Good Grief

NAMES Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt, AIDS crisis, AIDS, HIV, gay community, gay men's health crisis, gay men support

A generation later, Kile Ozier believes the gay community has still not healed from the ravaging shame and grief that accompanied the AIDS crisis.

Thirty years ago, it hit.

We were blindsided.

In the midst of a newly-realized freedom to be ourselves, as we embraced and gave momentum to our freedom to celebrate and appreciate ourselves as Beings, fully deserving of the Sunlight and Music, we suddenly found ourselves at siege, stalked and felled by an insidious, savage virus.

Sneaking across the dance floors, pride parades, social gatherings and festivals; insinuating itself into relationships casual to deep, this virus deployed its forces and attacked a nascent community, turning affection and attraction to mortal risk and taking down beautiful youth in its stride.

Tens, hundreds, thousands … we watched as healthy became weak, then frail, then gone. One after another of our friends and loved ones would wither in weeks. Becoming gaunt and baleful figures as they faded to the periphery, then out of sight, then dead.

Dead at 22, 25, 30…

It was a nightmare. Those of us who weren’t yet infected moved onto the battlefield, catching our brothers as they fell; one, and another, and another, and another… Finding beds and roofs as boys and men were thrown from their homes by fearful families and friends; creating lifelines for food, sustenance, domicile; offering shoulders on which to cry, shoulders of men and women just as bewildered and afraid as were the men whose ravaged heads would lean upon them; building support for the dying as they needed to talk through what was happening, even as we did not yet understand it…

Burying them.

Week after week.

Burying hundreds of them. As we gathered to bury and remember one, others would be dying in hospice, hospital or home. The onslaught was relentless and our government was unresponsive. This was all on our shoulders.

I can remember, vividly, being required to don a hazmat suit simply to enter the hospital room of a dying friend. Seeing him, dwarfed by the array of machinery and tubes that surrounded him as he lay, frail and frightened, waiting for….what? A cure? A rescue? A reprieve?

Only Death was on its way. There was no averting it, no stopping it; we simply had to deal with it. And that, we did.

There was no time to grieve. Tears where shed, services were offered and attended; but grief is personal, and a process. A process that that requires time and introspection. A wound is opened with a death that calls for a healing that is organic, not instant.

With this epidemic, our psyches were savaged with myriad wounds; a relentless volley of Saint Sebastian arrows, cutting us all even as we moved across the field of battle to gather and treat the dying and dead. There was no time to grieve.

No population is prepared for mass deaths; a war can scar entire populations, and those scars can be carried by the afflicted generations to the end of their natural lives. In such instances, though, the societies that support the scarred generations are sympathetic, empathetic; officially and personally reaching out to the supporters and survivors with succor, counsel, comfort.

Not so with us.

Exacerbating the effect, the damage to our psychological and spiritual beings, was the fact that our own society turned its back on us; unresponsive and unsympathetic, our government, churches and general populations left us to deal with this ourselves, as though we deserved what we got.

The isolation created a damaged community. The intensity of that first decade is virtually impossible to articulate; living under a black cloud of portent as we dealt with the legions of falling loved ones.

As we handled the practical, we paid for it with our own psyches. Shelving our grief, death upon death, as we “handled” our crises; I believe that those of us from the various front lines accumulated profound damage to ourselves. Damage that has gone virtually unappreciated and unaddressed as a nation; bequeathing a generation of invisibly damaged men and women.

I believe that we have yet to fully grieve. Further, I believe we see this manifest in the proliferation of self-abuse throughout our populations. Crystal meth, barebacking, alcoholism, dysfunction on myriad levels and across the spectrum of our societies.

My sense is that, once we—collectively and individually—put the experience on our virtual shelves, we decided to leave it there. This collective grief, the individual grief, has not been dealt with and it is dealing with us; leaving vast numbers of us unable to maintain healthy relationships, unable to nurture a healthy relationship with even ourselves.

The memories of the experience have become academic. We give voice to remembrance and healing; but I sense an unwillingness to actually open the box and truly feel the loss. Without the pain, there can be no healing; and none of us truly wants to feel that pain, I believe. Yet, we must.

This wound must be opened in order to heal.

I don’t have a universal answer. My purpose in writing this is to open awareness, open individual minds to the sense that this monumental, disempowering, brutal experience remains inside of us, waiting to be addressed. It has nested for up to thirty years, it has affected us and everything around us for all of that time in ways we may not even perceive.

We must deal with it. We owe this to ourselves; we owe it to those whom we’ve lost to recover fully, and to never forget.

