Even though she told us, quite bluntly, that this was all but destined to happen before Christmas of this year, it still doesn’t feel real.

Sarah Harding, beloved singer, actress, TV personality and member of the almighty Girls Aloud, has passed away at the age of 39 after a long battle with cancer, her mother confirmed over the weekend in a heartbreaking update on social media.

It’s a strange experience to be a massive fan of an act popular everywhere but stateside. After all, Girls Aloud did not crossover to America in any real way. It’s stranger, still, to experience the loss of that act.

In another universe – the United Kingdom, among other territories – the group were once hailed as the most successful girl band of the 21st century, with a string of 20 consecutive Top 10 hits – from “Sound of the Underground” to “The Show” to “Love Machine” to “Biology” to “Something Kinda Oooh” to “Sexy! No No No” to “The Promise” to “Untouchable” to “Something New.” A record that’s difficult to get – not everybody has that to their credit, as an elusive chanteuse might say.

For me, the name Girls Aloud bubbled up in the pop nerd forums right around the same time as Britney‘s In The Zone, probably around “The Show.” They would become prominently featured on Peter Robinson‘s pop music bible PopJustice, my gateway drug to music outside of what was playing at Top 40 U.S. radio, and eventually, the reason I started writing about pop music myself, providing breathless updates about their every move during the peak years of my standom.

Every member of Girls Aloud had their own defining characteristics to a certain extent, even if their personalities weren’t as somewhat spelled out to us like the Spice Girls: Cheryl was the rough-’round-the-edges-Geordie-turned-posh pop princess who ascended quickly to tabloid royalty, Nadine was the powerhouse Irish diva with one hell of an accent (and an elusive passport), Nicola was the underdog-turned-indie darling, and Kimberley was the warm, mom-like theater nerd.

Sarah Harding, then, was the Rock Chick; the firecracker, a vital, mostly untamable energy that coursed throughout the Aloud catalog, providing wild yelps and arena-sized belting in the general pop-rock style of a P!nk, or a Miley Cyrus, or an early Gwen Stefani.

She earned herself a bit of a wild child reputation along the way, to say the very least, spilling out of clubs and causing scenes, but that chaos magic was absolutely part of what made The Aloud so great: as rebellious as she was, she always had that down-for-anything attitude, an everlasting positivity, and an unwavering enthusiasm for being in the band.

If you want to see the Harding Havoc summed up, there’s no better evidence than the footage of her accepting their much-deserved award at the prestigious BRITs in 2009. As she hooted and hollered and made her way up to the stage with the girls, she flailed around as Kimberley spoke and grabbed the mic from her visibly concerned bandmate to declare: “Hellooooo! Can I just say…it’s about tiiiiime! I think I’ve just wet myself.” Utter madness, in the best way.

Sarah was the one who Did The Most. She took big swings. Often they paid off, like the pristine, primrose-walking bridge of “The Promise,” the “take a walk on the wild si-i-ide of life” of “Something New,” the nostalgic ending of “Whole Lotta History,” and the surprisingly raw “Hear Me Out,” which she co-wrote, and which Xenomania maestro Brian Higgins just recently discussed while sharing the behind-the-scenes story.

Other times, we’d get a spare…bum note.

Knowing what Sarah was capable of as a performer at her best, with that big, sometimes unruly voice, made it feel okay to laugh about it when she pushed it too far. She always seemed game to make the best of it and have a laugh at herself too, even when facing the darkest of diagnoses.

“I keep thinking about funerals at the moment,” she wrote in her book.

“I’ve also thought about an epitaph for my grave. I’m thinking ‘FFS’ might be a good one. It’s probably been my most used phrase throughout this, with one crappy event following another. ‘For fuck’s sake!’”

I met Sarah briefly backstage when I was 24 at the Ten Tour in 2013.

Having been in full fangirl mode, jet-lagged and delirious upon arriving in a mysterious land across the pond for the first time, my memory of that moment is foggy at best, and I can’t recall what words were even exchanged. But even after a long night at the O2, she was still all smiles while showing off her fresh tattoo ink, entirely eager to chat and goof around, and just generally exist as the rowdy burst of energy we came to know and love.

Of course, that’s the Sarah that we knew: a public persona, the one we saw on stage and screen, which is merely scratching the surface of who she was to so many people. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for those loved ones in her life who truly knew her, and I’m so sorry for their loss.

For me, she exists as a core memory as a member of Girls Aloud, one of the key acts responsible for shaping my identity, my friendships and my relationship to pop music.

It’s hitting me now that there can never be a reunion with all five of them ever again – all differences, drama, disbandments and egos aside. It’s absolutely devastating, honestly, especially as the band nears their 20th anniversary, considering all the rumblings of a reunion tour for the past few years.

But there’s also a sense of camaraderie, a shared sadness, that is happening at the moment. I’m watching familiar faces from pop music spaces share their own stories of Sarah, and reflecting and reconnecting with friends with whom Girls Aloud is a most sacred shared interest as well. And we will always have that – and the music, the videos, the tours, the memories, the dreams that glitter – for ourselves.

Thank you for everything, Sarah. Aloud Forever. Rest in peace.

Photo credit: Instagram