Do you remember, remembering? When we used to take a moment of silence at gay pride? When every meeting we attended on HIV began with an acknowledgement of those that were no longer with us? When every World AIDS Day we talked about AIDS, and the overwhelming impact it has had on all of our lives?
Did you take that time today? I’m not sure if I would have if I weren’t writing this blog.
But, as soon as I stop what I am doing to reflect on World AIDS Day. In less time than a blink I am flooded with memories. I remember Roger who died in 1991, five years before Protease Inhibitors would reshape for so many what it meant to live with HIV. He took so many medications, only in the end to stop everything and attempt to fight his illness with the power of love. I remember Michael who died the following year. I was 24 and I think he was a year or two older. Just a child. But, I didn’t know that at the time.
I remember so many lovers and friends who are no longer here. So many strangers on the street, whose faces I will never see again. A generation wiped out by the epidemic.
And, still, I remind myself that it is not over. That people all over the world are getting exposed, becoming ill and dying from HIV-related illnesses. That so many friends who have survived AIDS, continue to deal with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lipodystrophy, cognitive challenges, and other HIV-related (or not HIV-related?) illnesses.
I consider the new challenges that accompany living longer than expected – Rebuilding lost careers, developing new social circles, managing survivor guilt, living through loss, and adapting to aging – to name just a few.
I reflect on the impact the epidemic has had on all of our lives. The losses, and the strategies we developed to cope. The opportunities that we could not avail ourselves of and the strengths we acquired fighting (literally and figuratively) to care for each other. And, I recognize the scars that I acquired from surviving those battles – how they are now a part of my constitution, just like my family and my sexuality shaped my identity growing up.
People sometimes ask me, “Why should I remember those things? They are just going to make me sad.” There are so many responses to that question. First, I say, “If just thinking about the past makes you sad, then you were probably sad already.”
Avoidance is a problematic coping strategy. When we don’t deal with our feelings they tend to get expressed in other ways. Just like a dammed river creates flooding in other low lying areas, unacknowledged feelings can leak out and create problems in other areas of our lives. When we know what we are feeling, we can choose what we want to do with those feelings.
I have seen so many reactions to grief: sadness, fear, excitement, guilt, anger. In my work I help people to have all their feelings. I’ve found that feelings tend to come and go. Happiness, sadness, deeply felt, still passes. Resilience means acknowledging losses without getting mired in grief.
Rituals help us to make our feelings tangible. Lighting a candle, visiting a significant place, talking with friends, writing a blog are gestures that offer us the opportunity to mobilize our feelings into actions that honor ourselves and those that we remember.
Reminiscing can be healing, especially as we age. Our memories connect us to the past, reminding us of who and what were once important to us. We can draw strength from people and experiences from our past, but only if we can allow ourselves to remember them. Reminiscing offers an opportunity to redefine ourselves in the present. Our recollections contain tools that we can use to manage upcoming challenges.
The men I interviewed for Aging with HIV talked about how living with HIV went from being a trauma to become “a part of our lives.” The landscape of AIDS has changed for all of us, and we can each benefit from taking the time to reflect this World AIDS Day.