Good Grief, or, What I Wanted to Tell Bonnie
January 6, 2010
I wanted to write a bit about the conversation in which Bonnie, editorial director of TheBody.com, invited me to become a blogger, because our talk is still very much on my mind for reasons having nothing to do with blogging. Oddly enough, a passing comment by Bonnie provoked in me a meditation on how our culture expects us to handle grief. I'll get to all that in a moment. First, a little background about the conversation itself.
During the HIV controller symposium we had here in San Francisco this past October, my friend Loreen Willenberg told me that TheBody.com wanted to interview some of the controllers who attended the event. (I actually think Loreen may have suggested that I be among the interviewees.) So the day after the symposium, Bonnie interviewed me, Loreen, and another woman by phone. Not long after that, Bonnie contacted me and asked me if I'd be interested in becoming a blogger for this site. She informed me she'd be out here in San Francisco at a conference, and she suggested we meet up and talk about blogging. I readily agreed.
We arranged to meet in the lobby of a big hotel here in San Francisco that was hosting the conference. The place was buzzing with AIDS activists attending the meeting, and the lobby was so crowded I wondered whether I'd actually be able to find Bonnie and her colleague, Olivia. But after a cell phone call, an exchange of physical descriptions, and finally some frantic waving of arms, we managed to connect. We exchanged introductions, I sat down, and we began our chat.
When you meet Bonnie in person, you can't help but be struck by the vibrancy of her presence. She's clearly a woman of enormous energy. She talked excitedly about what she was doing at the conference and launched into an explanation of how new technologies were making it possible to upload interviews and video blogs to the web on the spot, proudly showing me some tiny device with which she was recording digital video. (I can now confess that I understood almost none of the technology part of the conversation, but I was careful to smile politely and nod at what I thought were the appropriate times.) She gave me some background about TheBody.com, and we discussed the role of bloggers on the site and topics I might actually blog about. She asked me about my own personal life story and my history with HIV. I gave her a brief rundown, and then the conversation took a turn I hadn't quite expected.
I don't recall how it came up, but for some reason Bonnie mentioned her personal connection to HIV. She told me that her brother had died of AIDS in the early 90s, in the days before there was effective treatment. As she said this, her eyes, so bright a moment before, suddenly darkened, and she looked away from me. I think I murmured, "I'm so sorry," but I can't even be sure I actually got the words out. She was looking down at her slender hands, which she rubbed together a bit nervously. There was the briefest of pauses, and then without looking at me, Bonnie said, "No, it's OK . . . really."
Sitting there, I thought I could see her trying to hide from me her grief over her brother's death. Perhaps because I've also lost a brother, I felt a powerful urge to offer her something more than the standard condolences. I wanted to let her know that my own experience meant I could appreciate some of what she must be feeling. I wanted to say I understood it still hurt. Above all I wanted to tell her that she didn't have to pretend for me. She didn't have to put on a brave face for my benefit. She didn't have to claim that it was OK, when I could see, or thought I could see, how sharply she still felt the loss. Not for me, Bonnie, I wanted to say, not for me. I wanted to tell her that as far as I was concerned, she could cry, or scream with rage, or rail at the senselessness and unfairness of losing, at such a young age, someone she loved so dearly. I wanted to say that for me, there's no shame in still feeling -- and expressing -- the grief that returns when the memory of the death of a loved one resurfaces.
But the moment passed. Recovering her composure quickly, Bonnie looked up, met my gaze again, and returned to the business at hand. I had hesitated to say what I was thinking, and now I felt it was too late. In my mind, I rationalized saying nothing. After all, I told myself, I could have misread the look on her face. Perhaps I had completely misinterpreted her change of expression. If I had misjudged the situation, and then had said what I was thinking, she might been completely baffled. In that case, I'd have felt like a fool. Besides, I told myself, it would be presumptuous of me to assume that she would have found what I had to say comforting or helpful. And surely it was not my place -- was it? -- to speak in such personal terms to a woman I'd only just met. In any event, it was hardly reasonable to expect that she'd give voice to her grief in the presence of a stranger. No, I assured myself, it would have transgressed the boundaries of propriety to say anything more than I had. I was raised to observe a certain etiquette in matters as delicate as this. Better to utter a rote formality than to broach a potentially uncomfortable subject.
Still, I cannot get that moment out of my mind. Whether I was right or wrong in remaining silent, I still wonder what it is that makes us feel (as Bonnie seems to have) that we can't express grief. And it's not just that we can't express it; we behave as though we're compelled to deny we still feel it. Why do we feel the need to profess that everything is fine, that we've gotten over something so painful as the death of a loved one? Perhaps it is American culture's unrelenting insistence on being "positive" -- what Barbara Ehrenreich has termed our "culture of optimism." Were we to show our grief, we might be thought of as gloomy "downers." Or maybe it's the expectation that we will just "move on" after a tragedy. We Americans are a forward-looking bunch of people who don't seem to place all that much value on introspection and hindsight. How many times have you heard politicians or cultural icons talk about how we should be "focusing on the future"?
Certainly, the grieving process must come to an end, but that end must not be the denial of grief, but rather its acknowledgment and acceptance. The end of the process is the admission that our sorrow over the loss has simply become a fixture of our emotional being. In short, the end of grieving does not mean the end of grief. Our sadness, pain, and suffering will remain with us as long as our memories of our departed loved ones remain.
And this is as it should be. In mourning those lost to us, we recall not only their existence but their cherished place in our lives and hearts. I think those we love become part of us, and when they die, a part of us dies with them, but their memory remains. HIV has claimed the lives of so many people. Each one of them was someone's beloved son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, spouse or partner. In grieving, we do no more than honor those who have touched us deeply.
So next time, Bonnie, weep if that is what you feel. I, for one, will think no less of you for it.
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Outlier: My Unusual Journey With HIV
My name's John. I'm 49 years old. I'm a lawyer by profession. I now live in beautiful San Francisco, California, after spending a long time on the east coast. I was diagnosed in 2004, so I've been positive for something like five years.
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