 

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Image credit:  Elvert Barnes/Flickr

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About Kile Ozier

Kile Ozier comes from a humble past to an ever-humbler present. Fortunate to have been able to call a number of great cities "Home," he's lived and worked in Europe, Asia, Oz, Dubai and across the US in politics, corporate communications, manufacturing and decades of ceremony, theatrical spectacle and immersive storytelling. Participant and Observer, Athlete, he loves to eat, cook, and can tell a good joke. Why he's single is anyone's guess. For more, go to kileozier.com.

Comments

  1. Alyssa Royse says:

    It was during this period that I found out my father was gay. I spend many years assuming that, as a result, he would be dead soon, and that people would be afraid of him and me. I am still so viscerally aware of what that fear and shame felt like, and that is absolutely why I fight so hard to educate people and eliminate shame around sexuality. I can never forget. Nor should we.

    • Kile Ozier says:

      Thank you, Alyssa. I agree, and believe we are at a Moment where we are obligated, for ourselves and for those coming up, behind us, to re-experience and articulate the experience of this plague in it’s first decade. People don’t know…and it has become academic. Thank you for reading and commenting…KO

  2. In my work with the Toronto’s People With AIDS foundation (PWA), I find men who are healing from something new. When they were diagnosed with HIV, they were given 2-3 years to live. They tanked their lives into partying and substance abuse because they felt they didn’t have long to live. 30 years later, they’re still here, and now they are trying to cope with a life that was damaged not because of the virus they contracted, but because of the nosedive they took from the societal estrangement and the physician prescribed death-knell.

    These men did not expect to live, and now they are learning how to try and live again.

  3. There’s just so much truth to this. I just wrote a book about grieving friends lost to AIDS, which grew out of an article I wrote for Windy City Times here in Chicago about my fundraising work in the AIDS community in the 80’s and early 90’s. I was stunned by my anger and the unresolved grief I felt – and by the anger and grief felt by men I interviewed for the book.

    Survivor guilt. Hell, when life expectancy was counted in weeks or months, no one gave a thought to decades. Thanks for shining a light on this.

    • Kile Ozier says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Victoria… So true; survivors didn’t plan to survive; it was all in the moment and Now. As others fell, we could only deal in that Now and reserve the rest – the grief and recovery – for a Later that has never come…

  4. David May says:

    I found this very painful to read – in fact I kept looking at it and then moving on to something else. I lived in San Francisco through the best and the worst of years of the gay men’s community in that city. We were a city of refugees that had found a home, a community, a new way to live without shame of who we were. We thought we had reinvented the world…
    I lost most of my closest friends, my first husband, and I would swear to fully 90 percent of the people I knew: Old boyfriends, men that waited on me in the shops or cut my hair, men I gossiped with at the gym, the men in the neighborhood that I nodded to in the street. Suddenly, once healthy young men were walking with canes, their clothes hanging off frail bodies as thin as scarecrows… and just as suddenly they were gone.
    Unable to live with the decades of ghosts, my husband and I left San Francisco in 2002 for Seattle. We were not alone. Our generation left in droves to escape the shadows of lost friends and lovers, the haunted streets that had once been vital, exciting, fresh and new, crowded with locals and visitors until late every evening.
    Still, it was several more years before I could bring myself to pursue psychotherapy, and then many more months before I was able to cry the tears, gnash my teeth in frustration, to rage at the storm over which I had no power. Not only am I survivor, I’ve been HIV+ for the entire duration, probably since 1982 at least. This has only added to the pain in some ways. I had originally pooh-poohed the idea of Survivor’s Guilt, dismissing the angst of the HIV- with an angry sneer. Years of painful psychotherapy has only made me focus on my own Survivor’s Guilt, on the pain I feel as one that lives while most of the men I knew 30 years ago are dead.
    One Sunday afternoon in the late 1980s I was at a memorial service. After the service, as we were catching up with each other, someone asked how my day had been. I responded: “Went to the gym, met some guys for brunch and now we’re here.” To which someone added: “Gym, brunch, funeral: Just another Sunday in San Francisco.” And we all laughed, so numbed to the pain that we depended on gallows humor to get from one day to the next, from sick bed to funeral, from responding to emergencies to cleaning out the apartments of our dead friends, to get from work to home just to call our friends’ families with the worst possible news.
    I used to say that it was like the old Janis Joplin song, “Take Another Piece of My Heart.” The heart was broken again and again: with each wave of bad news, with each look at the obituaries. One would have thought that there’d be nothing left to break, but it always broke again, one more time. And it will take as many years, at least, to heal.

    • Kile Ozier says:

      David.
      Thank you for this. So very well said, articulated. I think many of us are beginning to realize that survival doesn’t mean recovered; it only means that we are still standing, and that there may well be profound damage, festering deep inside. Thank you for expanding on what I wrote and giving me even more to consider…
      K

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