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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. 

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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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Neelum

    25 Sep 2018 5:29
    Neelum
    My sister died 8 years ago. She was only 34 and mum of three young sons aged 11, 7 and 3. She was four years older than me.
    Every single day I think about her. I miss her and still can't believe she is not in this world. The sadest part is she died in Pakistan. I spoke to her at the start of my bank holiday shift on 30th August. My husband spoke to her when I was at work and told me during my break she is fine and will be home by the end of this week. She had heart attack during the treatment of lungs infection and she passed away brfore the end of my shift.
    The sadest part is, I was unable to go for her funeral. It kill me everyday.
    My father who was fit and healthy person ended up in hospital and liver transplant. My mother was unable to speak or talk about her. She j7st kept cryi g day and night.
    My other siblings whom were also in Pakistan are also not same. One of my younger sister could not sleep well for many months. She was would woke up and cry so badly that no body was able to calm her down.
    I die every day while thinking about her kids and beloved husband who is never in a relationship after her.
    Life after the death of a sibling is never same. You live in pain for rest of your life.
  • Comment number 5. Posted by The Unheard

    24 Sep 2018 23:44
    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful relationship you had and still have with your sister. It illustrates the human soul in such a special way, a sibling relationship can be so powerful and breathtakingly deep. Nobody will ever be able to take away the cherished memories you hold of her and she will live on in you through those. Celebrate those you were able to share with her.
  • Comment number 4. Posted by Kerry

    24 Sep 2018 23:36
    Looking forward to the programme. Can’t imagine what George and others in a similar position have been through. Fully understand mental health issues, and exercise and generally staying busy is vital as George mentioned.

    Take care George.
  • Comment number 3. Posted by Frank nicholls

    24 Sep 2018 23:29
    They are not "flashbacks", they are sad memories that are part of normal life and are PRIVATE. Why does everyone want to be "traumatised" these days. The world has become hysterical.
  • Comment number 2. Posted by R T

    24 Sep 2018 22:40
    Losing a sibling is perhaps the saddest part of anyone's life. I lost my brother in Dec 2011. I was away from home at that time for work. On 5th December i called home. My father answered the phone. I could hear grief in his voice. I immediately felt that there's was something that was just not right. I asked him what happened to which he answered in sobing voice, "Your elder brother passed away in a motorbike accident'. I immediately felt the earth moving fast beneath my feet. I couldn't hear a think. It was a total silence. I couldn't believe what he just said. it can't be true, i asked myself. I asked him when, how. My father said he passed away two days ago. At that point i wanted to smash my phone so hard on the ground. It was hard to believe, very hard.
    My elder brother and me were very close to each other. He was a role model for me. We used to chat a lot on facebook. Its good that i can revisit facebook everytime i miss him. I can read all the things that we talked about over and over again till my eyes gets filled with tears. He has left such a big hole in my heart which perhaps will never heal. Now when i think of him, i feel how lucky was i to have him as brother and also how unlucky i am to lose him so early in my life. He was just 26 when i lost him. I miss him a lot and there is nothing i can do except to cry. It's already been almost 7 years now but i am still crying as i am writing this comment. I love you my brother, always!
  • Comment number 1. Posted by pamie

    24 Sep 2018 18:50
    My daughter died suddenly of carbon monoxide poisoning. It has been hard for all of us but I know it has been extremely difficult for my son and daughter who are twins. They both looked up to their big sister and went to her when there were any problems. The family dynamic has changed but there is this big hole in the family that can never be filled. My daughter loved baby sitting and couldn't wait to start a family after her fairytale wedding. Her young sister now has two boys and I know that she would have adored her nephews and we always point out Aunty Katie to the boys in photos.