They appear at random moments, like apparitions from a time and place that do not exist, but might have.

My Google Calendar alerts don't seem to realize that the world has changed. So every appointment or meeting date that ever appeared in an email or on a hotel reservation website or airline confirmation pops up on my phone, promising an exciting change to these unchanging days.

"ALERT: Stay At Parker Meridien New York Today - Check In 3 PM," my phone buzzes to tell me. This was a trip, planned months ago, in which my niece, who moved to Ireland, was going to come with her husband and two adorable sons, and we would go to the zoo and visit the grandmas at the beach and build the grandest sand castle ever.

But, of course, no.

And so the alerts arrive, cheerful reminders of long-canceled events: haircuts and concerts, backgammon tournaments and California vacations, times and dates all faded to mocking irrelevance.

My wife says they're like the names and phone numbers of relatives and friends you keep in your address book long after they've died because you can't bring yourself to delete them. But I didn't make that connection until I was talking to my therapist a few weeks ago, trying to give a name to the emotions we're all dealing with as we realize how long this is going to go on.

It's a sadness, I said, a longing for what might have been. It borders on depression, but that's not quite it.

And then she gave me a name for it.

"What you're experiencing," she told me, "is grief."

My first reaction was embarrassment. I mean, yes, we're all sad - but grief? That's the emotion when you lose a loved one. Isn't it wrong to compare what I'm going through to what the relatives of the dead and dying are going through?

"Obviously, many people are dealing with the grief that comes with loss of life," she told me. "But grief looks a lot of different ways."

We're grieving the loss of anticipated events, of human touch, of the chance to be productive, she told me. Loss of the simple pleasures of getting the kids out the door in the morning and going for a Starbucks. Loss of meaning. Of purpose.

And so, she says, we need to begin the long, difficult process of learning how to grieve.

It's a lesson I failed to learn once before, long, long ago.

My mother died when I was 9. We lived in the Bronx with a big extended family, grandmothers and uncles and aunts and cousins, who decided that the best way for my sister and me to handle my mother's death was radio silence. No one talked about it, ever. Pictures of her were hidden away, family lore was rewritten to remove her name. My Grandma Fagel came to take care of us and always wore a brave smile, hoping we'd do the same.

So we buried our immense sadness and acted as happy as we could. But grief, we learned, cannot be ignored, only delayed. So when a series of debilitating anxiety attacks in my 20s sent me to my first psychiatrist's couch, to start facing feelings of unspeakable loss and learning to speak of them, I finally began to understand the enormously important purpose that grief serves.

And what I learned then, I'm having to relearn now.

The first step in learning to grieve is allowing yourself to grieve. I've worked from home for many years, so keeping up my routine has been simple: set an alarm, take a shower, make coffee, write, eat lunch, take a bike ride, make a gin and tonic at 5 p.m. and start cooking dinner.

Staying distracted is the easy part.

Allowing sadness is the hard part.

Especially when there's a teenager in the house.

Max is a high school senior and missing all the magic of senior year: the last softball season, prom, graduation. The alert for the big Seniors Celebration Dinner just popped up on my phone.


Yet I've found myself doing just what my relatives did to me: trying to help Max ignore grief. "Focus on the things you can control," I hear myself saying. "Go to your virtual classes. Do your homework. Get dressed occasionally." Each night at dinner, we take a moment to remember those who are truly suffering now and give thanks because we're the lucky ones, with food and shelter and health.

In other words, we bury our grief.

"Grief is not a pie," my therapist says when I relate these stories. "If you take a slice of it, it's not like there's less for other people. You don't have to ration your feelings because someone else has it worse." It's also, she explains, not linear. We don't go through those familiar grief stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - like stops on a train line. People deal with grief the way kids eat an apple. They will take a bite, put it down, run around, grab it, bite it somewhere else, move on. Grief can work like that, letting us zoom in and out of different emotions, sometimes feeling several of them at once.

So it's with that understanding - that you can feel several feelings at the same time, even if they're wildly conflicting - that I've come to learn to let Max grieve. And to let myself grieve, as well.

Occasionally, I stop by Max's room and sit down and say, "This really sucks, doesn't it." The conversations that follow have been eye-opening. Because, unbeknown to me, Max has been talking about it all along. "For the first month, in our online adviser group meetings, that's all we talked about, how bummed we all were," he said. "It was kind of all right that you didn't talk about it at home. I needed that balance so the sadness wouldn't be so . . . ubiquitous."

And so, the lessons I wanted to teach Max, Max is teaching me.

I realize that in my childhood I dealt with sorrow as though I were in some "Twilight Zone" episode about a dystopian parallel universe. I always imagined there existed, somewhere, another universe, one in which my mother came back from the hospital that last day, walked into the kitchen, told us that it was all a big mistake. That everything was going to be okay.

And that is what my Google Alerts are showing me: a parallel universe, where we all walk into the Seniors Celebration Dinner and see Max's friends and their parents, all laughing and celebrating - and hugging.

Remember hugging?

There will be a normal life again for some of us, someday. The lucky ones. We can let ourselves hang on to that thought - but we can also face, with open if tearful eyes, all that we've missed, all that we'll never get back. That graduation. That softball season, parents sitting shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers.

Remember sitting shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers?

We can face, as painful as it may be, the thought of touching a little Irish baby's head, a child who will not be a baby by the time we hold him, if we ever do. That trip to the warm and boundless sea, in a forever-lost spring.

We will never get those back.

That really sucks, doesn't it.

But perhaps it's in facing that parallel universe - and allowing ourselves the howling, harrowing sadness we feel at not being about to reach that world - that the grieving process can begin.

Perhaps, under the home-sewn mask, we don't need to always wear Grandma Fagel's brave smile.

- - -

Lerman is a former national editor of USA Today, co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted" and author of "Dadditude."

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