The insistence of grief: a conversation with Richard Beard

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Richard Beard is the author of The Day That Went Missing: A Family Tragedy, a book that follows Richard as he attempts to piece together the events of 18th August 1978 – the day his younger brother Nicholas died.

The book is a heart-breaking memoir, an ode to nine year old Nicky and the events of that tragic day. Richard fights through a wall of silence put up by his father to talk about the loss with his family, and find out exactly what happened that day. The book is superbly written and I found it immensely helpful in processing my own loss. I was lucky enough to chat to Richard about the book and ask him some questions about it.

The thing with grief is, if you don’t talk about it, it will come back

1. What prompted you to write the book?

In a practical way it was the family situation – my dad had died so it was easier to think about the possibility of talking. He had been the main engine of repression, resonating a broadcast of silence that said ‘no one is talking about this’. His death was a catalyst for wanting to suddenly talk about it with everyone else.

The thing with grief is, if you don’t talk about it, it will come back and insist on making itself known. It is good to talk about grief when you are young because talking about emotions is admitting they exist and addressing them – and that’s with all emotions, not just with grief.

2. We feel like we are going on a very personal journey with you as you write the book. Did it come easily to be so brutally honest throughout the narrative?

Once I started, I thought ‘I have to be as open as I can be’. In early drafts I was avoiding emotion, and my editor Stuart Williams at Harvill Secker said “you’re re-enacting the denial in the style you’re writing this” – he was absolutely right. So then I had to go back and recognise those bits and edit them, so it became more honest as it was edited.

Grief is not always a word, it can be a groan

3. I hope it doesn’t offend you if I say that at times the tone of the narrative becomes slightly childish – youthful is a kinder word – but it is especially when you remember like when Nicky was alive. Your childhood was clearly affected by that loss – do you think some part of you will always be trapped in 1978?

There is of course a theory that if you suffer a trauma as a child, you remain stuck in that time. But more than that – my brother is lost but also my own childhood is lost. I’m not connected with my own childhood because we didn’t talk about that time. Not only do you not grieve the person who is gone, you also don’t grieve the change in yourself. In writing the book I was trying to get Nicky back, but I also had to try and get back a sense of how I was, which had been lost.

I think it could help a lot of people to write down how they feel

4. You talk at the end of the first part of the book of “inarticulate pain, grief that doesn’t know how to express itself”. Do you think you had grieved before you started writing the book?

I must have grieved in the days and weeks immediately afterwards. There are the letters I found that talk about me breaking down, waking up in the night and screaming. But once everyone else around me agreed – and I’d agreed – to the silence, that cut the grief short. There was all this grief wanting to come out, that is shown in the book by the sobbing when I found the place. I still feel like this now – grief is not always a word, it can be a groan; your whole body needs to feel the pain. It doesn’t have words and that’s a funny paradox of writing a book about it.

I think it could help a lot of people to write down how they feel, and I know that is what your blog is attempting to do. Writing has helped me grieve. You could even say that it is a way of people talking to themselves, when talking out loud might be too hard.

5. Do you wish you had grieved differently, that you had been allowed to grieve at the time?

It was very excessively painful at the time, hence why we all shut it down. I suppose we could have helped each other as a family more by talking about it. We all had a completely different idea of what happened because we had never talked about it.

You can really only talk about grief when you’re ready. This was my time, I was ready

For young children, and perhaps for teenagers too, I think it would have helped to see adults feeling the same way as I was feeling, which was completely destroyed. We didn’t go to the funeral so we never saw my mum collapse and we thought our feelings were childish and wrong, because the adults were appearing so strong. With my own children, when their grandmother died in a car crash, I was very keen that they went to the funeral.

6. How did your family react to you writing the book and do you think it was helpful for you to start talking about what happened with them?

It certainly was helpful for my mum – she had so much stuff that she had wanted to say for years. For my brothers I wasn’t so sure. It brought us closer as we were talking about something important to us, so it deepened our relationship. But you can only talk about grief when you’re ready and this was my time, I was ready.

