Everyone agreed that Leif Kelly and his son Zac shared a very, very special bond.
When Leif fell in love and married Zac’s mum, Nancy, her three-year-old boy was an amazing part of what they had together. Leif’s love for his stepson was whole and unconditional from the start.
I always got a thrill when he introduced me to his friends as his dad
“I always got a thrill when he introduced me to his friends as his dad,” smiles Leif.
When Zac died aged 13 in a fatal road accident, nothing could prepare Leif for the heartbreak he would endure. Even now, not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about what was, and might have been.
But his own heartbreak has led to Leif helping other dads cope with life after the loss of a child. In his mind’s eye, he can see Zac encouraging his dad to look for new happiness in his memory.
Zac and his sweet siblings
When he and Nancy married in 1999, Leif threw himself into the role of full-time dad to Zac and his sister Kaitlyn, then six weeks old, and Harrison, 18 months. Then honeymoon baby Danae came along in 2000, followed by little brother Jared in 2002.
Family days often included standing on the sidelines cheering on a football match, back-to-back movie marathons at the cinema, or bike rides with an obligatory stop for a yummy treat.
##Life in Dubbo
After Leif and Nancy split, they stayed friends and continued to live close by each other in Dubbo, New South Wales, so the kids had two places to come home, flop and relax.
Zac loved curling up with a good book — Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events were his favourite series — but he was also a keen sportsman and had recently started training for triathlons.
While getting Zac to practice the trumpet he’d begun learning to play was a bit of a chore, everyone was made up when he proudly announced he’d been picked to take part in a school concert.
I wasn't playing triangle Leif, I was performing percussion
Playing the triangle.
“After the show I commented on his expert triangle-playing skills,” Leif laughs.
To which Zac responded mock-seriously: “I wasn't playing triangle Leif, I was performing percussion.”
They’d both fallen about with laughter.
“It became a running joke between us for a long time afterwards,” says Leif.
And that was Zac: Funny, good company and someone who was always willing to give things a go and help you out.
He was a young man who made you feel proud and was a credit to himself; well-mannered and with an easygoing nature it was impossible not to warm to.
Arrr...Zac - the pirate!
Zac and his brothers and sisters weren’t demanding kids, which made days out and treats double the pleasure to bestow.
Not long before Christmas in 2005, Zac, his brother Harry, sister Kaitlyn and Leif went for a bike ride to the cinema to see the latest Harry Potter movie.
It had been a wonderful afternoon, topped off with a visit to McDonalds, which ended in heartbreak for the kids, when they discovered their bikes had been stolen.
It was a long walk home for the family and Leif worried about how they’d afford to pay for new bikes. Money was tight.
To his surprise, a few days later, Leif received a phone call from the local bike shop. Word had spread about the theft, and an anonymous member of the community had sponsored three brand new bikes. An amazing gift from a wonderful secret Santa.
It was a really fantastic holiday
Touched and thrilled, Leif decided to keep it secret until shortly after Christmas. The family was due to spend the holiday with family in Brisbane, 530 miles away. He couldn’t wait to see the look on the kids’ faces when they saw shiny new bikes, labelled ‘from Santa’ when they came home.
“That December we surprised Nancy’s parents and arrived at their house in Brisbane after a 14-hour drive, just in time for Christmas Eve dinner,” says Leif.
“It was a really fantastic holiday. We camped in the back garden, went swimming and played card games galore.”
Everyone was feeling buoyant on the way home. Even when the car broke down at the bottom of a hill around 90 miles from Dubbo. It was the middle of the night and they’d spent quite long time waiting on this stretch of quiet road, until a kind lady had pulled over and offered to help jump start their engine.
Of course, Zac insisted on helping his dad.
“I connected up the batteries, and Zac and I patiently waited between the two cars,” says Leif.
“I wasn’t worried about oncoming traffic because it was 1.30am and hardly any traffic had passed in the two hours that we’d been waiting there.”
##In a split second...
Leif and Zac had only stepped to one side of the cars for a moment. The stillness was suddenly broken by a blaze of light and thundering roar, as a huge road train came speeding down the hill.
And in a split second, Zac wasn’t there any more. Somehow, Leif had avoided the impact, but his boy, his beautiful boy had been killed.
Zac was a wonderful big brother to Harry and Danae
Numbed by shock, broken by grief, Leif blamed himself for Zac’s death
Zac’s new bicycle sat untouched in the garage.
And Leif felt he might go crazy, searching for sense and meaning in life without his boy.
Looking for answers, and a way to overcome his grief and guilt, Leif eventually discovered a social media-based support network called Daddys With Angels, where other dads were talking about their loss.
Here were fathers openly talking about their pain.
Launched by Northampton dad Paul Scully-Sloane after the death of his baby boy TJ in 2010, Daddys With Angels has Facebook-based community groups in different countries around the world.
“Here were fathers openly talking about their pain” said Leif.
“I finally found a place where I could cry and my listeners didn’t think I was weak or unmanly. The men on the forum were able to give each other each other practical answers, too, not just hugs, kisses or saying ‘I’m sorry’.”
In memory of Zac, Leif has made it his mission to help other bereaved dads, and now oversees the running of Daddys With Angels in Australia.
##A ray of hope
“I am proud to say that I’m the administrator for that very same group that once helped me,” he says.
“Although nothing can erase the pain of losing Zac, I choose to believe that he is smiling down at me, knowing that I am honouring his memory by helping others on their horrible journey.”
For Leif, one of the hardest things about losing Zac has been thinking about the lost memories of the future; things that they never got to do together.
“It was all the milestones that I was never going to experience with him, like meeting his first girlfriend, teaching him how to drive, finishing school and getting married,” says Leif.
He explains that writing poetry has been a release for many difficult emotions, as well as reaching out to others and letting them know that they are not alone.
He takes comfort, too from, the thought of Zac is looking down and feeling proud of how his dad is helping other people. On days when it doesn’t feel easy to smile, he thinks about the peace of heart he’d have wanted Zac to have had, if things had happened differently.
“If the roles were reversed and I had died that night, would I want Zac to spend the rest of his life mourning me?” he says.
“No, of course not. I would want him to grow and be happy.”
So happiness is what Leif strives for. Now, when he’s thinking about Zac, his focus is on the memories that make him glad and so proud of his son.
Star Wars was our thing
Most of all, he thinks about the things that made them laugh.
Zac, the triangle maestro.
And the long-running joke that when he left home, Zac would be taking Leif’s limited edition Star Wars DVDs with him.
“Star Wars was our thing” smiles Leif.
“We watched those DVDs together over and over again. Before his funeral, my Mum slipped the DVDs into his coffin.
“So Zac got his way and kept the box set when he left home.
“I can still hear him laughing at me.”