Working With AIDS Bereavement:

A Comprehensive Approach for Mental Health Providers

by Peter B. Goldblum & Sarah Erickson

Reviewed by Michael Shernoff, MSW

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Working With AIDS Bereavement: A Comprehensive Approach for Mental Health Providers by Peter B. Goldblum & Sarah Erickson

UCSF AIDS Health Project Monograph, pb, $10.95


In both my personal and professional experience I have found that nothing has the potential to cause a person to grapple with issues of spirituality more than crisis. Most often either our own battle with a potentially life threatening illness or a loved one's illness or death is just such a crisis. And nothing more than the two decades of wrestling with AIDS related illnesses and deaths that has so defined the gay community has prompted many gay people to turn to spirituality in an effort to find succor. I have never been a religious person, and for many years had been scornful of both traditional religions and all the new age spirituality. My exlover used to tease me that as a psychotherapist I was taking the place of a priest, minister or rabbi for my patients. While originally this idea made me uncomfortable, in hindsight I believe this was often true.

In the past fifteen years I have come to observe the comforting power of true spiritual journeying and religious generosity. My best friend Luie and his partner Dennis were the first people I knew who were well served by their loving priest and church community during Luie's battle with AIDS. My own lover Lee who died over five years ago, was comforted by his belief in a traditional Christian after life, something alien to me though I was vociferously supportive of the hope and comfort it provided Lee. Additionally through my work as a therapist with both dying people and their survivors I have seen how important spiritual beliefs and community are to some people. Thus I have been challenged to reexamine my own biases about religion and spirituality as I witnessed the power of formal religions or a personal and customized spiritual path to provide comfort and possible meaning in the face of senseless tragedy and sorrow.

Whether or not Peter Goldblum and Sarah Erickson set out to write a profoundly spiritual book when they authored Working With AIDS Bereavement, this is one of the things they have accomplished. This is a wise, wonderful and touching volume. It draws largely on both authors experiences in counseling survivors of people who died form AIDS, and as professionals in a long term research project formalizing the study of bereavement and how AIDS bereavement is similar to and different from other forms of grieving. Yet they also share with us their personal stories of how working with both the dying and their survivors affected them as human beings and as professionals. And this is the key strength of this book, that both authors became increasingly human as a result of how they lived their lives as both compassionate people and skilled and loving professionals. Having lived and practiced in San Francisco during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, Peter is also a witness to the decimation of that city's gay community. Peter's lover Kenny succumbed to AIDS, thus also making him an AIDS widower. His sharing of these aspects of his life enriches the book tremendously and adds to his pedigree for authoring this poignant book.

This is a spiritual book because it challenges the reader never to lose sight of the individual humanity of the dying person, his or her survivors or of our own humanity as professionals asked to provide counseling. After all, isn't one of the key aspects of spirituality the ability to appropriately prioritize another's feelings over our own, especially when the situation is not comfortable or pleasant for us? This book never seeks to minimize the pain or discomfort inherent in the bereavement process for either the mourner or professional counselor. It is all too easy for therapists to lose our personhood by retreating behind either professional or personal defenses in our work. We need not become less professional by sharing in the feelings that the people we work with bring to sessions. It is validating for the clients as well as ourselves to allow ourselves to be touched emotionally and to let our clients know that they are touching us. Not that this is one of those "touchy feely" books that make me want to vomit. It is full of intelligent tools to help the counselor assess how to make the best use of his or her professional skills to assist the AIDS mourner in their journey of healing. There are strong conceptual sections that offers numerous case samples to illustrate the points that the authors make. There is also a brief summary of current bereavement theories.

Though written specifically to address the mental health and emotional needs of AIDS mourners, this book has much to offer all who counsel both the dying and their survivors. Clergy people, as well as health care professionals would do well to read and learn from it. I consider myself an expert in this field, and in addition to having some of my skills and observations validated I came away finding myself often touched emotionally and intellectually satisfied by the intelligence, compassion and humility contained in this lovely little book.

Michael Shernoff, MSW is an author and psychotherapist in Manhattan. He can be contacted via his web site: http://www.gaypsychotherapy.com

Last update Sept 21 2000