjected to "hazing" (where alcoholic drinks are poured down the throat as part of an initiation ritual) on his first night at St Paul's.

SECOND SON LOST: Stuart Kelly joined the family's campaign against alcohol-fuelled violence after his brother's death but four years later he was to take his life in tragic circumstances.

SECOND SON LOST: Stuart Kelly joined the family's campaign against alcohol-fuelled violence after his brother's death but four years later he was to take his life in tragic circumstances.

They also believe it's possible he was bullied about the lock-out laws, which were in the headlines again at the time.

But there are still more questions than answers about what happened that fateful night of February 22, 2016 - a night Stuart refused to ever discuss.

All these grieving parents know for sure is he rang the next day and asked them to collect him from a medical centre near the university.

And that as soon as he got in the car, he started sobbing.

"I saw how affected he was that afternoon - he was totally destroyed," Kathy recalls.

Despite the coroner declaring there were not enough "hard facts" to take the matter forward, Kathy knows in her gut that there are people out there who absolutely know what transpired the night Stuart was transformed into a completely different young man.

"I have no doubt there are people who know of the things that occurred that night," she says.

"But there is such a deeply ingrained culture at the college ... it's all there.

"I haven't really let it go; it would be nice if years down the track someone came forward and said something."

Looking back, Kathy says all the signs were there.

"Sure, eventually in the months afterwards Stuart came back out of his room and held down a little job," she says.

"But he wasn't going out with his mates, he wasn't even looking at his bank account and he began talking to a girl on the other side of the world - he had indicated to her he wanted to take his life."

Five months after that unspeakable night, another son was gone too.

Since Stuart's death, Kathy sometimes feels as if she has forgotten Thomas.

"Thomas' death was a dreadful way to lose someone and it was diminished further by our fight through the judicial system," she says.

"But there is nothing worse than losing a child to suicide - you want someone to blame but you know there is a certain level of blame for yourself ... and each other."

There is an audible intake of breath when I ask Kathy what she would say to her beloved boys if she could have one more moment with them.

"I would say how much I miss them," she says instantly.

"And while I don't want to live with regrets, I would tell them I regret not showing them all the time how much I loved them.

"I feel like I was a horrible mother at times; part of me would say I'm sorry I didn't really live up to what they needed of me."

The dogs provide a welcome, daily balm to unspeakable pain.

"Sometimes I just want to be by myself - I want to be in my PJs and go to the park with my dogs; I'll wear something big without my bra on," she says.

"Hopefully one day I will be able to stop talking about what killed our boys."

  • If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline: 13 11 14