'You never get over it': Mother and son tell of Tunisia terror attack grief five years on

The Tunisia terror attacks shocked the world and tore apart one Black Country family. Mother Suzy Evans speaks on the fifth anniversary.

Suzy Evans and Owen Richards at the Express & Star's Great Big Thank You Awards in 2019
Suzy Evans and Owen Richards at the Express & Star's Great Big Thank You Awards in 2019

As she said goodbye to the closest people in her life when they departed for their "jolly boys' holiday", Suzy Evans could have no idea that her world was about to fall apart.

It was the last time she would see three of them. Days later this close-knit family was torn apart when the unthinkable happened.

It was a time for relaxation and enjoyment. To forget about studies, work stresses and the trivialities of everyday life in the searing heat on golden sands.

But the holiday paradise turned to horror as three generations of this loving family were lost when a crazed gunman opened fire on the beach in Sousse, Tunisia, on June 26, 2015. The attack resulted in the largest loss of British life to terrorism since 7/7. Thirty-eight people were killed, 30 of them British.

Joel Richards, Patrick Evans and Adrian Evans

Back home in Wednesbury, Suzy was forced to come to terms with the fact her son, brother and father were dead.

Joel Richards, a student and up-and-coming football referee, was just 19. He died alongside his uncle Adrian Evans, 49, a council worker from Bilston, and grandfather Patrick Evans, 78.

The scale of the loss was unimaginable for Suzy, and her mother Maureen, who was never the same person after the tragedy and died in 2018.

Five years on from the awful events on the beach and nearby hotels, where terrified holidaymakers fled for their lives, Suzy reflected on the days immediately following the attack and how she attempted to rebuild her life around her son Owen, who survived the attack aged just 16.

Owen too told of the difficulties of being thrust into national focus at such a young age while attempting to process the fact he had just survived a terrorist attack but lost his brother, uncle and grandfather. He said he was forced to "grow up" in order to be there for his mother, as the pair helped each other to try and manage from one day to the next.

Suzy and Owen getting ready for the Run For Joel Colour Blast

Out of tragedy spawned the charity Smile for Joel, which has seen mother and son do incredible work to help others who have suffered similar trauma to themselves. It has so far raised £300,000 and supported more than 1,500 families.

Suzy's world collapsed when she was told what had happened. Alongside the huge sense of loss was the miracle of Owen's survival, and it was difficult to make sense of such contrasting emotions.

"The biggest thing for me was dealing with two types of emotion. The emotion of happiness that Owen survived and then the emotion of loss that I've lost three. It didn't balance," she said.

"I was absolutely distraught, the fact I'd lost my eldest son, my dad and my brother. All those emotions... and when you lose your dad, that love is different. And when you lose your brother, again that's a different love, just as strong but different. And when it's your child that's on another level as well, so to try and deal with three lots of emotion, and then also be happy that Owen's here, it was like juggling balls of grief.

"It was so hard. For many months I just forgot about me. I had to focus on Owen and my mum."

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Owen, now 21, said: "There's two sides to it. I was there, so I was a survivor. Then I came back and there was all these people with cameras sat outside the house, and I'm 16. That was quite a big shock.

"There's that side to it, then there's the other side because Joel, Ade and grandad weren't there. The people who you would want to support you through those kinds of things, weren't there.

"I guess I've had to grow up a little bit. I'd only just gone 16 when it happened and then obviously coming back and so much stuff going on. Because of the nature of what it was and quite a heavy topic, all of a sudden being thrown into all these different situations I think I had to grow up a little bit."

Suzy calls Owen her "saviour" who gave her a reason to carry on in her darkest time. The inseparable family of six were now a two.

The Smile for Joel charity has raised £300,000

Owen lets out a smile when his mother jokingly remarks the pair "don't always get on" - that's something every other mother and young son will be able to relate to - but both know how important the other has been to them over the last five years.

Suzy said: "I had to live for Owen. That was my biggest drive - that I'd got Owen and I was going to give him the best life I could. Owen surviving saved me. I wouldn't say I've coped, just living with the unimaginable.

"Living with grief is just something I've had to accept. It's like your shadow, it's part of you, you've got that with you, it's a tag that's on you, which is horrible."

She added: "The fact he was 16. He still went on to do his A-levels, went back to school in the September. It was really difficult because Owen had the most fantastic grades but Owen wanted to show his brother and his uncle and his grandad just how well he'd done, and it was horrible because they weren't here.

The beach at Sousse, Tunisia, two days after the attack

"They never got to know what his grades were. That's why they went away on the holiday, because he'd worked so hard on his GCSEs. But he did his A-levels, worked really hard and then decided to go to university.

"He went to the same university Joel went to and spent three years there. So for five years he continued his studying and a lot of people would have given up, not even bothered and said 'What's the point in doing it?'. But he didn't, he soldiered on through a lot of media interest and his own personal grief as well.

"He had a lot to deal with but he's done five years of education which is fantastic. If his brother was here now, and his grandad and Ade, they would be so proud he didn't throw it away."

As well as Joel, Adrian and Patrick, another member of the family was effectively lost that day.

