I was not a shining star in college. I was young (17), introverted, and sure I was the dumbest person in a school full of gifted and brilliant people. So when the reunion invitations started five years after graduation, I ignored them.

And then, at 56, I decided maybe I could spend a weekend with all those smart people after all and I went to my 35th college reunion. And it was amazing.

The people at my reunion were doctors, lawyers, social workers, artists, teachers, economists, artists, and travelers. Some were happily married, with kids attending prestigious colleges.

Yet just as many were widowed, or divorced, or childless, or struggling to help a troubled child. Some were at career peaks; some were unemployed. Many had buried parents, were caring for aging parents, or were watching parents slide into illness or dementia. Some had lost spouses, and some had lost children. 

The stories we told each other at my reunion were genuine and ungilded.

I moved to live closer to my parents because my mom was sick, and then she and my dad died within a month of each other and I thought I’d be over it by now but I’m not.

I left my medical practice after 25 years and went to work helping people who don’t have medical insurance.

My son is a dancer but he suffered a devastating back injury and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. 

The common theme in every narrative was loss. I’m not saying my former classmates are a grim bunch—they’re some of the most resilient, optimistic, creative people I’ve ever met. Our lives have been filled with gains, too—the blessings of children and grandchildren, deep friendships, faith, work that makes a difference, promotions, travel, beloved homes.

Yet now that we’re all in our fifties, we’ve all experienced the kind of losses that sharpen the senses and heighten awareness—and the kind of losses that shape who we become.

Why reunions are special

While some people eagerly look forward to reunions, many more, like me, receive the invitations with dread.

Some may feel ashamed about not having lived up to their early promise, or embarrassed about weight gain or another physical flaw. Or they may be reluctant to reveal a personal struggle.

“People don’t want to have to answer that ‘How are you?’ question,” says Susan Friedlander Earman, 53, an attorney in Falls Church, VA, who has attended (and helped plan) all her high school, college, and law school reunions.

Now that we’re all in our fifties, we’ve all experienced the kind of losses that sharpen the senses and heighten awareness.

But by turning away, you miss the opportunity to see how your classmates’ stories turned out—and a chance to gain an important perspective on your own life.

“You and your classmates all shared a common history at that place and that point in time that you can’t share with anyone else,” says psychologist Linda E. Weinberger, professor emerita of psychiatry at USC. “It’s about reliving events and being able to connect on a very unique level.”

Says Earman: “People don’t realize that everyone has a story.” 

How to prepare for a reunion

If you’ve got a reunion coming up, you may be focused on your outfit and haircut. Spend some time going back through your old yearbooks, too, suggests Weinberger. “When you’re at the reunion and everyone’s talking about Mary Jane you don’t want to be the one thinking, ‘Who’s Mary Jane?'”

Here are three other points to keep in mind:

You’ll feel some discomfort. Some people won’t remember you. You’ll find out some sad things about people you care about. And chances are, you’ll be faced with your own mortality. “You look around the room and think, ‘Wow. We all look so old’ and you realize some of your peers have died,” says Weinberger.

Your spouse will be a third wheel. Feeling like you need to introduce your spouse/significant other to everyone and make sure he/she is comfortable detracts from your ability to mingle and connect. Consider going solo instead.

At worst, you won’t be disappointed. Struggling to gather the courage to go? “Tell yourself, ‘This is an experience for me to see what it’s like, and whatever it will be is what the reality is,’” says Weinberger. “Nine times out of ten you will walk away glad that you went.”

And maybe you’ll wind up being very pleasantly surprised.

Roger and Dianne Ruvolo, both 67, ran into each other at their 20th high school reunion in Albuquerque, NM, in 1989.“We were on our way in the door at the reunion when we saw each other,” Roger says.

The Ruvolos ended up talking for hours at the Pancake House later that night. Now, they’ve been married for 28 years—and are eagerly anticipating their 50th high school reunion.