Why we should speak ill of the dead...and how it saved my life
Updated: Aug 3
If we were to take everything reported in the news and media as gospel, we would likely be under the impression that only good people die. At times it can seem as if death is a fast pass to sainthood, where people’s virtues and achievements are elevated to the highest possible degree. And whilst I am sure there are cases where such accolades are warranted, we should still be mindful of the fact that as human beings none of us is perfect. This has, therefore, led me to question, is the way we only speak positively of the dead actually healthy or helpful?
For example, my paternal grandmother was not the most compromising of people and could be downright difficult. Certain aspects of her character make me wince to recall even now, and the way she treated people throughout her life was often unforgivable. This does not mean to say she was a bad person or that she couldn’t also be incredibly generous and kind natured. But I still can’t help but feel it would be somewhat disingenuous to pretend that her life and relationships were all sunshine and roses, especially as she also left behind many feelings of resentment and hurt.
It ended up being the death of someone I did not know personally, however, which led me to the notion it is sometimes ok, even a good thing to speak ill of the dead.
I must confess that I don’t have the fondest memories of my teenage years. After experiencing a series of traumatic events, in the short space of a couple of years, I found myself at fifteen in a very dark and lonely place. During these bleak times, I sought solace not only in music but also through comedy and subsequently discovered the work of Sean Hughes. After seeing his TV show, I instantly became hooked on his sarcastic and dark humour, sprinkled with surreal silliness. But it was Sean’s non-performing side that really caught my attention and is what made him stand out from all the other comedians.
In the 90s Sean wrote two books, Sean’s Book and The Grey Area, both of which were a mixture of his funny observations, short stories and poems. Within them I discovered a vulnerable side to his personality which really resonated with how I felt. So struck was I by his books that I did what only a completely enamoured teenager would do, I wrote him a letter. I am embarrassed now to contemplate what meandering musings I must have written, especially as I wrote on more than one occasion, but in hindsight it was worth it as one day I received a reply from Sean which said.
“Just a little belated reply to your letter to hope you are where you want to be and to wish you a smashing ’97.
As fate would have it, I got to meet Sean just a few months after receiving his letter. I had gone to see his Alibi For Life Tour and after the show he made an appearance at the backstage door to sign books. During the performance he had been larger than life, full of cheek and hilariously sarcastic. But on meeting him face to face he seemed all of a sudden so very small, quiet and uncomfortable with who he was and what he was doing. He kindly sighed my book, and we exchanged a few words but I as I left the theatre that night, I couldn’t help feeling like a spell had been broken. In hindsight, maybe this is a perfect example of why it isn’t always advisable to meet your heroes or why it’s even more unfair of us to have such expectations of people we do not know.
As the years went by, Sean slowly drifted further and further from my thoughts until returning to them once more on 16th October 2017 when I received a text from my sister telling me he had died. I remember initially thinking it was sad but not giving it much thought beyond that. But as the days passed and the cause of his death were revealed, I found myself feeling sadder and sadder. I tried to snap out of it, telling myself it was stupid to feel this way over someone I hadn’t known or thought of for so many years but the truth was there were parallels between his life and mine, parallels that I could not ignore.
A few days after his death, an article was written by Michael Hann of the Guardian, detailing his friendship and experiences with Sean. Mann got publicly slated for his piece and his frank telling of the uglier side to Sean’s personality and life. But I for one was grateful, so grateful because it was where I learnt the truth of how Sean’s life came to end so abruptly. For you see Sean’s death was caused ultimately by his relationship with alcohol and the words he had written to me twenty years previously had a bitter irony, for when I had received them, I was at the beginning of a toxic relationship with alcohol myself.
In my mid-teens, I, like many others of my generation, discovered drinking. In fact, in the 90s getting absolutely wasted was not only actively encouraged in mainstream media and culture, it was celebrated. It was the decade where it was perfectly acceptable for breakfast TV hosts to proudly declare live on air how drunk they still were from the night before and where girls were encouraged to drink as much, if not more, than the lads. And whilst I would never use any of that as an excuse for my actions and the choices I made, it did allow me to continue my destructive behaviour in relatively plain sight.
As time went on and attitudes changed, I still drank, albeit not in the same way as my youth. Wild nights out were replaced with glasses of wine at home but whilst the scenario had changed my mindset and relationship with it had not. On the whole, it was easy to hide as most people still hold on to the idea that those with alcohol problems look like the homeless man begging on a street corner late at night or are the kind of people who have to drink first thing in the morning to survive. But the reality is addiction does not discriminate, it can affect anyone and chances are you might never even know if someone has an issue or not.
My road to sobriety was not straightforward, and it took me to the age of thirty-five to realise that I couldn’t keep up this cycle forever. It appeared Sean too had had similar thoughts as three years prior to his death he had been off the booze for two years before falling off the wagon. When he died, I was just shy of eighteen months sober and had been struggling. For all the positives of giving up alcohol, in the early days, it was a constant roller coaster of emotions and experiences. Not only had the past resurrected itself, demanding to be dealt but I had to learn to cope with the stresses of everyday life without resorting to alcohol to get me through. Learning that Sean had gone back to it after a period of sobriety was a stark reminder of what could be and if I am honest, it scared me so much that I swallowed my pride and sought extra support. His mistake taught me a valuable lesson, that sobriety is not something you can take for granted, it is something that you have to constantly work on and fight for.
Sean’s death for me will always be a complete and utter waste, I cannot bear to think of it in any other way. But the truth about who he was and how he died was for me, at least, a blessing. It was the wake-up call I needed and the reminder of how easy it is to slip back into destructive behaviour.
Having recently celebrated four years of sobriety on 9th May, I can honestly say I have never been in a better place, felt more comfortable with myself or more focused on what I want to achieve. But I also can’t deny that thinking about Sean’s death still causes a deep visceral reaction in me I find hard to define. So, before we simply say everyone who has died was great, they only brought joy, stop and think if that is all they brought. Whilst people's flaws and darker sides aren’t always the things we wish to cherish, they do have a place and sometimes there are valuable lessons to be learnt from them that could literally save someone’s life.
Next time…Do you believe in... ghosts?
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Also, if you have been affected by or are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, you can receive advice and support from the following organisations below.
Alcohol Change UK - www.alcoholchange.org.uk
US - www.aa.org
Michael Hann’s Guardian article - The sadness is he didn't get to be old
Sean’ site - www.seanhughes.co.uk