Julie Wallace, 51, wasn’t aware of the London Bridge terror attack until one of her girlfriends, Jodie, got in touch on a Sunday morning to ask if her 21-year-old daughter Sara Zelenak was safe. It was June 4 and Sara had moved from the family home in Brisbane, Australia to the UK three months previously to work as an au pair.
“Have you heard what happened?” Jodie asked her. And Julie said: “No.”
She will never forget the conversation they had about what was unfolding on the other side of the world, but that morning she wasn’t concerned. “I hadn’t heard from Sara but it wasn’t a time I usually did. I didn’t think much of it.”
Hours later, the mother-of-three received a call from Sara’s employer in London, saying she hadn’t come home. It was then that the panic set in. Julie rang Sara’s phone and kept on ringing it, until she had called over 400 times. Her husband, Mark, 50 – Sara’s stepfather – who was working away from home, started trying to contact hospitals more than 10,000 miles away.
The following night terror police turned up on their doorstep in Brisbane to say they’d been to the home of Sara’s host family to collect hair samples, her driving licence and passport, but could not confirm what had happened to her. Instead they suggested her parents book a flight to the UK and on the Tuesday morning they boarded a plane, not knowing what was waiting at the other end.
It wasn’t until Julie and Mark landed in Abu Dhabi to connect to their Heathrow-bound flight that they found out Sara had been killed. “We were coming into land, we had our seat belts on still, and my son Scott Whatsapped me.” The 24-year-old confirmed his family’s worst nightmare: the DNA results showed Sara was among the eight dead.
Julie went into shock immediately, struggling to breathe. Doubled over in her plane seat, she remembers crying hysterically in front of the other passengers, her agony only made worse when she discovered that many of the news stations had already confirmed Sara’s identity in their six o’clock bulletins.
“The whole world found out before me,” says Julie, who was forced to wait another two hours in a transfer lounge with Mark for their next flight.
Greeted at arrivals in London by family liaison officer, Jim Galvin, it would be another four days before the family was permitted to see Sara’s body – four days of waiting for the inevitable.
Julie told herself they might have the wrong person. Not only did Sara’s dental records not match, but her daughter looked different in her driving license and passport pictures. “I had one per cent hope they were wrong.”
It was in the morgue at St Thomas’ hospital on June 7 that the truth of what had happened finally hit home. “Then it was real,” says Julie. “I needed to see her to say goodbye and to be sure for myself.”
After 12 days, the family returned to Australia for the funeral. Sara was buried near her high school and 1000 people attended the service. Julie says the whole community was deeply affected. “No one had been touched by terrorism, it normally happens overseas, in a different world on TV.”
You’ve got this incredible hole in your heart that doesn’t go away – you just learn to fill it." Julie Wallace
Julie says she cannot describe the grief she has experienced in the year since. “It’s like putting a knife into your heart and digging it around. You’re so empty on the inside. You look like you’re functioning on the outside, but you’ve got this incredible hole in your heart you can’t fill. That doesn’t go away – you just learn to fill it. The only way it would get better is if she came home, but she is not coming home. There is no worse grief than losing a child.”
Julie says grieving has become a “very personal thing” for her and her husband. The pair have tried, among other things, counselling, mindfullness, meditation, yoga and reiki healing.
What has helped is having celebrations to mark special occasions in Sara’s life – on her 22nd birthday they invited 90 people to their home and had balloons and cake. “Of course, they are sad times but we like remembering the good memories with her friends,” Julie says. On the anniversary of the terror attack they had a barbecue and put a plaque down for Sara in their local community.
There is no time limit to grief, it depends on the day."
Like many people coping with the death of a loved one, Julie says that it has not been a linear experience – there will always be moments of regression.
“There is no time limit to grief, it depends on the day. We’ve done the first anniversaries, the first birthdays, we’ve had a first Christmas. But grief can hit you anytime. You’re going okay and then something can trigger you off.”
One of the biggest differences between the way Julie and those around her are coping with their grief is that she doesn’t feel Sara is gone. While sons, Scott, 24, and Harrison, 17, have accepted their sister’s death, Julie says it feels as though she is still alive and with them.
The mother has lots of keepsakes, sentimental objects that remind her of Sara: a necklace with a thumb print casting, which she rubs for reassurance throughout the day, and voicemails and Whatsapps from the days before she died. Including her last communication – a selfie and the message: “Mum can’t wait to see you, 26 sleeps to go, meet you in Paris.”
She also wears her daughter’s jewellery and clothes, and drives Sara’s car with her personalised numberplate. “I feel she’s in the front seat with me driving.”
It was only six weeks after Sara’s death that Julie returned to work as a personal trainer, deciding to fill her life with projects as a way of coping with her grief. Now she is determined to do something that leaves a positive legacy from Sara’s tragedy. Julie and husband Mark have set up Sarz Sanctuary – inspired by their daughter’s nickname and her sense of compassion – with the aim of helping other families going through grief and sudden trauma.
“This is what Sarz would want,” says Julie. “I want people to be able to cope when they suffer horrific grief. You feel like you might fall off the earth but we want to help.”
Sarz Sanctuary is currently raising funds to build the first free healing sanctuary in Australia in 2019, which will provide a space where bereaved families can receive a variety of treatments and support, and aims to open another in London after that. “I feel Sara in my heart every day and she is driving me to make this charity,” says her mother. “I am just a messenger for spreading her unconditional love. That was her personality.”