Our Loss of the Trivial Is No Small Thing

The little things we’re missing during the pandemic add up to a lot

For weeks now, there has been a lot of pretending going on. I have deployed all kinds of pretending exercises to stop the grief I feel I have no right to have — grief for the loss of so many things. Some will come back: museums, sports, sanity. And some won’t: cherished restaurants, canceled milestones, confusion about who or what is essential.

I pretend a bit when I notice the late afternoon light slanting into my apartment, which I never noticed before, and which now seems to announce itself vehemently, radiating a white, blinding blaze. This living room reverse-eclipse happens sometime before the demented White House daily briefing. I pretend that the light burning my eyeballs doesn’t cast an uncanny Midsommar aesthetic across the room, turning my house into a daylight horror set.

The quarantine is now a way of life. It’s an awful way to live; we can agree on that, but there is no alternative. Because — and this is the necessary disclaimer to inoculate against seeming selfish and short-sighted — it’s a matter of life and death. The disclaimer is sincere. I am unequivocal about recognizing the difference between my discomfort, which by virtue of being currently healthy, is luxurious compared to the trauma unfolding around me in New York City. But I also recognize that my pretending is protective, as I know I could join the ranks of the sick, financially ruined, or otherwise permanently damaged at any moment. Covid-19 has unleashed a kind of live-action suspense into our lives that we were mostly unfamiliar with.

Mental gymnastics of this kind are what have stopped me from acknowledging the small things I’m missing. I must grieve these things quietly, so as not to be marked a Trivial Citizen. Years of Catholic school and terrifying confession experiences prepared me for this. It’s no trouble for me to pull an internal lever and access enough hot shame to picture myself as Cersei Lannister, paraded through the streets and pelted with shit slingshots, should anyone find out how profoundly I miss sushi, movie theaters — specifically the costly Alamo Drafthouse and its Thai chili wings — and sampling perfumes at Sephora on all different parts of my body, but then not buying any of them.

More than a month in, I think it is okay now to grieve the trivial along with the major. I don’t need to say much about the biggest of these losses: grieving the loss of time with the friends and family I don’t see. If they all stay alive and healthy, I can handle missing them and waiting to see them — especially if they don’t make me have Zooms.

But I am grieving also the loss of food not cooked by me, or any person inside my kitchen, amid the clamorous noise of banging pots, followed by the crashing of loose pot lids which will never find a proper place in this world. I miss the time when I didn’t witness everyone preparing all their snacks and meals and then hear the eating of same. More crunching than I can bear of apples, pretzels, and — please, someone help me — granola.

I miss the time when some meals were eaten off-site in school cafeterias and office lunch rooms. I am grieving for the time when there were fewer things being toasted. Everyone is toasting everything. Why is this? Someday the smell of toasted foods will be the scent that awakens my PTSD — along with the sirens blaring, shrieking in competition. Sirens I pretend not to hear.

I’m aching to visit a bookstore and a shoe store and a wine store and to walk around without violent musings in my head directed toward fellow walkers who come too close or mouth-breathers during their droplet-dispersal jogs.

I miss stopping to pet other people’s dogs.

I would like to burn the white clogs I clomp around in when I switch from flip-flops to spice up my living room look. When I take it from day to night, as one does.

I’m grieving the act of meeting someone someplace. Anyplace. The moment you meet and your time together begins. And, even sweeter, the moment you say goodbye and come back home and feel the feeling of being home again.

I miss choosing to stay home.

I hate the mask, and the fact that my children pop theirs on without a remark. Their adaptability impresses me but makes me sad too. My daughter makes a bun of her hair and wraps the ear bands around the bun because her face is too small to keep the mask on. Watching her wordlessly do this in front of the mirror breaks my heart.

I even miss not knowing what my kids do all day, a thing I never thought I’d feel. I miss missing them.

