You’re a great friend. You’re ready and willing to help your loved ones work through anything that has come their way. You are prepared to always be there for them.
But then, something comes along that you’re not prepared for: Your loved one has HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
It’s a serious diagnosis. You wish you knew how to help, but you’re not sure. What can you do?
There are plenty of ways to support a loved one who has been diagnosed with HIV, from offering to drive her to doctor’s appointments, to giving her a shoulder to cry on.
But there’s also another way to support someone with HIV. And that’s knowing what not to say.
Here are 7 things not to say to someone who has been diagnosed with HIV, and things people with HIV are sick of hearing.
1. Didn’t you know to use condoms?
First of all, you don’t even know if she got HIV through sex. She could have gotten it from needles, blood transfusions, or her mother during birth, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions so quickly.
Second, condoms are great at protecting someone against HIV, but they’re not 100% effective. Your friend could have been as careful as could be, but still managed to get HIV.
Third, this is like rubbing salt in a full-body wound. If she did not use protection, she is probably already dealing with feelings of guilt and shame. And she’s relying on you to help her work through those feelings, not make them worse.
Finally, it’s just not your place.
A better alternative: “Wow, I am so sorry. That’s a scary thing to hear from the doctor.”
2. Who gave it to you?
Your loved one has just opened up to you in a big way, and focusing on how she got HIV isn’t the appropriate way to respond. Just like asking, “Didn’t you know to use condoms?” you’re pinning responsibility on her. She doesn’t need you to rub that in.
It also puts her in a very awkward and uncomfortable position if she doesn’t know, or got it through unwanted sexual contact.
A better alternative: “Is there anything I can do for you?”
3. There are a lot of treatments, so it’s not really a big deal anymore.
It’s true: There are many more treatments than there used to be, and it’s possible to live a long, healthy life with HIV.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
Your loved one may have to make a lot of lifestyle changes. She may have to take daily medications, which can cause side effects, like headaches or dizziness (especially when she’s just starting them).
Since her immune system is no longer as strong as it used to be, she will need to pay extra special attention to her diet and exercise habits in order to stay as healthy as possible.
And of course, there are the mental and emotional effects of living with HIV. She may be overwhelmed with emotions, such as guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and fear.
In short: She’s going through a lot. The outcomes for people with HIV may be a lot better than they were 10 years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a stressful or life-changing diagnosis.
A better alternative: “If you’re feeling sick from the medication, or something, let me know if I can run some errands for you.”
4. Ugh, I know how you feel. I got herpes last year.
Your herpes (or other sexually transmitted infection) could have been terrifying, and rightfully so.
But there’s a difference between something like herpes, which rarely causes death, and something like HIV, which can be life-threatening. So, if you don’t also have HIV, you probably don’t really know what she’s going through.
This is the time to focus on her, and keep your own health out of it.
If you are also HIV positive, you can absolutely offer advice or share stories. But let her take the lead on this. While connecting with others with HIV is a way to cope, it might not be the way she needs.
A better alternative: “I know someone else who has HIV … I could ask her how she’s dealing with the nausea, if you want.”
5. So, you probably shouldn’t have sex anymore, right?
Your loved one might already be scared about having sex again, or nervous that it won’t be as pleasurable anymore. You should avoid validating those fears, especially since they’re not exactly based in truth.
Being HIV positive might mean being even more cautious about protection than ever before, but it certainly doesn’t mean sex is off limits. People with HIV can have normal, enjoyable sex lives.
A better alternative: Don’t talk about sex unless your friend brings up the topic. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s very personal.
6. My sister’s friend has HIV and she doesn’t take medicine. She just takes an herbal supplement. You should, too.
If an alternative medicine like herbal supplements helps your sister’s friend, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that it will help your loved one.
You are not her doctor, and you don’t know what’s best for her. However, you can encourage her to talk to her physician about other treatment options, or to get a second opinion. Just save the medical advice for the folks with medical licenses.
A better alternative: “Please take good care of yourself. If you ever need a ride to the doctor, I’m here.”
7. BRB. I’m going to text Carla and let her know.
No. Your friend’s HIV status is hers to tell. By telling you about it, she’s showing that she trusts you. Don’t ruin that trust or your friendship by going behind her back.
A better alternative: “I’m here for you whenever you need me.”
Do you know of any other things not to say to a loved one with HIV? Let us know.