Hearing that a friend or family member received any kind of diagnosis can be devastating, and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) or HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, a retrovirus that causes AIDS) are no different. Here’s how you can be there for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDs, support them and help them emotionally.
While it’s human nature to feel sad and angry when a loved one gets AIDS or HIV, for this disease, not everyone will instantly feel for those afflicted. Somehow, in bringing awareness in how to prevent AIDS and HIV through unprotected sex and drug use, it has created a stigma against patients. The truth is though: good people still get sick. This is not a time to be preachy or judgmental.
AIDS and HIV aren’t the only health conditions with blame-the-victim stigmas. Lung cancer, Type-2 Diabetes and the Human Papillomavirus patients often have to deal with the idea that they “brought on” their health condition themselves with bad behavior. Alienating those who are ill though doesn’t help anyone – the patients, their family, their friends or society.
Your First Reaction
If you regret how you reacted to the news that a loved one has AIDS or HIV, know that you are perfectly normal. It’s not the news we would ever anticipate or look forward to hearing, so there is no way to practice or perfect the right way to respond. According to the University of California San Francisco Center for HIV Information, the first emotions are typically: denial, anger, sadness, depression, fear, anxiety and stress. And everything you instantly feel, know that they felt the same things when they were first diagnosed.
Actions speak louder than words though so after your first reaction, talk with them. Offer support. Be there for them. Be a friend.
Understand Why They Told You
When someone tells you that they have AIDS or HIV, it’s because they have chosen to tell you. They feel the need to be honest with you. So take this as a gift of how they perceive your relationship. As well, you’ll want to be respectful, especially if you are one of a few who know about this—so don’t spread the news. Let them be in control of telling who gets to know what. If they want you to inform others, respect their decisions, be the support they’re asking you to be, and oblige.
If you heard through the grapevine, however, reach out. Pretending you don’t know doesn’t help. If they find out you knew and didn’t say anything, it will hurt them and they will think you couldn’t be bothered. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; a private message on social media or a phone call works. If you’re especially close with them, a visit or a coffee is a nice way to let them know you care.
What To (and Not To) Say
Don’t stress on finding out more about AIDS or HIV. There are many online resources that can answer those questions. There is such a stigma with this disease, so patients can feel really vulnerable. Asking questions then about how they acquired the virus might alienate them and may push them deeper into feelings of regret and depression.
Don’t brush it off and say: “Everything will be okay.” Although we have come a long way since the 1980s in terms of treating AIDS and HIV, this is still a very serious disease with very serious outcomes for patients.
Instead form your questions around them, how they’re feeling and how they’re coping. Unless you are a professional health care provider, as a friend you can only do a few things in this situation: support them, motivate them and be there for them.
According to AIDS.gov: “People living with HIV/AIDS may experience feelings of hopelessness, depression, stress, and anxiety—and you may experience those things too, as a caregiver. These feelings can come and go rapidly for both of you.”
While you may not be in sync with your emotions, take it in stride. You can use your similar feelings to bond and support them.
How You Can Help
Even if you are not a caregiver, know that your relationship with them is a big deal. AIDS.gov reports that “studies have shown that people who disclose their HIV status respond better to treatment than those who don’t.”
You are an integral part of their support system. Whether you drive them to medical appointments, listen to them vent on a bad day or help distract them with a moment of normality, know that you’re helping.
When To Seek Professional Support
Don’t be ashamed if you need to involve a professional. There are a variety of people who can help, such as a counselor, psychologist or a support group. You and your loved one don’t have to go through this alone.
Learn more about AIDS and HIV and how you can help.