Q. What can I say or write to someone whose brother just died of AIDS? I haven’t heard much about AIDS in recent years, except for newspaper stories about epidemics in Africa. I thought people were living with it in the United States — that it was treatable. Also, I don’t know the circumstances. Is it OK to ask questions?

You’re right. Huge progress has been made in treatment for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still dying. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 15,529 people diagnosed with AIDS died in 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available. The incidence has stabilized at about 50,000 new HIV infections a year in this country. (HIV compromises the immune system and gradually destroys the body’s infection-fighting abilities. AIDS is the full-blown disease.)

HIV and AIDS used to be mentioned in hushed tones and whispers, but they’ve become less frightening and mysterious today. Treatment advances have increased life expectancy dramatically, making it possible for many patients in this country to live long lives. Today more than 1.1 million Americans live with HIV.

As for asking questions, I advise not. People very close to the bereaved already know the story. If you’re not close, as I assume is the case, it is inappropriate to probe for details. However, I can tell you that the highest-risk populations for AIDS include men who have unprotected sex with other men, drug users who share contaminated needles or syringes, sexual partners of people with HIV and certain others.

What you can do is respect the family’s privacy and simply express sincere condolences and concern, as in, “I’m so sorry to hear that your brother died.” If you wish, you can add, “How are you managing?” It’s important to focus on the person who is grieving, rather than your own anxious feelings and discomfort. If you write a sympathy note or send a card, you can say something like, “My thoughts are with you at this difficult time. I send my deepest condolences.” Brief is always best because there really is nothing else to say and it keeps you out of trouble, especially in a situation such as this. The loss can be complicated for the bereaved. This is not an ordinary death because HIV is usually preventable. The bereaved may feel anger and frustration, as well as sadness and grief.

***

If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, RobotE

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