Why Letting Go of What I Lost Was Actually a Mistake

Last updated: October 2023

Despite being HIV positive for 30 years, only recently have I processed what happened to myself and my friends. I thought that acknowledging those I had known was enough. But it wasn't.

I had to allow my feelings to be fully explored and understand that it wasn't just about admitting I lost people in my life. I had to consider all the possibilities of what we may have done together and what might have been. How different everything may have turned out if they had lived.

And not just for us, but for their families. Whether they were shunned by them or loved until the end, what was lost? What did we miss out on? The tearful reunions and the laughter over moments only we would understand.

I know that is a monumental thought to ponder. But it forced me to question whether I had ever taken a moment to feel the full weight of the tragedy.

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Fulfilling my duty

After my own partner's death, I did my job. I eulogized him. I packed up his things and gave his mother tiny treasures like his senior ring, photos he kept, and souvenirs from family vacations. Then, I moved on.

I shoved all my emotions deep inside. One of the last things he said to me was to continue my life. I took it as a last request, the dying wish of the man I had loved. But I struggled for years. Tears blurred my vision when a particular song played. Some movies were too painful to watch. I started avoiding places that had once been favorite haunts.

I even avoided the truth about his death for a while. When asked by acquaintances where my partner had been, I would tell them he had moved away.

When hiding the truth is a disservice

I went to a therapist, but only for a single session. I shared something so intense and painful that it would be decades before I sought out another person to confide in. Eventually, I pulled back from my advocacy, avoided HIV as a topic, and steeled my jaw anytime a movie about the epidemic played.

But I knew hiding from the truth was doing me harm. I was in a new relationship, and I realized that my past was getting in the way of moving forward and fully experiencing this new world I was living in.

I started to let go by facing it. I watched shows and documentaries on the epidemic's early days and movies depicting our struggles. And I let myself cry. Unimpeded and with all the emotion laid bare. I didn't hide behind anything.

I allowed the hurt to run like a river. But instead of damming it up, I let it run its course. Eventually, the flow of emotion became a trickle, and when I looked up, I knew it was time to start healing.

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Honoring their memory

The fear of forgetting someone can be as intense as losing someone. I was never a keeper of mementos, but the few I had were lost in hurricanes or hasty moves. I had to take their memories from my head and put their names on paper.

I bought a journal and wrote down everything and everyone I could recall. Places that we met or frequented. I put it all on paper even if I didn't know their names. I can flip through and reminisce anytime. And I can jot down other thoughts as they come back to me. Now they seem immortal.

Reconnect with those who are left

Connections can be as simple as someone you see daily and share a smile or a small conversation with. I established ties with several casual acquaintances from years ago. It's nice to laugh at things from times we both can relate to.

I have also reconnected with people whom I stopped talking to for one reason or another. Friends from specific moments in life. And most importantly, I have discovered new people who suffered a significant loss, but I have only met in the past few years. While we may not share common memories, we all have lived through a shared trauma that binds us together.

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Surviving the HIV epidemic and forgiving myself

I don't feel as though I need to forgive myself for surviving. But I must stop blaming myself for running from everything and hiding for so long. I have to say it is okay to have let loss cast a dark shadow over so much of the life I was lucky enough to be given when so many weren't. But I must remember not to sit in the shadows for too long.

Ultimately, I'm not letting go of what I have lost. If anything, I'm holding those memories closer. But now I'm finally able to look at them.

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