Responding to a friend's HIV diagnosis
April 1, 2006 7:05 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to respond to an acquaintance who reveals he has been recently diagnosed with HIV?

Saying, "I'm sorry," just doesn't seem like the proper response at all. I feel like the correct response is something hopeful, not depressing. I'm just not sure what it is. Offering support, while not being to alarmist, is how I handled it. Though I admit his point-blank way of telling me shook me to the core.

Him: "Yeah, I was diagnosed with HIV."
You: ?

This isn't a close friend, but rather someone I would call a good acquaintance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You: I'm so sorry! Is there anything I can do to help?
posted by grumblebee at 7:38 AM on April 1, 2006

There is no "best" way. You just do your best and hope everything turns out alright.
posted by nixerman at 7:43 AM on April 1, 2006

Some kind of touching or hug, to show you're not quarantining them. Preferably as your first spontanoeus reaction before saying anything.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:47 AM on April 1, 2006

A hug and an "I'm always here for you if you need me" can't hurt.

And really, I think no matter how gently this person told you, you probably would have been a little shaken by that talk. It is a very natural reaction and anything that came out of your mouth that was vaguely positive was the best you could do.
posted by divka at 7:55 AM on April 1, 2006

"Oh shit" has always served me well in a crisis.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:56 AM on April 1, 2006

I'd say a sincere, honest response. Not something you researched and asked others for. There is no "correct" response save for what you truly, emotionally feel. Even if it's speechlessness.
Time to check-in with your own emotions, methinks.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 AM on April 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Of all the dozens of times I've been in your shoes, I'm not sure I've ever done it right.

Some recent ones:

On a date with someone I knew not terribly well, I think I said, "Oh! I'm really sorry to hear that." And then added "That must have been a big shock" as a sort of open-ended statement to see if he wanted to talk about it more or not; sort of giving him the lead to terminate that conversation or continue it.

It's a little easier with friends than acquaintances, because then the proper response is to go over to their house and make tea.

But with acquaintances, I'm not sure the balance is between giving hope and accentuating depressingness, as you said. I generally use the disclosure as a chance to take a reading of their emotional state with their new serostatus, which could range from suicidal to acceptance to anger, and then talk about it from there. A number of times people don't want to hear about hope and the like--that gets really dull.

Also, the fact that an acquaintance is telling you this either means they want to see if you're going to become a friend, or that they don't have anyone close to talk to. It could also mean, of course, that they're just spontaneously over-disclosing. (People sometimes talk about stuff they might not otherwise (and might regret later) when they're shocked.)

I think the most important thing to remember is that your conversation is automatically a very private one and then shouldn't be shared with other people. (Particularly in the case of co-workers.)

I have found however that I err on the side of continuing that discolusre conversation too little, because I'm one of those people who prefer not to talk about what's going on with myself. Most people would like to talk about this stuff, so if you're up for it--and there's no reason you have to be--try to pursue it. I think overall similar rules to someone telling you their getting divorced apply: I'm sorry, how can I help, do ya wanna talk about it? T

All that being said--if it's not a conversation you feel you can have, you needn't.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:19 AM on April 1, 2006

What I said to one friend recently: "How do you feel about it?" This worked for both of us. He got to set the tone of the conversation, and he realized he could say what he wanted later without fear of upsetting me. I got to show that I care, without making my fears and assumptions an issue for him. But you say this person isn't a close friend, so maybe asking about feelings isn't what you would normally do.

I'm acquainted with a number of people who are HIV+ who are open about it. A few of them have been positive for years, and most are as healthy as (or healthier than) they were when they found out their test results. For people who can tolerate the drugs that keep the immune system strong, testing positive for HIV can have a much different meaning than it did even ten years ago. So when I find out someone is HIV positive I sometimes say, "I hope things continue to go well for you."

Maybe your acquaintance's very blunt announcement was his way of not hiding. Of course, here in San Francisco, there are so many people living well with HIV that it's a whole different scene than many other places. Telling people about your HIV status, one way or the other, is fairly normal here.
posted by wryly at 10:04 AM on April 1, 2006

Exactly what divka said.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2006

Recently a coworker of mine (also just an acquaintance) was out for a couple of weeks. I assumed he'd been sick. When he returned to the office I asked him if he was out because he was ill, and he said that no, his sister had committed suicide.

