I heard the news by way of a piece of scrap paper.
It was passed to me secretly along the desks when the teacher wasn’t looking. The message scratched on it was written in the familiar, neat handwriting of a friend. I looked for her face and found her staring at me, hardly blinking, in that way people stare when they send you a text when you’re both in the same room. I looked down at the note again in the hope I had simply processed the words incorrectly.
‘George Harrison is dead. Hope you’re not too sad’
My friend’s expression slid into a sad pout, which was her little way of sending me sympathy from across the classroom. She knew how I would take the news. I quickly felt myself raising my hand to be excused, mumbling something about needing the nurse for ‘undisclosed pain’ related reasons. Unwilling to question me further in case the answer involved the word ‘tampon’, my male teacher waved a hand and I was free. I went straight to the nearest bathroom, walked into the closest cubicle, quietly closed the door behind me and began to cry.
I wept fat, salty tears until I felt physically ill.
Death is a bit of a bastard. It has a habit of being merciless and cruel and no one wants it around.
This year may be young but already – in an alarming sequence – we lost Lemmy, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Eagle’s guitarist Glenn Frey and just as the god-awful month of January was about to vanish into history, it took Terry Wogan for good measure. It was as though the Grim Reaper was running down a list of names who featured so heavily in the pop culture we devoured growing up, taking sick pleasure in ruthlessly stealing them from us when we didn’t expect it. From the moment their names started to trend on social media, there was an immediate and overwhelming collective sense of sorrow.
I personally felt it too. It’s weird to feel sadness when ‘Ace of Spades’ is on the radio. Wogan! The reason I became obsessed with the Eurovision Song Contest! Alan Rickman – my favourite actor! There wasn’t a single car journey made with my Dad without the voice of Glenn Frey playing somewhere in the background. Bowie. There are no words for the loss of Bowie.
The widespread grief told us that this group of sadly departed public figures were not just icons in their own art forms, but for so many people, they were personal heroes; heroes we never once paused to consider life without. They disappeared, there was nothing we could do about it and all that is left behind is a sudden and palpable void.
I struggle to recall a single day in my life (no pun intended) without The Beatles. Theirs was the first music that I ever listened to and even now, thirty years later, I know it’s likely going to be the last. They have been the one constant to see me through joy, sadness, change, illness and heartbreak. The comfort of listening to The Beatles makes me feel safe. It would be difficult to overstate just how much they mean to me. Without exaggeration, The Beatles are probably the closest thing I have ever had to a religion. I still remember clearly how sad I felt as I sat, fifteen years ago, sobbing in a toilet and wiping mascara on my shirt sleeve. I remember the suffocating sense of loss. George was my favourite Beatle and his death left me heartbroken.
George was funny and full of dry wit. He didn’t appear to take himself seriously. I loved that he taught himself to play guitar and that he was obsessed with skiffle bands as a child. To me, it only added to his charm that he managed to carve out his own identity and find his own sound with the little space he was afforded. In doing so, George didn’t just write some of my favourite love songs; he was the musician who wrote my favourite song of all time. Having watched A Hard Day’s Night and Help! so many times, I still know every single one of his lines by heart and often – to my shame – will find myself uttering them in my own poor impersonation of his lilting Liverpudlian accent.
I’m happy to admit that I harboured an enormous crush on him. His picture was taped to my bedroom wall for years, smiling down at me reassuringly as I attempted to navigate the pains of puberty. I would ask him if would ever stop getting spots and he would smile. I would ask if I would ever get a boyfriend. Again, a smile. George wasn’t great for advice to be honest. I loved that he was responsible for making Monty Python’s Life of Brian possible; funding the entire production because he ‘just wanted to see it’. George was mates with Michael Palin. Michael Palin! George studied landscape gardening for fun. George was a Travelling Wilbury. George was on The Simpsons. Not even Ringo being the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine could ever compete.
George Harrison, my hero, was gone.
My age dictated that I had never known anything other than John Lennon as being the one that was lost. His death was an exceptionally sad reality that I tried not to think about too much but the others were so omnipresent in my life, it never occurred to me that they could die too.
For several days following the news, I waded through the depths of grief. My school uniform at the time was bright maroon which, as mourning colours go, was deeply unsatisfactory. I couldn’t listen to his music. I avoided the radio tributes, television specials and newspaper articles and became unnaturally silent as I tried to process that there were only two Beatles left.
