Crash Course in Life, Death, and Loss
Although I have volunteered in numerous AIDS organizations since 1982, I cannot claim to have had anywhere near the life-altering experiences those with the disease have had. Writing about some of the effects on my life would almost amount to whining. Nor have my experiences probably differed all that greatly from other gay men. What I can succinctly say is that I have learned a great deal about life in a much shorter period of time than I otherwise would have, and this education constitutes the greatest impact the disease has had on my life.The foremost issue I have learned to deal with is that of coping with loss. AIDS has cost me dear friends and acquaintances; I have stopped counting the number. I have developed a sense of personal spirituality, and this has helped me to better deal with death and dying. It does not prevent me from feeling overwhelmed at times.
Associated with loss is shock and grief. It is not that I have had to learn to deal with these emotions; rather, I have had to teach myself to feel them again. My senses have become numb from the loss. Recently, I experienced both shock and grief at the funeral of a close friend. It was a relief to realize that I had learned to feel again.
There is the sense of guilt that I have had to deal with. Much has recently been written about “survivors’ guilt” in the age of AIDS, and I have not been immune to it. With so many friends and associates sick and dying, why have I been fortunate to be forty-four and HIV-negative? I have been able to come up with just one answer: Someone has to be healthy to care for the sick.
Some of my “education” has been personally beneficial. Until this disease appeared, sympathy was something I only seemed capable of extending to people with whom I had a lot in common. But my volunteer work has brought me in contact with people I would never have known had they not had AIDS. They opened my mind. They taught me to communicate with people vastly different from me. They taught me to be more tolerant of others and enabled me to expand my circle of friends and acquaintances.
AIDS has taught me to cherish moments. Some of the smallest incidents create bittersweet reminiscences that bring tears to my eyes years later. These memories hardly compensate for the loss, but they provide some consolation. And my involvement in AIDS groups, especially those I have joined since relocating to South Carolina, have helped keep those memories alive.
Lastly, there are the practical things I have learned from AIDS. I can hook up catheters and intravenous needles, change diapers, and provide spoon feeding. I can hold my own in a conversation about AIDS symptoms and the latest medical treatments. I have learned a lot about educating the public, and I have learned to deal effectively with volunteer groups.
AIDS has invaded my life and changed it in more ways than I can relate here, and, I suspect, more than I fully realize myself. AIDS has made me question my beliefs and my priorities. It has affected my attitudes and behavior. AIDS has made me more aware, more giving, and more sympathetic. But it has cost me too many friends. So much loss in my life has left wounds I doubt will ever fully heal.
Daniel Walsh ’74 is a veteran volunteer in the battle against AIDS. He chairs the Georgetown (South Carolina) County AIDS Task Force, serves as treasurer of the Interagency AIDS Council of Horry County, board member of AIDSWALK ’96 of Myrtle Beach, and volunteer with CareTeam, an HIV-AIDS patient advocacy agency. He is also treasurer and worship coordinator for the Metropolitan Community Church of Myrtle Beach and secretary-treasurer of the local gay bowling league.