ALMOST a decade after her children were murdered, Shirley Singh still lays out their clothes, makes them dinner and lights a candle so they don't have to sleep in the dark.
They called her their tiger — their ferocious mother who would protect them from the evils of the world.
But she couldn't protect them from Max Sica.
It is a truth that haunts her every day, a reality that has seen her attempt suicide, blame her only living child and push others away as she descends into the madness of a grief too great to bear.
The tragic life of Shirley Singh was revealed last week through victim-impact statements read to a packed courtroom as her former neighbour was sentenced to 35 years' jail for the brutal murders of her three children — the longest penalty in Queensland history.
The jury was discharged last Tuesday but nine chose to return to hear Justice John Byrne lock Sica away.
They stared in shock as the Crown detailed Sica's life of crime.
Before he murdered the Singhs, Sica and a gang of thugs burnt down police stations, set fire to schools and fired a rifle into a house in a violent "rampage" lasting months, the court heard.
This was information that had been kept from the jury, so as not to skew their view when it came to deciding whether he was guilty of killing his former lover Neelma, 24, her brother Kunal, 18, and sister Sidhi, 12.
The jury's mouths hung open and their stares of disbelief soon turned to glares.
They folded their arms, shook their heads and waited for him to look up. Sica never raised his eyes.
But it was the story of Shirley that had them wiping away the tears as they shared in her sorrow. It had been nine years since "that" phone call, Shirley said in her statement to the court.
The children were dead, the caller told her. They'd been murdered.
It was her years of torment that would see most of the court reduced to tears — even Sica's mother, Anna Maria, a steadfast believer in his innocence.
Sometimes Shirley would take sleeping tablets, drink wine and stumble into the nearby cemetery in the middle of the night, searching for their graves.
On the day of their funeral, she went on a cleaning frenzy, telling her friends that her children were coming home.
Once, she was found passed out in a park. It was Sidhi's favourite place and Shirley had gone looking for her. She stopped eating meat after seeing the state of their bodies after having been left in a hot spa for two days. She was told not to sit with them before the funeral, with others worried the images might haunt her.
"I so much wanted to touch them but was scared as I did not want to hurt them because their skin was burnt," Shirley said.
She became distraught when they were cremated. She wanted them embalmed and kept with her always.
Later that night, she went into Sidhi's room and took her pillow. She hugged it as she sobbed for the little girl she'd lost.
"I then wrapped it in a blanket and held it in my arms, asked her for forgiveness for not being there and sang her favourite lullaby song and slept with it." She did this every night until the pillow was taken away.
Kunal had left half a can of Coke in the fridge. She still has it. Sometimes she kisses it.
The Singh house is a shrine to their dead children. The spa that became their grave is where she lights a candle each night "so they are not in the dark".
"Even though people have asked me how I am living here, and my answer is, 'How could I turn my back to my children after what has happened to them? What will they think of me — their tiger and not a coward?' "
The police telephone call that changed Shirley's life in 2003 came to Sonia Pathik, too — her eldest and only surviving daughter who no longer lived at the family home.
Three bodies had been found in the spa of her parents' ensuite, they said. Her descriptions matched. Could she come and identify the bodies?
She got off the phone, gasping for breath, the shock bringing on an asthma attack.
"I am the oldest and I am the protector," she told the court through her victim-impact statement. I hated myself. I know what it feels like to be numb."
For a long time she blamed herself. But worse — her parents blamed her, too, saying she should have been there.
"I became a forgotten child," she said. "My life will never be the same. They will not come back to me."