You Don’t Know What Love Is

Until you’ve learnt the meaning of the blues

Melancholic man leaning on a piano
Photo by Anastasia Kolchina from Pexels

Trigger Warning: this article contains a discussion of suicide that may not be suitable for all readers. AoE community, please read with care.

My headline is the title of a song recorded by Chet Baker and Nina Simone. This is the story of how it became interwoven with my life.

The first time I sang this song to an audience was in a small local pub the night before my youngest daughter Holly took her own life. It was also the first time I had been aware of tears rolling down my cheeks whilst performing.

Step back a few hours, and I was on a park bench watching the tidal river ebb away in front of me. I was phoning my daughter. I wonder if I was aware of her life ebbing away like the river. She didn’t pick up. I didn’t expect her to, and it’s difficult to admit there was some relief. I don’t know what I would have said.

Her mother was speaking to her every day. This routine began two weeks earlier when Holly was signed off work with anxiety and stress. Had Holly’s deep sadness influenced me to choose this song to sing on this night? Or was it my sadness at my sense I was losing her love, and I could no more stop that than I could stop the river in front of me from flowing back to the sea?

I left a voice message telling her I was about to set up for a gig and could talk to her afterwards if she wanted. She texted after midnight. A simple
“Love you, Daddy.”

She had already decided to end her life. Her husband had been making sure one of her friends was checking in on her every day, and she had invented an arrangement to meet someone for lunch the next day. She reminded him of this bogus meetup when he left for work and said she would have her phone off.

Until you’ve loved a love you had to lose
You don’t know what love is

Song Lyrics

As far as we know, she went to the pharmacy that morning to get what she needed along with a bag of chocolates to take away the taste. An image seared into my mind is how I walked into her flat the following day and dipped my hand into that bag of chocolates. Nothing tasted the same. The lips that taste of tears lose their taste for anything else.

And how the lips that taste of tears
Lose the taste for kissing

Song Lyrics

For the last 44 months, I have been learning the meaning of the blues. That yearning and despair will never go away. The pain that blues musicians have expressed for over 150 years. The pain of racial or personal oppression and hardship or losing your loved ones. It never goes away.

You don’t know how hearts burn
For love that cannot live, yet never dies

Song Lyrics

Holly could not live, but her love will never die. I sit here today on her birthday, unable to do anything other than think of her. Forget all notions of ‘getting over it,’ ‘moving on,’ ‘having closure’. Blues music has been around for over 150 years, and if I could live that long, I would still carry those complicated feelings of love and loss with me.

Looking at the history of Blues Music, I see a different perspective. It did not begin in slavery. The descendants of enslaved people created it. It expresses the continued oppression of African Americans but also celebrates their freedom. The Blues is a genre expressing sadness, but at the same time, it celebrates the joy of freedom.

Now I know what love is. It is being able to experience joy and pain concurrently. Sometimes, I found it difficult to feel anything before Holly died. By losing her physically, I have gained the ability to feel love and sadness simultaneously and find I am feeling so much more.

Find the lyrics of the song here

Contribute to The Compassionate Friends here. Help support bereaved parents and their families.

My instrumental piano version of the tune in my freeish modern jazz style.


  1. Dear John,

    I would like to express my condolences for the passing of your youngest daughter Holly. A special acknowledgement is due to you for your writing about her. She will definitely continue to be missed by those who knew her well. Her essence will live on in her ways and charms that touched your heart and mind.

    Your post has touched me very deeply and rendered me teary, as I can resonate and empathize with your loss. How very commendable and courageous of you to reminisce and write about your daughter like this!

    One never ceases to love those who had featured so much in our lives in many endearing ways. Likewise, I still miss my late mother very dearly every day of my life, given that I have had a very close relationship with my late mother, as can be witnessed in my very detailed, multipronged and poignant examination of mortality and filiality in my post entitled “Khai & Khim: For Always and Beyond Goodbye“, which has been composed as something very significant for posterity in the form of a special multimedia eulogy-cum-memoir-cum-biography. You can easily locate this post from the Home page of my blog.

    Like you, I am also a musician and composer, apart from many other occupations, roles and responsibilities that I have had. Following your links, I went ahead to listen to Chet Baker’s version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” as I read your post. Surprisingly, the song on YouTube reached “You don’t know how hearts burn / For love that cannot live, yet never dies” at exactly the point in time when I read the following in your post:

    It never goes away.

    You don’t know how hearts burn
    For love that cannot live, yet never dies

    Thank you for sharing your intimate account

    Here is Sting’s version of the song:

    A new season has arrived. Wishing you and your family a productive week and a wonderful March doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most, whether aesthetically, physically, intellectually or spiritually!

    Yours sincerely,


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