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Surviving too many friends.

Jun 1, 2000

12 years ago I was diagnosed, 4 months after my partner, Drew. Drew died 10 months after that. Since then I have lost in excess of 50 friends, including my brother. I appreciate that in parts of the US and other countries people have lost far more. But here in the UK it's unusual. For the first 10 years after Drew's death I occupied myself in work. I managed two gay men's health projects in the UK. As friends died I burrowed myself deeper in my work, simply passing off their deaths as "Something you get used to". The reality was that I didn't "get used" to it at all and two years ago it caught up with me. My own health began to fail and I became more and more depressed at losing my friends. I've been hospitalized twice for depression and am receiving on-going treatment, including psychotherapy and anti-depressants. This on top of my HIV drugs and illnesses. But nothing seems to work. I feel guilty at having out-lived them all and desperately lonely. I have friends who are supportive but they don't seem to realize how devastating this is. If someone else says I should be glad I'm alive anyway, I'll scream! My situation now is that I'm frightened of getting close to anyone, always at the back of my mind is the thought that I'll lose them and get hurt more. I feel so angry at what has/is happening and so impotent as well. I started writing this and now I'm not sure what my question was. I'm looking for some answers but am not sure what my question is. I've tried religion, although it and I have a bad record. I made the mistake of talking to a priest about Drew's death, he told me it would be worse to lose a wife or husband, but that the death of "my friend" saddened him! Drew and I were together 8 years, living as a couple. But I guess being gay and not having a marriage licence made it less. Even writing this I can feel my anger. I'd be grateful for any thoughts or suggestions you can give me. Though please don't tell me to think positive etc., I've heard all that and all it makes me do is run away.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

I would never give you such a platitude as "think positive." I validate all of your anger, hurt, pain and fear. You have every right to feel what and how you are feeling! It is indeed bewildering and daunting to be a survivor of such devastation as you describe. I think that part of the problem that compounds your rage at having buried so many loved ones and a husband is that you had not really allowed yourself to experience the hurt and pain as it was happening. Thus it built up until you could not take any more.

It sounds like you tried to run away from your grief through work, and it only served as a temporary distraction. I do not believe that any of us ever really get over the kind of loss or complicated bereavement that you are living with. Both my professional as well as personal experience has been that the best any human being can do is to attempt to learn to accommodate himself to the reality of having survived so many deaths. Some people feel as you do, guilty about having outlived lovers and friends. Not everyone feels this way. Others feel devastated by the losses but at least challenged by or even thrilled with having been spared, understanding that there is not any REASON why they have not died and so many others have, and thus confused by their own mixed blessing of having outlived so many loved ones. Many concentration camp survivors and survivors of natural disasters faced the same emotional challenges that you are currently wrestling with and have written eloquently about their own struggles.

You are certainly in the midst of what I call "bereavement overload." The enormous toll these losses have taken are incalculable. Having buried a husband and a friendship group myself I identify with how you are feeling, and my heart breaks for what you are going through. I believe that you became depressed from not processing the powerful feelings you had about losing the people who you loved so much. There is no way that you are not going to be sad, but sadness is different from depression.

You might find some comfort in my book called "Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of A Partner" published by Haworth/ Harrington Park Press. This is a collection of essays by gay men who have survived the death of their own partners describing how they stumbled through life trying to rebuild their lives while making sense of their situations.

I am appalled at the stupidity and insensitivity of the priest you spoke to. His response, aside from being inhumane, was homophobic. It is also an example of how too many gay people go through what you did and experience a disenfranchised grief where your grief is not recognized nor validated and the meaning of the relationship you had with the deceased was not acknowledged or validated.

I know that in London and the other large cities in the UK there are gay sensitive HIV/AIDS bereavement groups. I urge you to call the local AIDS service organizations and though you have a high profile in your community (as I do in my community here in NYC), to enroll in a gay-specific or gay-sensitive grief group in order to meet other men going through things that are similar to what you are struggling with.

Please feel free to write again and let me know how you are progressing. It will never be easy, but you can, as I did, learn to live with all the feelings and emerge as a stronger and more powerful person.

Michael Shernoff, MSW

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