Losing a friend is always tragic. When that friend is young, doubly so. And when it happens suddenly — in the very prime of their life — the poignancy is almost too hard to describe in words, let alone to bear in your heart.
This is certainly the case with the incomparable Gareth Dickson who passed away suddenly last Sunday, aged 28, and in doing so, extinguished forever one of the brightest and most popular stars in Belfast’s vibrant social firmament.
Sure, it’s a common cliché used so often to describe the sudden loss of a loved one, but with Gareth it is true beyond question.
When the shocking news of his passing began to filter through on Sunday evening, the social networks and phone-lines across the city went into overdrive. I first heard the news via Facebook whilst simultaneously watching live coverage of Beyonce gyrating and shimmying across the main stage at Glastonbury. Only seconds before I had looked online, expecting the customary running commentary from Gareth about the style of the spectacle...but instead I was dealt this terrible bombshell and, like many others who knew him and loved him, could not believe that this was possible.
Within minutes, the tributes started to appear. Within hours almost 3,000 people had added their condolences and messages of shock, sorrow and grief. To a person, no-one wanted to accept that he had actually gone.
What made it so difficult to grasp, was that he was so incredibly full of life, so alive, in every possible way.
If you didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Gareth (more usually known by his nickname, ‘Gurty’) personally, it’s very likely you will have seen him or his image about the place in some form or another.
As the manager of the super-trendy Toni and Guy hair salon Belfast’s Lisburn Road he had a countless list of loyal clients who would return again and again, not just for the professional service but for the amazing sense of fun that seemed to surround Gurty like a visible aura.
Outside of work he was a fixture in Belfast’s most fashionable circles — which is where I first met him two years ago whilst covering Belfast Fashion Week for this newspaper. If he wasn’t behind the scenes styling a catwalk show or photo-shoot he’d be sitting on the front row, winking at the models, mingling with the glitterati and generally being the life and soul of his surroundings.
As a regular at many of the city’s most happening venues, Gurty was forever being “snapped” by newspaper paparazzi. Just a quick look at any given time on the Telegraph Online’s ‘Going Out’ pages would almost certainly reveal another picture of this social butterfly, always with a huge beaming smile on his face, often topped off with an outrageous wig, comical hat or flamboyant head-dress. And of course, he was welcomed with open arms wherever he went, because not only did he bring an element of fun to every event, but also his customary entourage of beautiful people who followed his every move and wanted to share in his irresistible limelight.
Yes, I’m being over-the-top, but heck, that’s precisely what Gurty was like, so it’s only fitting and appropriate to remember him in this way.
But despite his popularity and predominance on the social scene, the thing that seemed to give Gareth the greatest pleasure and sense of achievement was his recent involvement with the BBC’s TV weight loss programme and, in particular, his part in the reality show Going The Distance.
In this, he was challenged by health experts to turn over a new leaf, to take on a new healthy regime, to lose weight and become fit enough to participate and complete the Belfast Marathon, along with five other local people with weight issues, including the radio show presenter Stephen Nolan.
As his friends and family — and the rest of Northern Ireland — watched in awe, Gurty took on this huge challenge with typical zeal and lots of belly-laughs along the way. Within weeks, before our very eyes and whilst under the scrutiny of national TV cameras, Gurty changed his daily routine around completely, worked his butt off at the gym, adopted a new healthy diet and lost more than two and a half stone of excess weight.
And, at the end of it all, he completed the marathon — despite numerous set-backs and injuries — and made us all so proud in the process.
It looked like this was just the beginning of his rise to fame. Next up, training for a special Children in Need tribute to the TV series Strictly Come Dancing starring — you guessed it — Gurty, with his best gal-pal and dance partner, the stunning Belfast model Tracey Hall. Preparation for this was just about to start last weekend, when disaster struck.
Gurty died in his sleep on June 26. He leaves behind him a brief but indelible legacy as a fabulous larger-than-life personality, a friend to hundreds and an inspiration to all who knew him.