[Dash of SAS] Someone just told me he has HIV. What do I say? What do I do?

Ana P. Santos
'If you find yourself still not knowing what to say, offer benevolence and understanding through silence'

 Every day, there are about 30 Filipinos diagnosed as living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Philippines has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. At its current rate, the total number of HIV infections could reach 142,400 by 2022 – five years from now.

Doctors and legislators have declared HIV a national emergency. It’s not to scare us but it is a wake-up call to get off our complacent ass thinking that HIV will not happen to us.  

There might come a time when a friend, co-worker, or relative will tell you that they are living with HIV. When HIV happens to someone we love, it happens to us, too.  (READ: Orgies and Tinder: Millennials are having sex,some with a deadly price)

When that time comes, what should you say? What should you do? How can you help?

The counselors at the Love Yourself an HIV Testing Clinics see dozens of people coming in for HIV testing every day. These counselors are trained to answer delicate questions with sensitivity and empathy. I asked them what advice they would have. 

What to do

First, know your terms because words always matter. HIV comes with its own recommended vocabulary of words that are carefully put together so they are scrubbed clean of judgment and reproach. (Here’s a list of HIV terminology suggested by UNAIDS)

Personally, I have always loved the term “person living with HIV” or PLHIV to describe someone who has the virus. Never mind if it is long. Compare that to labeling someone as an “AIDS victim” or “HIV victim” and you will see how words have the power to bring people down and how carefully chosen words can uplift.

The second guideline is to listen.

“Disclosing one’s HIV-positive status is a very personal and courageous decision for persons living with HIV. They do so despite fears of rejection and ridicule. Listening and responding without judgment goes a long way to helping them accept their new status,” said Michael Jamias, a counselor at LoveYourself.

The third guideline is to ask how they want to be supported. Some PLHIV just want to tell another person about their status – that’s all. We have to respect those limits. The most important thing is to show that you will be there for them when they are ready.

“Listen to their experience of being PLHIV, how they feel and what they are going through. After they share, ask how they would like to be supported. It’s all about listening to what the PLHIV say they want or need and providing that,” Jamias added. 

Instead of

The other LoveYourself counselors pooled their insights and and came up with this helpful “instead of, try…” list of things you can say when someone tells you he or she is living with HIV. 

If you find yourself still not knowing what to say, offer benevolence and understanding through silence. Remember when our mothers said if you have nothing good to say, better say nothing at all?

So yeah, silence will also do. And maybe a hug. – Rappler.com  

Ana P. Santos is Rappler’s sex and gender columnist and Pulitzer Center grantee. In 2014, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting awarded her the Persephone Miel fellowship to do a series of reports on Filipino migrant mothers in Dubai and Paris.

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