I ache to again watch my son leave the house before 7 a.m. for the subway. He takes the train to school over the Manhattan Bridge and says he likes to watch all the sleeping adults. I’m sorry he will be afraid when he returns to the subway, aware of every breath around him. I miss watching his 30-pound backpack and earbuds as he leaves. I miss the pang of mourning I conjured daily for his babyhood, all of it wrapped up in the act of sending him out to his own life each day. I even miss not knowing what my children do all day, a thing I never thought I’d feel. I miss missing them.

I am grieving over the idea, which is unfathomable right now, that my children will not return to school in the fall. This cannot happen, I keep saying. It makes me feel in control for a second when I say that. This cannot happen. No summer trips, no beaches, no camps: all manageable. Sad, but still the non-essential life components of the few and not the many. Being home with my kids has many excellent benefits — time together we wouldn’t have had, elaborate meals we never had time for, deep conversations, screaming matches, soccer balls smashing walls and an indoor basketball hoop I allowed because someone must have roofied me. But no school in September? That’s a grief I’m not sure I can endure in the long hours of today.

There is no blame in this, but remote learning, when not one’s choice, is terrible. This is not the fault of teachers or schools, the mayor or the governor. My admiration-and-respect-for-teachers disclaimer goes here. Teachers hate it too. This is not my kids’ fault or yours. But it’s fucking terrible. It’s depressing even when it’s not.

Assignments and routines must continue. The nothing option is disastrous, and would crush us under the tonnage of gaming and TikTok. But, as one example, I think my kids “learn” more watching some of the movies we screen than they might in the virtual classroom, where all of the sparks of actual school are undeniably missing. Watching the grueling and gorgeous Manchester by the Sea with our teenagers generated more discussion, emotion, and character analysis than much of the previous month’s chats about “what’s happening in school.” I’ve noticed that sharing heart-wrenching narratives allows their — and my — anxieties and tears to release. The ones that remain locked up in the pretending we do each day.

I grieve for my kids’ lost private lives. No graduation, no sports, no dances, no dates, no coaches, no opportunities for the general amorphous flow of being a teenager, hanging out, bullshitting around, finding your place, asserting yourself, changing yourself, lying to your parents.

This will all come back, but how will this lost period have changed things? I don’t know about the boy or girl who might have been kissed or what friendship may have been sealed in these months. The idea that this is finite can close the wound, but the notion of beginning next year this way? Very dark. This period of the pandemic has felt like a tapering. Like an ending that can be regrown. But beginning this way is the opposite of a taper; it’s a bloom. I grieve for my own knowledge that I may have to teach them how to do this — because I don’t want to, and because I may be very bad at it. I don’t like teaching the act of pretending.

Recognizing those truly suffering in this — the sick, unemployed, unprotected, uninsured, the many dead — is what will lead us out. Having the imagination, going forward, to exist in realities not our own is the way to make economic, environmental, electoral change. It’s the way to examine what we’ve done to the planet and most of all, to stop torturing animals, which, we know, is the behavior that gets us into these global catastrophes. Pretending we can fix all of that “when this is over” helps me through these days that feel like weeks, containing infinite moods within them. Feelings of imprisonment, liberation, rage, safety, and danger can exist in an hour’s time, one after another. And that’s simply while listening to one’s spouse chew almonds. Suddenly the things I thought I couldn’t endure are coming to pass with depressing frequency as we get accustomed to this life, and lazy in our efforts to keep pretending.

I know this is selfish. It is myopic. It is trivial. A tantrum. All we have to do is stay alive, keep others alive, keep people fed and employed. The rest is extra, I know. But today, forgive me, I am going to grieve. The dreaded “new normal,” a concept I fear as much as I hate the phrase, feels like a funeral booked for the future. And there have been far, far too many of those. Our grief is still expanding, out there, waiting for us to catch up.

Photo sources: Moment/Getty Images, AFP Contributor/Getty Images, The Image Bank/Getty Images, Cavan Images/Getty Images, Alexander Crispin/Getty Images, Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images, John Cancalosi/Getty Images

Renee Dale is a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New York Times Book Review, Glamour and elsewhere.

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