Almost a year and a half after the death of his younger sister, Harriet, George Shelley still struggles to speak about her, or about the crippling grief and depression he’s experienced since.
“Even this conversation is so traumatic,” he says, half-way through an interview with RadioTimes.com. “My heart’s pumping out of my chest.”
When Shelley began filming a documentary about grief with BBC3, a year after Harriet’s death, he broke down in tears several times on camera.
“Every time I was having to say the sentence, ‘I’ve lost my sister’, or, like, even mentioning Harriet’s name — to begin with, I couldn’t do [it] when I started filming,” he says. “It was a real struggle.”
Harriet was just 21 when in May 2017 she was killed in a road accident. In BBC3’s documentary, George Shelley: Learning to Grieve, the former Union J band member attempts to come to terms with his sister’s death, and for the first time speaks candidly about it to his friends and parents.
It makes for a tough watch. Harriet’s death is clearly still raw for Shelley, 25, who saw her as his closest confidante. Prior to publicly coming out as gay, it was Harriet who Shelley confided in about his sexuality. Both siblings had also been excited about the prospect of Harriet moving to London to live with Shelley — the move date would have been in June 2017, a month after her death.
“A lot of thought went into whether I wanted to do [the documentary] and whether I was ready to do it,” Shelley says.
However, it’s clear that the musician found the filming process cathartic. He stresses no less than three times during our interview that he “probably would have been in a worse state had [he] not opened up”.
“If I hadn’t started filming and met all the different people… I feel like I would have been so lost,” he admits.
During the documentary, he meets with a group of women who have all lost a sibling, and who help him see that, “especially when it’s a young family member or shock bereavement, there’s no right or wrong way to tackle grief”.
He compares grief to the hidden part of an iceberg, “because you don’t see it coming and it sinks you.
“And if you don’t know the right techniques to stay afloat, it’s easy to end up at rock bottom”.
In an emotional conversation on camera, Emily, Shelley’s flat mate, admits that she was scared of “losing” him during the months after Harriet’s death. She describes frequently coming home after work or university and finding Shelley still lying in bed.
“You lost your passion for the world,” she tells him, sat on the sofa in their London flat. “It was really, really, really dark. Seeing you like that scared me so much.
“It gave me the strength to support you because I felt like I had already lost Harriet and I could not lose you, and that was where you were going.”
Suicide — or the “s-word”, as he refers to it during our interview — is still a “very sensitive thing to talk about” for Shelley. When asked about Emily’s comments in the film, Shelley clarifies that she wasn’t explicitly frightened about him dying by suicide, but by “the path [he] was heading down”.
“I don’t think she was scared of my taking my own life, but she was worried about the path I was heading down,” he says, “and that path in life can lead to many different outcomes, one of which could be suicide.”
Shelley mentions how lucky he is that he has people like Emily to confide in.
“It’s usually not until it’s too late that people realise how bad the situation [is] for people, but because I was speaking about it,” he says, “and because I’ve had people like Emily in my life to talk through stuff, I’ve never got to that point where I’ve personally wanted to die.”
Perhaps one of the most moving moments in the documentary is when Shelley sits down with his father, Dominic, to talk about grief. Two years ago, Dominic – a criminal barrister –was in a motorbike accident. His left arm was paralysed and he suffered brain damage. “I lost my career, I lost my arm, I lost my mind, and then on top of it – Harriet.
“The depression was really bad,” he recalls. “I went into deep cycles of a couple of days a week wanting to end it.”
But, Dominic tells Shelley on camera, pointing a finger first to his forehead to indicate his mental health, and then to his paralysed arm – “this is far more serious than that”.
“Stop haunting yourself,” he tells his son, as, during another conversation about Harriet, Shelley fights back tears.
“That scene with my dad” was a “massive learning curve for me and our relationship,” Shelley says now.
His mother, Toni, also speaks on camera about grief, as she and Shelley sit by Harriet’s grave, which is covered in flowers and gifts. “Being strong is breaking your heart and crying and then doing,” Toni says. “You have to keep on doing.”
Shelley didn’t know whether Toni would be able to “hold herself together” on camera. “She did,” he says, “and I’m so proud of her for it.”
“There’s definitely a new-found respect from my side, to see my parents speak about losing their child,” Shelley adds.
“It’s one thing losing a sibling, but to lose your child, something that’s literally part of you, that you have raised for 21 years” — his voice quavers — “that is the most traumatic thing that can ever happen in your life”.
Shelley – who reveals in the documentary that he is now on antidepressants – also hopes that the film will push back against the stigma surrounding mental health, specifically amongst young men.
“I think it’s harder for young men to talk about emotions in general,” he says. “They don’t want to be weak and to be seen to cry, you know.”
Shelley, who cries multiples times in the documentary, admits he’s nervous about the public seeing the film.
“There’s still a part of me, don’t get me wrong, that’s nervous about it going out — there’s a big part of me that’s nervous about it going out.”
Even talking about the prospect means Shelley’s “mind goes into, like, blank mode”. “It’s like sensory overload,” he explains, something he and his therapist “keep under watch”.
But he’s determined that the public and his fans see the truth, both in the documentary and on social media, where — since Harriet’s death — Shelley says he no longer pursues a “picture perfect ideology”.
“I’m just using social media for what it’s meant to be, which is talking about the real me, and your emotions, and people.”
It’s a change that Shelly says might “shock” his combined 1.2 million followers.
“I’m scared for people to see that side of me, but I want people to see that is the truth,” he says. “I’m not hiding behind filters and masks anymore.”
George Shelley: Learning to Grieve is available to watch on BBC3 from Sunday 30th September