There is, famously, a numbing effect in big numbers. Humans tend to feel maximum compassion for one person, one story, one tragedy. When the numbers grow too big, and become statistics, the compassion snaps off, as if the brain can’t comprehend and the heart can’t stretch and the spirit can’t stand.
But there is heartbreak in big numbers and a terror too, and, in poor old Blighty, we’ve got to the stage of the horrifying numbers. Even some of the most practical and stoical people I know are feeling it. It’s a combination of despair and alarm. It’s the fear of uncertainty – where will this end? It’s the overwhelming nature of so much grief – so many lost loved ones, so many people dying without their families able to hold their hands, so many unattended funerals.
At the beginning of this thing, I tried to lock in to my rational brain. When my emotions are running riot, I often turn to the rational brain. I looked up the numbers of avoidable deaths every year in Britain. That big number was pretty shocking. It’s around 140,00. (These were government figures, so I’m taking them at their word.) As I understood it, ‘avoidable’ meant everything from falling off a ladder to dying of something that could have been curable if you’d gone to the doctor sooner.
For a short while, in a twisted sort of way, this made me feel better. There was an awfulness to that big number, but a faint sense of perspective too.
Then that stopped working. Because no man is a bloody island, and no woman either. I’m all John Donne at the moment: every death diminishes me. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
When I think about the big numbers, I think about balance.
I think – and this is wildly personal – that the griefs of strangers should be honoured and felt and marked. I don’t know the family of the midwife who retrained for midwifery because she wanted to follow her dream, and who died this week. But they are my fellow humans and my fellow countrymen and women, and I ache for their loss. There is something about the intensity of this crisis that makes strangers no longer strangers. It’s so trite to say so, but we are all in this together.
At the same time, if I go about empathising too hard and letting my bleeding heart bleed, I’ll be no good to anyone. (I also risk becoming a bore and a drama queen.) So – the balance.
I can’t not feel it, this big death number, just as I could not not feel the deaths of my parents, or the death of my dear friend just before Christmas, or even the deaths of my sweet old dogs, many, many years ago.
I can’t not feel it, even though I often tell myself that the grief does not do the departed any good. I don’t know where the dead go, but if they are, by any strange chance, looking down on those of us left behind, they would not be delighted by the tears and the pain. They would want us to be happy.
Yet, if I’ve learned one thing about grief, it is that you can’t avoid it. You can’t dodge it or swerve it or pretend it’s not there. You can’t reason yourself out of it, because it’s not useful. (And maybe it does have its uses, as it reminds me to love the living and to throw myself into existence as if each day were my last.)
But I do try to search for that balance, to remember that sorrow and delight can trot along beside each other like two gentle carriage horses. I can, as my brilliant friend Jane says, hunt for the joy, even as I am marking the loss. I can honour the dead and feel for the bereaved, and still see the beauty of a sunrise, or a feel the energy of a high Scottish wind, or bask in the peace of a thoroughbred at home in her world.
One does not cancel the other. They can live together, perhaps sometimes quarrelling a little, or trying to outdo each other, or getting each other in a muddle. I can learn to sort them out and let them find their place.
And now I’m so tired that I can’t remember what I’m saying or what I’m writing or what I’m thinking. I hope some of this makes sense, but I don’t think it matters that much if it doesn’t.
My last thought is from Philip Larkin. I remember it as ‘what is left of us is love.’ In fact, the actual line is ‘What will survive of us is love.’ There is a beautiful, melancholy, true consolation in that, in the end. In the end.