7. In the book you say “on the day itself, nobody paid sufficient attention to Nicky. I can now rectify that error”. That was hugely powerful for me and stuck with me after I’d finished the book. Do you feel guilty that you survived and Nicky didn’t?

Yes I do. Particularly because of the situation, I was older so I should have been looking after him. I think there is an element of guilt in all grief. I should have known, as if we should all be gods and know exactly what will happen. If I had known, I would have made so much more of all the time, especially the last few months we had with him.

I know that it was as hard in 1978 as it is now to write those few paragraphs in a card to say you are genuinely sorry

8. I got the sense from the book that you were careful to document everything very precisely. Why did you feel such a duty to pay close attention to detail?

It was a way of respecting the event and ensuring it was not a memory that was distorted by grief. Mum’s first memories of Nicky were so wild and I felt a duty of respect to Nicky. How can you get one day back from the past? You need to be as accurate as possible. The reality is it was a long time ago and there wasn’t much left. Now I suppose there might be a different problem – the person is always alive around you, in pictures. You want to get a truthful picture of the person who has died, not the person they wanted to be on Facebook or who they were remembered to be.

9. Nicky’s death was reported in newspapers and so lots of people would have known about it – even people who didn’t know you. Do you think there was a level of interest in how you as a family were coping?

Some people love a drama and they want to be involved. Other people genuinely want to help but some find strange ways of expressing themselves, which you can see in the book. I know that it was as hard in 1978 as it is now to write those few paragraphs in a card to say you are genuinely sorry.

There wasn’t the support back then that there is now

10. The book has been really helpful for me, but who did you write the book for? Was it for yourself, for Nicky, for your family?

I’m a writer and I always knew I was going to publish it, so there was a public element to it. But the closer motivation was that I wrote it for myself. I wanted to feel what I hadn’t felt at the time. When you live in denial you start denying all your feelings, and everything gets really neutral which is not good.

It was for Nicky as well. Who else was remembering him, if we weren’t?  It was to say that he did exist in a real way as a human being among us. I think it’s possible that I wrote it partly as an act of defiance against my father, saying ‘look, I am going to do this now’. There was a motivation to do it that we should have done it before and now we have.

It’s important though not to be ungenerous to the generation that my dad was part of. Not addressing grief was just how it was. They did genuinely believe that they were doing the right thing and it was the best way for us all to deal with it. There is weakness in that but they thought they were being strong and it was for the good of everyone involved. There wasn’t the support back then that there is now. There weren’t those networks.

Everyone is going to experience grief. Therefore it’s something that we need to get better at

11. It shocks me that the family returned to Cornwall after Nicky’s funeral. Do you wish you hadn’t gone back?

The fact that myself and my two brothers had completely forgotten that we returned to Cornwall for another week was because it was so horrific. It could have been a positive thing if we’d gone back to the place and talked about it – made sure everyone knew that it was an accident and no one was to blame. We could have remembered Nicky and his happy days.

But you can’t just go back and pretend it never happened, as we did. When I was writing I actually felt most sorry for my younger brother, who was only six at the time. How can you ask a child so young to understand why you are going back to that place? Psychologically and emotionally it was a very odd decision and I still don’t fully understand it.

12. You call grief an “inconvenience” in the book, which it really can be sometimes, but what do you think of grief now, having written the book and processed more what happened?

I can’t fully remember the context in which I call grief an inconvenience but it is inconvenient at times. But it is a part of life. It is going to happen to everybody, unless you are the one that dies young, and no one wants that. Everyone is going to experience grief. Therefore it’s something that we need to get better at. It stops you living because it makes you think about death, so we all need to get better at dealing with it.

Thank you so much to Richard for speaking to me and being so honest and open about your loss. It was a privilege to talk to you.

The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard is available to buy from all good bookshops and online, including from this website. I really recommend that you read it if you are grieving a loved one, though it may upset you as it does deal with the death of Richard’s brother. If you’ve read this book, or another one that you’d like to recommend to our community, let us know in the comments!