‘Why are you so upset?’ my friends would ask.
‘You’re being ridiculous’
‘You didn’t know him’
It was true. I didn’t know him. In truth, I was even a little angry that I never got a chance to meet him. Their comments were not particularly strange or unusual to me, nor did I find them unkind at the time. Before George Harrison died, I didn’t understand how someone could grieve for a person they didn’t know.
I felt incredibly disconnected during the phenomenal, unparalleled reaction to the death of Princess Diana several years before. I was confused, and dismissed the candlelit vigils, the endless blanket of floral tributes at Buckingham Palace, the millions of eyes glued to the dramatic spectacle of the funeral, the terrible repackaged memorial song, the public displays of tears and mass wailing. I deemed it all ‘ridiculous’. It was baffling. The shock of her death seemed to have torn a very sizeable hole in the decade and they didn’t even know her.
Thanks to the multiple avenues of expression and communication, we grieve public figures, heroes and celebrities differently now. From the second a famous name is bookmarked by ‘RIP’s, ‘Oh no!’s and sad emojis, there is an eruption as people clamber to have their say. Streams of tweets, posts, hastily Googled poignant images, YouTube clips, heart-warming anecdotes, articles eulogising, statements of personal grief, declarations of devoted fandom, sad candlelit vigils of notable places within their lifetime and, of course, think pieces. The outpour of shock and grief is then quickly followed by arguments about how people are grieving.
When it comes to the reaction to the death of public figures – particularly people you looked up to – there are those who take it upon themselves to police the grief of others. It manifests itself from accusations of insincerity, overreaction or bandwagon jumping to noisy complaints, instructions to ‘leave it to their family and friends’ or statements of indifference because they never connected with the person in the first place. You didn’t even know them.
People can be awful and no more so when they attempt to tell you how you should feel or react to certain situations.
Grief is easier to for others to understand and respect when you have a vault of memories with the person you lost. You remember the sound they made when they laughed. You remember what made them afraid. You remember their touch, the smell of their clothes or the way they took their tea. You can remember their mannerisms, their stories and the way they made you feel. Your pain is somehow justified and you don’t need to explain yourself. Your sadness is permitted.
But you don’t necessarily need to know someone directly for them to have a significant impact or influence on your life; therefore why should your bereavement be less accepted or deemed strange?
You can’t grieve someone incorrectly. You can’t tell someone that they have no right to be upset about something even if the news doesn’t affect you. To do so is unkind, unnecessary, inappropriate and a little cynical. We’re allowed to have feelings and be sad when we feel sad. Feelings cannot be controlled and they should be respected.
When our heroes die, we’re not really mourning the person. Often, we don’t know them. We’re grieving for the person we perceived them to be, what they created and reacting to the sentimentality we’ve attached to their work. The songs we danced to at our weddings or the carefully selected melodies to cry at the funerals of loved ones. Their films we watched as children. The icons who taught us it was okay to be ourselves or made us feel less alone. The shows we watched or listened to with our parents. The music that makes us happy. We’re collectively trying to accept the things our own heroes are known for can no longer be created and the person responsible for such things which gave us so much joy is gone.
We place so much on our own heroes. We elevate them above mere mortals, which only makes it harder to comprehend when we realise they are just humans. No-one – no matter how much we idolise them – is immune from death. Nothing reminds you of your own mortality than the realisation that no-one is safe – not even Keith Richards – and that is utterly terrifying. As we get older, the heroes in our life – the ones we know and the ones we don’t – will die and we have to accept that. At the risk of being even more bleak, it’s only going to get worse as we age.
It took some time, but after a while I was able to listen to George Harrison songs again. Only occasionally did my face become a water feature anytime someone vaguely mentioned his name. Slowly, I accepted that although he was gone, I still had the work that made me love him so much in the first place. Songs I could revisit at any time and it would be as if he never left.
Several years ago, I made what can only be described as a pilgrimage to the little red brick house which Harrison was born in at 12 Arnold Grove in Liverpool. I stood and watched a black cat slink between net curtains in the window. It perched on the sill and glared through the glass before it was lifted against its will by a pair of hands from inside. For a brief moment, I couldn’t believe someone lived in George Harrison’s house, but of course someone did. It was an ordinary house, on an ordinary street that was once home to an ordinary man. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things but in the end, it is inevitable. Death comes to everyone, even those we always hoped would be immortal.
On that cheery note, someone please keep an eye on Paul McCartney.