20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014)


The Grief That Keeps on Giving: Thoughts on HIV, Loss, and an Opportunity to Heal

August 25, 2014

David Fawcett Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

David Fawcett Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

I first heard the news that Malaysian Airlines flight 17 had been shot out of the sky at a stopover in Sydney, en route to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne. I stared at the television in disbelief as the initial (and incorrect) coverage reported that as many as 100 conference delegates had been onboard. I felt numb even as the number of attendees on board dropped over the next few days to fifty and then, finally, to six, among them one of the world's leading HIV researchers from the Netherlands and an official of the World Health Organization.

At the conference opening a few days later, the atmosphere was heavy with a stunned sadness all too familiar for the thousands in attendance. There was grief and anger over the unfolding tragedy as investigators were stymied in their efforts to reach the debris, which had fallen into a no-mans-land. For these conference attendees, many of whom had lived with the HIV virus or had devoted their lives to eradicate it, the sudden and pointless violence of MH17 activated old and disturbingly-familiar feelings of countless losses.

I sat at the initial press briefing as the President of the International AIDS Society, a somber Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, described the loss of her friend and colleague, Joep Lange. Other members of that first panel, visibly shaken and despite shock and grief, tried to shift the conference, two years in the making, back into focus. Some delegates cancelled their trip altogether while others in the vast exhibition hall carried on, trying to balance and unwieldy mix of strong personal emotions, respect for the unfolding loss, and the urgency of an ongoing epidemic.


Of course, many asked how yet another tragedy, especially one so pointless, could befall this collective group of people working so diligently to eradicate a terrible virus. Beyond such existential questions lies an opportunity to understand how the reaction of thousands to such an outrageous incident becomes amplified to such palpable levels. How can such a tragedy activate old wells of loss, sadness, and grief which quickly grow to nearly unbearable levels and which sometime seem out of proportion to the stimulus?

The answer lies in trauma and the ongoing and deeply-felt experiences of loss. For those of us who survived the '80s and early '90s, it was trauma characterized by the multiple losses of friends, sometimes so relentless that several days couldn't pass without a funeral. It was the slow-motion deterioration as drug options ran out, or new infections arose or returned. It remains the ongoing trauma of stigma and violence and the deep, burning shame that so often still accompanies a life with HIV. Early in the Melbourne conference this accumulated global experience of grief connected the hearts of the attendees.

Such losses, unless processed, remain disturbingly close even though they may be just out of consciousness. These feelings survive in body memories and emotions, or lie dormant under a layer of numbness. Trauma overwhelms our ability to process an experience and, in order to manage this flood of feelings and for protection, drives us into psychological shock. Our bodies and minds attempt self-preservation by lurching into a fight-or-flight response or disconnecting from emotions. As a result, we may not experience the full intensity of feelings (or any feeling at all) from a loss or trauma, but the resulting emotions are neither gone nor by any means resolved. They lie dormant, unprocessed, waiting to be activated.

When something occurs that echoes a strong, personal feeling, the accumulated emotions and body experiences begin to flood back into consciousness. This can be minor, such as a sentimental television advertisement that triggers a good cry, or it can be the senseless loss of an airliner shot out of the sky. At such times the confusing cycle of shock, be it fight-or-flight or disconnect, repeats itself as people attempt to cope with these feelings.

While it is, of course, healthy to experience a wide range of emotions, we are not doomed to drastic swings of feelings and numbing shut-downs as past, painful life experiences are triggered. The solution lies in working toward resolution of the old traumas, understanding how they impacted our beliefs about ourselves as well as the resulting decisions we made about coping behaviors. For example, after experiencing countless losses in the early days of the HIV epidemic, I began to protect myself by disconnecting from painful feelings. Like many of my friends, I also began to pull back from forming friendships and vital supportive relationships out of fear of what seemed like inevitable loss.

For me, healing came through the identification and expression of those feelings and by rooting out the core beliefs that were harmful or at least unproductive. I gradually learned that I would not be overwhelmed by sadness and grief if I allowed myself to access the deep well of emotions. I began to trust in the process, to trust that other people would be there for me, and most of all, to trust myself that I had the capacity to not only heal these traumatic losses but to grow and find meaning in them.

By midweek in Melbourne a candlelight vigil was planned, honoring both the living and those that had died. The accumulated emotion of more than three decades was palpable in the crowd. As I expressed to Mark King in his video about the vigil that day, I feel that the accumulated feelings triggered by losses such as MH17, or even the collective energy that is palpable at AIDS conferences, can be transmuted into a resolute, healing force. Releasing long-held sadness and grief can liberate tremendous amounts of energy and this can renew a sense of purpose and even power. Connecting in a meaningful way to others with whom we have shared experiences can be powerful and healing. It reminds us that we are not alone on this road, that our genuine feelings can honor those we have lost, and most of all, that we can transform our grief into energy that will move us forward with purpose.

Send David an e-mail.

Read David's blog, Riding the Tiger: Life Lessons From an HIV-Positive Therapist.

Get e-mail notifications every time David's blog is updated.

Copyright © 2014 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

This article was provided by TheBodyPRO. It is a part of the publication The 20th International AIDS Conference.

No comments have been made.

Add Your Comment:
(Please note: Your name and comment will be public, and may even show up in
Internet search results. Be careful when providing personal information! Before
adding your comment, please read's Comment Policy.)

Your Name:

Your Location:

(ex: San Francisco, CA)

Your Comment:

Characters remaining:

Please note: Knowledge about HIV changes rapidly. Note the date of this summary's publication, and before treating patients or employing any therapies described in these materials, verify all information independently. If you are a patient, please consult a doctor or other medical professional before acting on any of the information presented in this summary. For a complete listing of our most recent conference coverage, click here.


The content on this page is free of advertiser influence and was produced by our editorial team. See our content and advertising policies.