Simon and I play cards sometimes, for amusement only, never for money, and usually only when we’re on holiday for some reason.
The game I prefer is “500”. The first player to score 500 wins.
The digit cards (2-9) each score 5. If you’re holding 3 x 9s, it’s worth 15 points. If you’re holding 3 x 2s, it’s worth 15 points. But somehow holding the 9s feels like it’s worth more than the 2s, even though it is not.
The 10 and picture cards each score 10. So 3 x 10s is worth 30 points. 3 kings is worth 30 points. But somehow holding the 3 kings feels like it’s worth more than the 10s, though it isn’t.
I’m sure there’s some clever people who have written something on the psychology of numbers, but it isn’t me. You know my subject: grief, life, loss.
We get dealt a hand and that’s our life. And some things don’t seem so valuable, but they’re as valuable as others, though we don’t always recognise it. And some things seem really valuable, but it’s all up to our perception. But then again, the fact is that some cards just are more valuable than others. Kings vs 2s, for instance.
So when I sit down to play and the hand I get is full of low scorers, I am disappointed. As best as I try with my 2s and 3s or even 9s, they will never beat queens and kings. And there is a feeling of frustration. Can’t I give the cards back and get dealt another hand? Can I please? But the universe answers, “no”.
All things are not equal. You might have arthritis running in your family line, or cancer, or heart disease. You might be born with the proverbial silver spoon, or in the council flats of Stevenage. Your father might have been born in Poland and fled for his life, or – a generation later – he might be born in Poland and move to the UK for better job prospects. Your family can be loving and tight-knit, or they can be dysfunctional. You might live in a sleepy Welsh village with views of mountains and forests and sea, or you might live in a small Italian village where the ground shakes and disaster strikes. You might live in a place where women can choose what they wear – pretty much anything – or you might be in a place where you’re told to cover up or uncover.
The variables are as many as there are people on this planet. And the hands we are dealt are neither equal nor fair. We make do with what we have and we try to make sense of it, but sometimes we want to yell in frustration: “It isn’t fair. I don’t understand.”
It doesn’t make sense, does it. Young men playing football on the beach until the waves take them and their families are left distraught, confused, angry. Those Italian villagers buried under the rubble. The countless victims of war. Children who go to bed hungry.
There are no magic answers or trite responses. Even for people of faith, there is a big puzzle about why some things happen the way they do. You can look for the good in it, but I tell you from experience, when you’re a parent who has lost a child, no good that might be a partial result can ever make up for the loss of him or her – or them. You might start a charity that raises thousands of pounds, or campaign for better safety or some other “good” outcome, but it doesn’t bring him, or her, or them, back.
And the ache of loss, that utter feeling of frustration that you can’t go back in time, you can’t get your child or loved one back again, makes you want to yell at the universe.
And so you do yell, or at least, sometimes I do. And there is a strange relief when you unbottle and allow yourself to be honest about how you are feeling.
To say that life is unfair and you don’t understand WHY.
To have (at least) a few moments when you don’t put on the brave face.
Perhaps to have a little argument with the God you believe in (I think he can handle it.)
To express the anguish, the emotions that you often hide because you want to appear like you’re coping, because that’s what those around you expect.
To stand on a deserted sandy beach, looking out to sea, and raise your voice above the noise of the waves.
To shout at your loved one, “Come back!”
And then to keep walking.
I don’t know why it helps, but it seems to me – as someone who has suffered a series of profound losses – that expressing those emotions on occasion does actually bring some relief, at least temporarily.
There’s the keep walking bit too. The keep going. We keep on going although we don’t understand, although life isn’t fair, although life might have been cruel to us. We keep on going although we’ve lost what it did not seem we could live without. Yet we are living.
Take a deep breath and another step. Living.