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A photo of George and his sister HarrietGeorge Shelley / BBC Three

George Shelley: 'The lights went out when I lost my sister'

The singer-songwriter opens up about how he coped with the death of his sister Harriet in a new BBC Three documentary

George Shelley

This isn’t happening.

There’s no way this can happen.

No.

Those were the only thoughts running through my mind after getting a phone call last April from a police officer. They told me that my sister Harriet, who was 21, had been in a road accident, and that I needed to get to Southmead Hospital in Bristol as soon as possible.

I still get flashbacks from that night. There’s a side I don’t want to remember because it was so awful – but I do remember not wanting to be George Shelley any more. 

Harriet had been on a night out in Bristol celebrating the end of her exams, when she walked out between a parked bus and lorry. A car, which wasn’t speeding, brushed past her and she fell back and hit her head. She suffered an extremely severe head injury, including multiple skull fractures and extensive damage to her brain. In hospital, her condition worsened.

We lost her a week later on 7 May 2017 and in that moment, it was like someone turned all the lights off in my head.

I’m close to all my siblings - I have five brothers and two step-sisters. But Harriet was my only biological sister, and our relationship was one of the closest I’ve ever had.

People said we were more like twins – we did everything together. When we were younger we’d put on shows at our nan’s house, and one day I got her to skive off school, just so we could watch the Live Action Bratz movie. We had a Catherine Tate script book, which we would always read together, and she had ‘Bernie’ down to a tee.

She was a brilliant actor, mega intelligent and was so popular at school - unlike me, who used to get picked on for being chubby. We argued like cats and dogs, but they were funny OTT arguments - probably because we watched EastEnders every night with dinner and mimicked the family drama. We’d have a massive bust-up, but then almost straight away one of us would say: “So…do you wanna sleep in my room tonight?”

A photo showing flowers and other tributes surrounding Harriet's gravesideBBC Three
Flowers and tributes surround Harriet's graveside

She was always trying to help others - she'd even started anti-bullying campaigns at school. She was my role model in a lot of ways and I looked up to her, even though she was a couple of years younger than me. She was a lot more advanced socially than I was, and taught me how to interact with my peers. 

During the last five years of her life we were pretty much inseparable. Even when she was at university studying to be a midwife, we’d video chat and then just leave each other’s sounds on in the background for comfort.

Harriet was also one of the first people I came out to. When I told her, she was like, "Yeah I know!" It opened up a whole new conversation: all of a sudden we could talk – and give each other advice - about boys. My first boyfriend will always have a special place in my heart because she was close to him, and for her to have experienced me being in love with a boy meant so much. She got it; she was on my level with everything.

Before Harriet, I’d never experienced grief. The two of us had spoken about losing our parents, who broke up when I was four, and how traumatic that would be. But in a way it sadly felt more inevitable. Losing a sibling so young, however, just isn’t what you expect; it never ever even crossed my mind – especially with Harriet, because we’d planned our futures together. We’d talked about being ‘Auntie Harriet’ and ‘Uncle George’ to each other's kids.

The night of her accident happened just a few weeks before she was due to move in with me in London. We were both looking forward to it so much. We couldn’t wait.

After we lost her, my life went monochrome. It was stagnant; I was stagnant. I felt death everywhere. You think you’re alone, even though your family is going through the same thing. You think, "How do I live? How can I do this? I don’t want to do this". At first, I just wanted to do normal things and carry on with life. I went out drinking, I went to festivals and I went on holiday when, really, I shouldn’t have. I was in a really bad place, and in denial.

A still from the documentary of George grieving with his mumBBC Three
George with his mum

I lost my job, my relationship fell through and my mental health plummeted. I was living by myself - because I’d cut my friends and family out - and there was about a four-week period where I just stayed in my bedroom. I became agoraphobic and felt this extreme, heavy weight when I saw daylight. My days were just a blur of takeaways, Netflix and escaping with video games - anything to shut off from the real world. All I can remember from that period is darkness and I just sank deeper into depression.

Then my best friend Emily, who was close to Harriet, moved in. She made the surroundings more breathable, more liveable. One morning a couple of months after Harriet’s accident, I came out of the bathroom and the sunrise coming through the window looked beautiful.

That’s the thing with depression: you can have all this colour, love, light and help around you, but if you’re suffering it just desaturates everything. That morning I started seeing the colour again. 

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There are no rules when it comes to grief - it’s about doing what feels right for you.

One thing that has massively helped me is learning how vital exercise is for mental health. I started exercising when I started getting angry, which was towards the end of last year. I was punching walls in fits of rage, and had a load of broken knuckles and scabs. I was a mess; taking the frustration and force out on objects, and on myself. 

So I started doing meditation in my room, and then went to yoga classes. My brother Will, who is a marine, then taught me how to lift weights and it’s made me feel so much better mentally. I’d go into the gym with a knot of frustration, anger and turmoil in my stomach, and leave feeling like it had been untied. 

The documentary I’ve made – about grief – was me trying to come to terms with Harriet’s death. 

When I started filming, I couldn’t say Harriet’s name out loud without breaking down. It was intense and so damn hard. But hearing other people’s stories of grief, and how they dealt with it, is part of learning how you deal with it yourself. And I’ve learnt that it’s important to allow yourself to feel vulnerable, to accept the crutches that work for you. I’m on antidepressants and I see a psychiatrist. There is no right way of dealing with this pain. You just need to know there is support out there, and to not be afraid to ask for it.

An photo of George smiling while looking at HarrietGeorge Shelley / BBC Three

I wanted to share my experience with mental health because it’s something that I never thought in a billion years I’d have to deal with. Through the shock, you question what life is – a lot. When you have that much of a dramatic change in your life, you change. You look in the mirror and you’re faced with a different person.

Losing Harriet is something I am going to have to deal with for the rest of my life. But I can feel her smiling with me wherever I am. 

Her birthday is Christmas day; my future kids will know it’s Christmas, but that it’s also Auntie Harriet’s birthday. We’ll keep saying her name. We’ll keep remembering.

As told to Lisa Harvey  

George Shelley: Learning to Grieve is on BBC Three iPlayer.

If you've been affected by the issues raised in this article, help and support is available here 

This article was originally published on 24 September 2018.

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