My friends are getting sick and dying, again. Thirty years ago there was a sudden, unexpected onslaught of the same thing. Back then it was AIDS. Friends got sick and were gone in a matter of days or weeks. It went on for months and years. Eventually the dying almost stopped, but it left so many of us with physical and emotional damage. It did not seem to be, it could not have been, part of the natural progression.
The second wave is hitting now: one more funeral, one more memorial after another. Should this wave seem more natural? It doesn’t. Instead of PCP, KS, MAC and TOXO, now it is diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and simply old age. This time it includes not only young friends and members of our families of choice, but our biological families, contemporaries, work colleagues and on and on.
Are we just at that age, the “normal” age, when we should be dealing with loss and sorrow? How do we cope? Does AIDS post-traumatic stress make it more difficult for us to deal with the biological consequences of aging?
The medical scientists can tell us what to expect in our decades of aging: which diseases will probably attack us in our 50s, then in our 60s and on up. They can give us pills to ward off some of them, mask some of the symptoms, or even cure some of the illnesses. But sometimes these treatments are more like wars, almost worse than the effects of the disease.
There is always prevention. If we live healthfully, exercise, eat right and reduce stress, we can ward off many of the effects — and diseases associated with aging. Some of this is under our own control. But we cannot control everything going on around us. We will have to deal with many types of loss and cope with the related grief, sorrow, loneliness, fear, anxiety and depression.
As LGBT older adults, having experienced so much loss decades ago, are we better able to cope now? Or are we even more vulnerable? Do lifetimes of stigma and discrimination make it more difficult for us to grieve and cope with loss, whether it is physical or emotional?
We know the statistics about our LGBT families of choice and our different social, emotional and financial support structures. We know that they can impact how we cope with loss, how we grieve and if and how we move on.
The AIDS epidemic, the LGBT-rights movement, marriage equality, increased social acceptance and anti-discrimination legislation have all contributed to change the environment and context in which LGBT people can experience and cope with grief and loss. In the ’80s and ’90s, the closet was no comfort zone for grief. In the past, in the closet, in the darkest days of stigma about AIDS and anti-LGBT discrimination, we could not share the burden of grief openly, healthfully. The weight of that closet door is gone for many of us, opening us up to support when we suffer losses and need to grieve, cope and move on.
Despite the social progress, older LGBT adults are still at significant risk for becoming socially isolated — the lack of contact, communication and relationships with others. Social isolation, with its negative physical and emotional health consequences, makes it almost impossible to cope. And coping alone, whether because of the closet or social isolation, makes the process of grief and loss all the more difficult, complicated and painful.
Experiencing loss in life is inevitable, but there are things that we can do to more effectively cope: get involved; stay connected; build networks; share.
These are not easy answers or simple solutions. Coping with loss, experiencing the grieving process and searching for the possibility of a brighter future is a journey. There are many paths that that journey can take. On Dec. 6, the LGBT Elder Initiative will host a Conversation titled “Grief, Loss & Possibility” at the University of Pennsylvania LGBT Center. The program will explore the facets and phases of grief and loss, techniques for coping and opportunities for sharing and connecting.
We all experience grief and loss at some point in our lives. Coping with this second wave, healthfully, in a safe and supportive community environment, can make the journey easier and the future unexpectedly brighter. For more information about “Grief, Loss & Possibility,” contact the LGBTEI at 267-546-3448 or [email protected]