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Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
December 12, 2023 ·  3 min read

The Unthinkable Tragedy That Inspired “Tears in Heaven”

When musician Eric Clapton got the call that his four-year-old son had a fatal accident, he worked through his immense sadness by writing music. One of those songs, Tears in Heaven,  became one of his all-time greatest hits. (1, 2, 3)

One of the most horrific experiences a person can go through is the death of their child. This is made especially jarring when the loss is sudden and unexpected. Every parent deals with that grief in their own way. 

The Tragedy 

Like many rockstars, Eric Clapton’s life involved plenty of drugs, alcohol, and affairs. Married to his first wife Pattie Boyd from 1979 until 1988, Eric had many affairs – and two children – during that time. (2, 3)

His son Conor Clapton was born in 1986 after an affair with Italian model Lory Del Santo. This little baby boy quickly became the driving force in Eric’s life and inspired him to clean up his act.

By March 20, 1991, Eric had been completely sober for 3 years – no drugs, no alcohol. Both Lory and Eric were in New York City at the time, so the night before Eric had taken Conor to the Long Island Zoo. He was scheduled to take Conor out for lunch that afternoon. (2, 3)

At around 11 am, just as Eric was preparing to go pick his son up from where he was staying just a few blocks away, he got a call from Lory. When he answered the phone, she was in hysterics. (1, 2, 3)

He’s dead! Conor’s dead!

Little Conor had tragically fallen from a window that had been left open after some maintenance had been done. Their apartment was on the 53rd floor of the building, and he landed on the roof of a building 49 stories below them. (1, 2, 3)

Read: Rainbow Babies: Children Who Heal Their Families of the Most Inconceivable Pain

Eric’s Response

Hardly believing what he was hearing, Eric went completely numb. When he arrived on the scene and saw the fire trucks and ambulances everywhere, he felt as though he had walked into something that had nothing to do with him. (1, 2)

“I felt like I had walked into someone else’s life,” the singer said in a 1992 interview. (1, 2)

In this interview, he spoke about how whenever he feels lost, he picks up the guitar and fiddles around with it. This therapeutic act has helped him write some of his biggest hits, including Tears in Heaven. (1, 2, 3)

Tears in Heaven

Released in 1991, Tears in Heaven topped the charts in over 20 countries and won several Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. A line in the song reads:

“Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?” (1, 2, 3)

Many of Eric’s friends were concerned that the tragic loss of his son, who he credits for helping him get sober, would cause him to relapse harder than ever before. Instead, it gave him the strength to commit to his sobriety. (1, 2, 3)

He wrote two songs, Circus Left Town and Tears in Heaven, neither of which were meant to become public. Eric was encouraged to add the second of those to the soundtrack for the movie Rush. It was then included in his MTV Unplugged set, which was released as a live album later on. (1, 2, 3)

Clapton’s Other Children

Conor’s death encouraged Eric to reconnect with his daughter, Ruth Kelly Clapton, who was born the year before Conor from an affair with Yvonne Kelly, the manager of AIR Studios. It was Ruth that truly helped him through the grief of losing his son.

“Looking back on those years, I realize what a profound effect she had on my well-being…Her presence in my life was absolutely vital to my recovery. In her, I had again found something real to be concerned about, and that was instrumental in my becoming an active human being again.” (1, 2, 3)

In 2002, Eric married Melia McEnery. Together they have three daughters: Julie Rose, Ella May, and Sophie Belle. Ruth now has a child of her own, Eric’s grandson Isaac Erin Owen Bartlett. (1, 2, 3)