First Person: The Invisible Man
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As I write this introduction, I have become invisible again. I first wrote this essay when my partner died 13 years ago. I had forgotten it. Over the past three years, however, as my wife succumbed to brain cancer, it became relevant again.
In retrospect, it was a scene from a movie. On July 17, 1996, my partner was aboard TWA Flight 800 bound for Paris, bound for a good time. There was to be good art and architecture and better meals. It was raining in Pittsburgh, and as my colleagues trickled into the office they found me staring out the window at the rain running down the glass in streaks, trying to make sense of things.
They spoke. Some offered condolences and others refused to give up hope until the final flight manifest was issued. They knew her, too.
Such reactions are not unusual in times of loss. I was expecting what occurred next: the final, terrible confirmation. I also anticipated an outpouring of shock, sadness and sympathy for a loss that many of us shared.
I was not prepared for the silence. People I've worked and socialized with for years did not rush to express their concern. Instead, I noticed that they had begun to consciously avoid me.
I had become the new Invisible Man.
I do not report this out of anger but of bewilderment and in the hope that my experience will prevent others from having to suffer in the same way. My pain was double: loss and then silence.
I would get up early and walk the track at Carnegie Mellon, then eat breakfast at the same Pittsburgh diner I have frequented for years. In the past, people came in and said "hi," or just nodded. Now, many of the same people have ventured in, taken a quick glance at me and immediately turned around and left without a word. People I knew have crossed the street to avoid me, and crossed back once I have passed. I am acknowledged as a presence, but ignored as a human.
I've discussed the Invisible Man phenomenon with friends who've suffered similar losses -- and who have received similar treatment. At best, we've decided, people don't speak because they're embarrassed and don't know what to say. At worst, it's as if we've somehow introduced the unpleasant fact of mortality into their lives. Either way, the silence is shameful.
Part of the silence is a result of the way we've constructed life around us. We have little or no sense of shared grief. If someone dies, especially someone young like my partner who was torn out of the sky and hurled into the ocean, we have no reaction other than fear or denial. In our youth-oriented culture, death is the ultimate insult.
Comedian George Carlin characterized it aptly: "Thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die -- I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription."
At a funeral at the Episcopal Church, Dean Werner stated, "No one passes away, the only person I know who has passed away was Neil O'Donnell in Super Bowl XXX."
So we deny the message-bearer, in this case, me, the Invisible Man.
Yet, while I must bear my personal loss, why must I also deal with the silence? As fellow humans, where is their consideration and simple acknowledgement of my sorrow to help stanch my wound? Many people, out of some perverse self-centeredness make excuses for this behavior. They should not.
First Published July 25, 2009 12:00 am