What Do the Lyrics to Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” Mean?

It’s one of the saddest, most heartbreaking songs of all time. And, worse, it’s rooted in tragic real-life events. It’s Eric Clapton’s tear-jerker “Tears in Heaven.” But what do the lyrics mean and when did Clapton write it?

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Below, we will dive into the song’s history and the meaning of its lyrics. Hard as it may be at times to investigate the subject matter behind the sad events in Clapton’s life.

[RELATED: The Sentimental Meaning Behind Metallica’s “72 Seasons”]

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the meaning of “Tears in Heaven.”

Conor Clapton

The tragic events that led to the song have to do with Clapton’s then-four-year-old son. On March 20, 1991, the young boy fell from the 53rd-story window of an apartment in New York City, belonging to a friend of the boy’s mother, Lory Del Santo.

After the four-year-old Conor died, Clapton went into seclusion for an extended amount of time. As he climbed out of the darkness, he began to write music again, including for the 1991 movie, Rush. That was the time he co-wrote “Tears in Heaven” with Will Jennings.

Will Jennings

Jennings previously shared how he and Clapton worked on the song. “[Clapton] said to me, ‘I want to write a song about my boy,'” said the track’s co-writer. “Eric had the first verse of the song written, which, to me, is all the song, but he wanted me to write the rest of the verse lines and the release (Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees…), even though I told him that it was so personal he should write everything himself. He told me that he had admired the work I did with Steve Winwood, and finally, there was nothing else but to do as he requested, despite the sensitivity of the subject. This is a song so personal and so sad that it is unique in my experience of writing songs.”

Eric Clapton

“It was in the back of my head but it didn’t really have a reason for being until I was scoring this movie … then it sort of had a reason to be,” said Clapton in 1992 of the song’s inspiration, and it is a little ambiguous because it could be taken to be about Conor but it also is meant to be part of the film.”

He added in another interview, “I almost subconsciously used music for myself as a healing agent, and lo and behold, it worked… I have got a great deal of happiness and a great deal of healing from music.”

The Result

While the song was rooted in some of the darkest sadness someone can experience, commercially the track did well. Appearing on the Rush soundtrack, Clapton also was famous for recording a version for MTV Unplugged, which also appeared on his own Unplugged album in 1992.

The LP also included a famous acoustic version of “Layla.” The record sold more than 26 million copies and became the best-selling live album ever in 1993, winning three Grammy Awards. The studio version of “Tears in Heaven” hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Lyrics

The song opens with a simple, yet heartbreaking question:

Would you know my name?
If I saw you in heaven
Would it be the same?
If I saw you in heaven

Then the third stanza adds to the weight of the first:

Would you hold my hand?
If I saw you in heaven
Would you help me stand?
If I saw you in heaven

The rest of the song bolsters the above messages and questions. It has Clapton singing about carrying on, finding his way, the difficulty of time.

Beyond the door
There’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven

The song concludes with the same opening stanzas:

Would you know my name?
If I saw you in heaven
Would you be the same?
If I saw you in heaven

Final Thoughts

Words like “cathartic” are often tossed out in the descriptions of songs and lyrics, but here the word seems particularly apt. While gut-wrenching, it must have felt at least like a little bit of relief to get these words out and to sing them. And then to have the world hold you up in your darkest hour—that’s a gift from heaven—between all the tears.

Photo by Frank Hoensch/Redferns

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