I said (I think): "Oh no. I'm so sorry to hear that."

I don't think there's anything wrong with saying the same thing to someone who reveals an HIV diagnosis. You're stuck because you don't want to stigmatize him, but be real: it's not good news. It's not a death sentence either, but it's going to affect his health badly and he's going to have to go through a lot to deal with it. People beat cancer also. If someone said they'd just found out they had cancer, would you not say "I'm sorry to hear that?"
posted by scarabic at 11:57 AM on April 1, 2006

I feel like the correct response is something hopeful, not depressing.

This person is going through more than you can imagine in those 1.5 seconds you have to formulate a response. You're not going to surmount the shock, achieve hope, and forumulate a pep talk in 1.5 seconds. Rather than consider "I'm sorry" depressing, why not consider it sympathetic?

A hopeful response only serves you - sparing you the difficulty of facing the bad news head on. Your acquaintance doesn't have the luxury of skirting the bad news.
posted by scarabic at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2006

I would say that the only responses that could be construed as "bad" might be "You must be [x]" (devastated, upset, gearing up for battle, whatever). You probably have no idea the range of emotions that person is going through, and they don't want to be told how they "must" be feeling, even if that "must" is positive. (I remember reading about a woman leaving for her chemo appointment whose sister said something like, "Be an Amazon warrior!", trying to be helpful, but the woman was just like, "I'm sick, I'm tired, I don't want to be a warrior, stop putting pressure on me to keep up a brave face.")

"How do you feel about that?" is great, or even "That sounds hard." Or maybe better a compassionate "How are you dealing with that?", which shows that you're regarding them as someone with the skills and power to cope, rather than as a victim deserving of your pity, but at the same time shows you're open to hearing how hard it might be.
posted by occhiblu at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2006

Never had to deal with this with a friend, but I did work in an AIDS clinic for almost two years. If it was me, I would thank them for trusting me with information that is so personal. Then I would tell them that no one has ever told me that before, and I don't quite know how to respond, but that I don't want for their HIV status to change my relationship with them. Then I would ask them if they want to talk about it. If they do, let I would let them and just listen. If they don't, I would tell them that they have an open invitation to discuss it with me (if I really felt that way). Then (if it was really me and not the rhetorical *me* and was really a friend of mine) I would tell them that at some point, if they were not already seeking treatment that we would really have to talk about that.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:50 PM on April 1, 2006

I'm sorry/That sucks/You have my sympathies
followed by something optimistic, I'd probably make a comment about the effectiveness of the new AIDS drugs.

Basically, you are trying to overcome the note of social awkwardness inherent in such a situation, and at the same time as cheer up your friend and point out that things could be worse. The important thing is not to seem overwhelmed or put out by the revelation, but to evince a heartfelt response but then move the conversation away from sickness and death - no one wants to talk about that for too long.
posted by lemur at 7:26 PM on April 1, 2006

Just don't give advice.

An HIV diagnosis is not what it once was. There are a lot of great treatments that work very well for some, and not so well for others. I would say 'I don't know what to say, but I know that seropositivity is no longer a death sentence, and I for for one am interested in hearing how you are doing.'

I know a fair amount about HIV. It's complex, even a doctor would be cautious about offering a prognosis. . You just need to show your optimistic support and ackowledge that your are comfortable with the news. People are afraid of being treated like parriahs. Just make sure that you don't do this.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:48 PM on April 1, 2006

arg. You're comfortable...
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:50 PM on April 1, 2006

Hrm. I can see where people are going with "how do you feel about that?" but it sounds almost smarmy, like an automatic, shrink-talk, Deanna Troi answer.

"I found out this weekend that I'm HIV-positive"
"And how do you feel about that?"

It just sounds like (forgive me) a stupid question. It instantly deflects the flow of conversation back at the other person, commits nothing, offers no concern, no support, nothing. It is the kind of thing a detached psychoclinician would ask.

But like I said, I can see where people are going with it.

I would probably substitute: "how are you doing with everything?" or "are you okay?" Or something of the sort.
posted by scarabic at 9:14 PM on April 4, 2006

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