Owen comforts his mother at the Banks's Stadium days after the attack

Suzy says her mother, Maureen, struggled to comprehend what happened and never fully recovered as events took their toll on her.

"My mum, bless her, really struggled with everything," Suzy said. "It really affected her health. She passed away two years ago. From the day it happened my mum was never the same, she really struggled with it, just accepting it.

"She didn't understand any of it. She was 71 when it happened and sadly she passed away. My only hope is she's with them now and they're all together, she's cooking their dinners and making them bacon sandwiches. It was hard for me and Owen to lose another family member."

This tight unit of six were closer perhaps than many other families, which made the fact it was pulled apart even more traumatic.

Suzy said: "Ade didn't have any children and he was single, and I was a single parent. Owen and Joel just spent so much time with my brother, they were just like best friends. The four of them were just always together.

"They used to go to away matches at Walsall. Because I worked, Grandad picked them up every day from school. Every night they had tea at their Nan's. A couple of nights a week my brother would come for dinner as well, so we were always together. Just unbelievably close.

"So to go away was absolutely normal, as a four and not to ask me and Mum was normal thing to do. It was a jolly boys' outing as we often say."

Suzy Evans, with Joel and Owen

Owen, who has just finished his third year at university, said: "Lockdown is kind of like normal for us. We've gone from a family of six to two. Outside of this house there's no-one else in the immediate family, just me and Mum."

While the events of five years ago and the subsequent grief can be difficult to talk about, the pair have been publicising their charity as much as possible.

It bears Joel's name but was launched in honour of the three family members who lost their lives. Its aim was to offer a support blanket for other families who go through unimaginable trauma through losing a loved one to homicide. But it has also proved cathartic for them.

Suzy said: "I think the fact the charity was all about Joel, Ade and Pat, three amazing guys, it's because they were so fantastic. We just spread the word really, we are just so passionate about it. I think the reason the charity does well is because everybody can relate to what happened that day. It could have been anyone, it could have been any family. We're perhaps quite modest with it really."

A huge amount of tributes laid next to the entrance of Walsall FC's Bescot Stadium

Owen said: "A big thing for me, obviously because of the nature of what we do is quite a sensitive thing, we don't physically meet the people we help but what sometimes happens is people send us letters thanking us for the help that we gave them.

"Some of them are just so touching, they're such horrendous circumstances that they've been through and they're taking the time. What we've done for them has meant a lot to them and it has really helped them out, so that's what makes me proud.

Suzy said: "I think it's helped me. It's given me the reason to be able to talk about them every day and not let anyone forget what happened.

"We've been recognised, which is nice. We've won quite a few awards. We're so proud of it. For me it's like a healing process as well. The charity gives me a chance to be able to talk about them every day and to tell everybody just how fantastic they were, and also to try and make changes."

The pair have been preparing for the fifth anniversary but admit milestones are nothing new to them having lost three family members. A special service which had been planned had to be cancelled due to coronavirus.

Joel Richards with grandfather Patrick Evans

Suzy said: "For us there are anniversaries nearly every month. We've got my dad's birthday, my brother's birthday or Joel's, even our birthdays it's hard. Owen turned 21 a few weeks ago and that was hard, not only because of lockdown but not having the guys here to celebrate him turning 21 and maybe think what him and his brother would have been planning to do for his 21st, and the sadness that Joel never got to 21.

"For me and Owen every birthday is a reminder of a birthday they never had. I'm the same with my brother, he never reached 50 and my 50th was last year so it's really weird. We're anxious about the anniversary but we have anniversary reminders every month. There's always something, Mother's Day, Father's Day. Some days we just want to hide under the quilt and forget the day."

Owen said: "Obviously a lot of stuff has happened. It is kind of a blur because loads of things have happened really fast. Then equally it's five years without Joel, Ade and Grandad. That's like an eternity.

"I remember watching Game of Thrones with Joel. The show has finished now and I know he's never going to be able to see the end of it, just stuff like that. Or me finishing uni. That's a big thing, you want to celebrate it with your brother, or even the fact Joel never got to finish uni."

He added: "It's not something you're ever going to get over. I wouldn't say I've necessarily dealt with it. The way I have been shaped by Joel, Ade and Grandad, growing up with them and being moulded by them, I'm sure that will set me up for better things in life."

Run for Joel has become the biggest event of the Smile for Joel charity

Suzy said: "I just feel like it's been one massive rollercoaster of emotions. We live with the pain and loss every day. When it all first happened the first emotion we felt was we'd lost them and how on earth... We thought the hardest thing was losing them but the hardest thing has been learning to live without them.

"Even now we're still learning to live without them. Even Owen's passion of going to football, that went. He struggles to go. He does go to the games but there's three empty seats there and it's hard for him.

"Owen's done a lot of travelling when he's had the opportunity and I think that's helped. Owen's amazing and the fact Owen can carry on gives me the strength to carry on. The big things, like the anniversary, you can prepare for it and you get through it but sometimes you can find a photograph in the drawer and you get more upset over that.

"I always say it's the big waves you can stand strong but it's the little waves that come in at the side and knock you over. We're very good at pretending to be OK, that's what people see, looking OK but we're not. We've just got to get stronger to live with it. You never deal with it, you never get over it, you just get stronger."

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