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This death was different; Revelations

The time: 8 October 1996 The place: London The man: David Baddiel, comedian
I hadn't seen Susie, a close friend from college, for a while because she'd gone to France with her husband. I'd seen her just before she went, and there was a moment of missed opportunity to see her again. She'd given me a phone number and written to me and said, "Look, if you're ever in Paris you must come by." I tried to ring her five times, and for some reason I couldn't get through to her; I kept getting what I thought was an engaged signal. I didn't think much of it at the time, except I was a bit frustrated.

Then I was at my girlfriend's house and at about one o'clock in the morning I got this message from Frank [Skinner, Baddiel's flat-mate] that my dad had rung, saying that Susie was in intensive care in a hospital in Wimbledon.

My notion of intensive care is that someone has had a terrible trauma, but they're all right now. It implies that everything that can be done is there, that it's only if they can't be got to intensive care in time that they'll be in trouble.

So when I rang intensive care I was worried but I thought, it's going to be fine. And just from the tone of the nurse, this gradually became clear to me that this is wrong, this is not the way to think of "intensive care". First of all the nurse wouldn't tell me exactly what was wrong, because she wasn't sure who I was. I asked the obvious question. I said, "she is going to be all right, isn't she?" and the nurse said, "well, it's too early to tell." And since I didn't even know what was wrong at that stage, I found that very difficult; I thought, has she had some sort of accident? What's happened?

Anyway, the next day the nurse had spoken to Susie and she had said it was fine to tell me. She had been pregnant, and that had unearthed a heart defect no one knew about, and basically she had had a heart collapse. When the nurse spoke to me about this, she said: "So what we're looking for is a heart transplant."

At that point I realised the magnitude of the situation, because obviously if they're trying to do a heart transplant what they're hoping for is four or five years at best.

Since I've grown up, about three or four people I know, of my friends, have died, but they were all people I knew were going to die, so when they died it was no surprise. One was a guy who took a vast amount of drugs, an incredibly dangerous character, an epileptic. He was always putting himself in situations where you thought, that's a bit dangerous. Someone else I knew hanged themselves, and they had always had the shadow of death around them.

But Susie was absolutely the epitome of life; she would not have been anywhere near my bleak Venn diagram of people who might die before their time. An incredibly lovely and energetic woman.

Anyway, I spoke to her husband, who was obviously in a terrible state. And he said, at the moment her kidneys have started working again, so we're hoping if they keep working, we can find a heart. And then the next night, this guy rang up, who I had never heard of, and said, have you heard the news about Susie? And I thought he meant that she was in intensive care, so I said yes. And he said, oh well, we'd like you to write an obituary. So that's how I found out she'd died, because this bloke was from The Guardian.

And he was a friend of hers as well, and I said, oh well then, I hadn't heard the news. And he was really distraught; it was not his fault at all, just a misunderstanding. But it was a very peculiar way to find out. He wanted me to talk about it, and I couldn't, straightaway, but I did write an obituary for The Guardian and I was pleased I did, because writing is a way of dealing with things sometimes.

The phone call in France kept coming back to me, that I'd missed this opportunity to see her again.

When these other people had died, there was a certain sort of justice in that, and when she died, it was - no, it's just random; some people just aren't going to make it.

It's quite a different feeling, a friend dying. It sounds banal and obvious but there's a sense of frustration and anger at their loss which is different from a grandparent dying. You accept that with a sort of peace, but when a friend dies you can't help feeling this sense of rage, of having lost something in a mundane way. You just think, oh where is it, where are they? Because they're just a fixture. You know your grandparents aren't a fixture, that they're going to go.

I went to her memorial service, and she was a very sociable character, she had loads of friends from different walks of life and at the service and at the party afterwards there were all these people I knew I'd probably never see again, because I only ever saw them in the context of Susie. She was the only one who bound this whole crowd of people together.

I was late for the memorial service. It's weird what makes you cry. There was an incredibly moving speech by a guy called Neil, but what made me cry was something much more banal - a friend of hers called her "a grande dame" and translated it as "great lady". And for some reason that really destroyed me. I just started weeping buckets.

I don't know why that phrase should have done it; there's something about the quaintness of it in the face of something so terrible and wasteful; something sweet. Sometimes people strive to describe someone dying and they do so in very intelligent ways, evocative ways. But not trying to do that, just saying something which isn't trying to sum up the experience, to render it in an original way - something about that really moved, because it is un-encapsulable. You can't do it.

I will never get over it properly. Every time I think about it I feel exactly the way I did when I first found out that she'd died, this frustration at having misplaced something.

And you think that should decline with time, and it declines in so far as you're not thinking about it all the time - when she died it was all I could think about - but every time her name comes up. She worked on the Alan Partridge show, Steve Coogan's show, and her name came up on the credits, and instantly I just felt the same. So all that declines is the amount of time you spend thinking about it.

If I had found a way of dealing with it, subsumed it into another part of my personality, perhaps I would have learnt from it and gone on to change my ways. But I haven't. All I've learnt from it is facts: like, death is random; like, when a friend dies it's really different from when an old relative dies.

It hasn't made me think I should live my life in a different way - which perhaps would be useful. I think I have a problem with that, I'm not someone who changes as a result of experience. I'm very ingrained. It's jolted me a lot. I feel it as more of a naked thing, a hurting thing. It's made me feel all the banal things - I should keep in contact more with people.

Stories for this column tend to be: "this happened to me, and I've learnt from it and moved on." What I'm saying is, this can't be put into that box: it's just damaging. The whole of culture, in a way, to sound pretentious, is about making sense of death, to say there is a reason to it and we can transcend it.

This I would say is my first hard experience of death, and I don't feel that. I can only feel negative things. I can't find a way of dealing with itn

David Baddiel takes his first solo stand-up show on a two-month national tour, starting in Southend on 10 April. For tour details, call 0891 887766 (Calls cost 50p per minute).

Interview by Emma Daly