Reunion Grief

Recently I fed my sister’s cat while she was away.  She’s fostering him until he can return to his original owner. His name is Nernie (it was originally Ernie but as can happen with pet names, a nickname evolved).  It took a couple days for Nernie to warm-up to me.  Even then as I reached my hand out to pet him he would alternate between eagerly approaching me followed by retracting and hissing. I knew he was lonely, but his fear dominated.

We’re not so different from our fury four-legged friends.  As human-animals we too can hiss, swat, and scurry away from our innermost desire.

Nernie’s behavior reminded me of “reunion grief.”  Contrary to how it sounds, it’s not the hassles from the annual family get-together or the disappointment at who actually shows for your high school reunion.  It’s a complex psychological process that occurs once you finally get the very thing you longed for after years – perhaps a lifetime – of waiting, wanting and yearning.  Break out the champagne and celebrate, right?  Oddly enough, for many this can be the beginning of a journey that includes sadness, fear, anger, avoidance, and self-sabotaging.

Picture this example: a little boy goes away to day camp. When his parents pick him up that evening, the boy cries at the sight of seeing them. This is because he managed all day to cope without mom and dad; upon their return he is flooded with feelings of sadness from having tolerated the missing of his parents all day.

Dr. Pat Love * explains reunion grief in terms of what happens when we fall in love: If you really want something for a long time…it becomes a painful subject. The longer you go without [it] the more you begin to associate it with pain. When you finally get something you’ve wanted for a long time, your anxiety goes up because your psyche associates it with pain. [Then] after you accept that you’ve now gotten what you’ve longed for, grief is not over. Once someone has the courage to let themselves be loved, the longing ends but the grief begins. When you finally get the love you longed for you begin to grieve for all the years you lived without it….Like any crisis or stressful situation, when you are in the middle of it you are coping; you don’t have time to grieve. But when the crisis is over, that’s when the strong feelings come up.

Reunion grief can emerge in other situations beyond romantic love. It may arise upon finally seeing your dream career come to fruition. For another, it may begin at the end of a chronic trauma to which they are no longer living in survival mode.

Whether it be romantic love, professional purpose, or the luxury of feeling safe, there’s a special challenge that arises for those who have coped for so long without something essential to their livelihood. Without an understanding of this type of powerful emotion, one can shut down, second guess, numb, act irritable, or disconnect from their true love or true path.

It begins with awareness. Most of us are not aware of how we keep our potential at a distance. Perhaps you’ve self-sabotaged achieving a professional peak by procrastinating on a deadline for fear of failure. Or maybe you ruined a romantic moment by picking a fight for fear of being vulnerable in the relationship. Others pursue little bits of chaos even when their life is stable and content. We are unconsciously aware of the fact that it’s not the struggle or the pain we fear (we grew accustomed to that) but experiencing fulfillment and pleasure. What a totally foreign concept!  And if we were to allow pleasure in, would we get soft and mushy and render ourselves even more vulnerable to loss?

Consider the following practice to greet love, fulfillment or pleasure at your door: (a) recognize your past suffering from going without (b) refrain from reacting, and instead be a compassionate witness to the feelings that arise (c) ride the wave of emotions, staying within (not distracting with procrastination, picking a fight, reaching for the cookie jar…) (d) begin to soften into the sensations as they become more familiar and you eventually respond in new ways. Then repeat steps A through D over and over as you gradually learn to receive.

Oh and one more important step…the hardest barrier to allowing yourself to receive: not feeling you deserve it.  When I first heard the poem “The Truelove” by David Whyte many years ago in my yoga-teacher training, I didn’t even know that I didn’t even know how to see myself as deserving. He states,

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

Let me suggest that just because we didn’t have IT (true love, our dream job…) doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve it now.  Let’s challenge the idea that because we were deprived it meant we weren’t deserving.  Honor our resilience for the years we went without, and the ways we coped. Recognize that anything truly worthwhile comes with the risks of loss and discomfort from time to time.  The only other alternative is to go live in a cave.
Whyte concludes:
because finally after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to {drown} any more,
you’ve simply had enough of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory and any darkness,
however fluid and however dangerous,
to take the one hand you know
belongs in yours.

Practice making a choice: to live in love or to live in disconnection and fear.  As foreign as it feels to surrender to your love or your livelihood, you will adapt and you will find a huge smile on your face when you do.
I wish I could explain this all to Nernie. I wish he would accept my hand held out to him, revel in the affection, and delve into some deep purring.  Whether you’ve got two legs or four, have hair or fur, paws or hands, hiss or purr, know that we all yearn for this deep connection to our rightful path.  Know that we all deserve it.  Go ahead, roll in the catnip, indulge in the pleasure, and let yourself be stroked the next time someone comes to feed you.

*Pat Love, Ed.D. “The Truth About Love” Published 2001